When you think of tech companies, incubators or startups, South Carolina is still probably one of the last places that comes to mind. But with its new Office of Economic Engagement, which launched in the summer of last year, and a steadily growing incubator program, the University of South Carolina is working to change any misconceptions about tech startups not meshing well with the Palmetto State.
Just last week, USC’s Technology incubator held a graduation ceremony for seven companies that were ready to transition into the larger business community.
One of the graduating start-ups, Ultra Supply Co., is currently producing an automated skateboard-dispensing machine that will act as a kiosk for buying skateboards and the parts and accessories that go along with them. In addition to this aspect of the business, CEO Shayne Bennett describes his business as an extreme sports technology and analytics firm that gathers data on how extreme sport customers are using their time.
“Whether it be bikes, motocross, skateboarding or snowboarding, we gather the data for retail stores on what those customers are doing,” Bennett says.
The entire team is fairly young — Bennett himself is only 20 and his two business partners are 17 and 19.
But in speaking with the team at Ultra Supply and other startups, there seemed to be a recurring theme: Despite your company’s size, the incubator provides invaluable networking opportunities and guidance.
“Being part of the incubator really gave us access to relationships we otherwise might not have engaged in,” says Charles Weathers, founder of the Weathers Group. “It’s not just meeting people, it’s having the access to engage and learn from other people in the incubator and the people they connect us with.”
Andrew Lee, the chief scientific officer of IMCS, a biotechnology company focused on providing cheaper and more effective health care tools, provides a similar though slightly more pragmatic sentiment.
“Not having any upfront costs for facilities has had a huge impact,” he says. “IMCS actually started when the founders of two companies came together to discuss ideas, and we came upon this idea with IMCS and launched a separate company altogether. So it was actually birthed out of the incubator.”
The incubator’s system has certainly proved successful in the past. Interactive Data Visualization’s “Speedtree” toolkit provides some of the most realistic 3D animated trees and foliage in the entertainment business. Its tools have been featured in Unreal Engine 4, Wolf of Wall Street, Disney’s Maleficent and Thor: The Dark World, to name a few. The company was founded right here in Columbia by two USC graduates, Chris King and Michael Sechrest.
In 2013, USC’s Technology incubator was featured in Inc. magazine as one of three college-town incubators to watch.
With this and the fervor behind the up-and-coming startup community, it is easy to see why the executive director of USC’s Office of Economic Engagement, Bill Kirkland, is so excited for the future.
“The best is yet to come,” he says. “We’ve got some announcements in the next two weeks that you’ll be excited to hear. You work hard to build and build, and now the landscape is starting to change.”
Laura Corder, the incubator’s director of operations and communications manager, mirrors his enthusiasm, citing the 200-some people who showed up for the graduation.
“We’re not talking about debuting some cool technology or anything like that, but people who have built successful, viable businesses that others want to learn about,” Corder says.
She goes on to say that despite what South Carolina has been known for in the past, the incubator works to spotlight the tech startups that exist not only in Columbia, but the state as a whole.
“We’re ever evolving, and we’re trying to accommodate the sector that’s being built here.”
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