Since 1998, the University of South Carolina/Columbia Technology Incubator has been helping start-up technology companies get established within a short amount of time, usually about three years.
Late last year, the nonprofit organization decided to kick things up a notch with Tminus6, a “startup accelerator” focused on getting a handful of web, mobile and software start-ups on the ground within six months.
Think of it, says Tminus6 director Greg Hilton, as the Incubator process on steroids.
Like the incubator program, Tminus6 nurtures a prospective company from concept to market — only with more mentors, more money and a much more intense process.
“One thing we do differently with the accelerator that you don’t traditionally get with incubation,” Hilton says, “is that we actually provide some seed capital in the form of financial assistance to each of the companies that qualify for the program.”
Each company receives startup funding of $8,000 per founder for up to three founders. In exchange, Tminus6 receives 6 percent in company equity.
After the December launch, the program was aggressively marketed on the Internet, drawing more than 50 applications from nine states and 10 countries.
The six companies who made the cut will be represented at the Technology Incubator’s annual open house, to be held this Friday at 6 p.m. at 300 Senate St.
In theory, focusing solely on computer-oriented businesses guarantees a swift turnaround time, according to Hilton. Six months may be all it takes to enhance the life of a mobile or web application. The program is also structured to deliver quick results, for better or worse.
“At the end of the day,” Hilton says, “we want them to either grow fast or fail fast.”
Still, as with anything new, Hilton says there were a few jitters about starting the program.
“You’re a little nervous about rolling the dice on something like this,” he says, but if it takes off, it will be easier next year. “We’ll have the credibility for other people to look at Columbia as a place where stuff can happen.”
Likewise, the entrepreneurs are also taking a big chance on their dreams. Take the young people behind Alumnify, who created a web application that connects graduates with their alma mater and lets them target their donations. The three 20-something founders moved from San Diego and Ohio to join the Columbia program, which may pay off if their application takes off.
“I would expect them to raise an initial round of capital in the next three to six months,” Hilton says.
Another company is Deals-A-Go-Go, a mobile app developed by local businessman Louis Smith, which connects consumers with up-to-the-minute deals and promotions from local restaurants and hotels.
Smith is aiming for a summer launch in both Columbia and Florence.
“We’re all going through various levels of the startup process,” Smith says of the Tminus6 program. “There’s an amazing amount of information-sharing that’s going on between everyone, under the guidance and direction of the accelerator staff.”
The other startups include the educational technology company named Explico, and the mobile platform Grumble, which connects brands and consumers.
There’s also HuddleHR, a human resources web application, and Krit, an online community for designers.
As for the future of the new program, Hilton looks forward to a time five years from now, when he’s looking at a huge portfolio of successful companies, all fostered under Tminus6.
Whether they all stay in Columbia to help stave off the brain drain is another question.
The prospect of Alumnify making it big comes to mind.
“If we’re successful, and maybe a little lucky, those guys are going to raise that round of capital and they’re going to move their entire team to Columbia,” he says, “and that’s the kind of story I think we all want.”
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