Rock Hill opens downtown ‘incubator’ for tech startups

adouglas@heraldonline.comAugust 20, 2013 

Tech entrepreneurs now can swap their garage for an incubator in Rock Hill.

Organizers of the “Technology Incubator at Knowledge Park” held a grand opening in downtown Rock Hill on Tuesday, announcing that three companies have signed on to use the space and three more might join by the end of the week.

The incubator aims to get entrepreneurs out of the “garage stage” of innovation.

“Untethered and unassisted, entrepreneurs often fail three out of four times before they build a really successful company,” said Karl Kelly, Clemson University’s director of commercialization and technology incubation, who is leading the charge to establish similar incubators across South Carolina.

“We want to shorten and eliminate the number of failures,” he said.

Rock Hill’s incubator on the fifth floor of the Citizens building on Main Street is part of the university’s “technology villages” program.

Instead of working in a garage or home office, entrepreneurs can pay to use the incubator’s support services, space and specially designed step-by-step plan.

Clemson started its first incubator in Bluffton and plans to open one in Hartsville soon.

The launch in Bluffton has led to two companies’ entering the manufacturing stage of their business.

In Rock Hill, the incubator houses comfortable chairs, meeting tables and individual cubicle spaces.

One Rock Hill resident already using the space is developing an ancestry discovery tool to compete with ancestry.com.

Another is developing a Web application to help large companies streamline their brand-management efforts.

Participating entrepreneurs have a bird’s eye view from the office over the rooftops of downtown Rock Hill and into the city’s old textile area – the target of the city’s latest economic development effort called Knowledge Park.

Knowledge Park’s supporters want the technology incubator to be the epicenter of the new business park, which calls for revitalizing the old Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Co., commonly called the Bleachery, and the surrounding “Textile Corridor” area.

From the incubator, entrepreneurs can see the Bleachery’s still-standing smokestacks and the top of Tillman Hall at Winthrop University – another key player in the Knowledge Park plans.

Ideas cultivated at the incubator could grow into businesses that operate and create jobs in Rock Hill, Mayor Doug Echols said.

The new option for start-up companies “is a big step forward,” he said, noting that redeveloping downtown Rock Hill and building Knowledge Park has been a long-term effort.

The plans have had setbacks, Echols said, “but you have to start and you have to always be starting.”

One development effort – a proposed five-story apartment complex – was canceled earlier this month after the developer cited rising construction costs and high interest rates.

The project would have brought 46 apartments to downtown Rock Hill, which economic development officials said would spur business growth on and around Main Street.

A separate project is under way on the est end of downtown, with Comporium, The Warren Norman Co. and Leitner Construction putting up a four-story office building.

Construction on the $9 million Fountain Park Place office building started last month and coincides with the city’s plan for a park and a 194-space parking deck downtown.

Clemson’s incubator concept could help Rock Hill grow economically, Kelly said.

“We get the opportunity to link with emerging technology companies across South Carolina,” he said, “and we think that’s going to be beneficial to us and our students as well.”

Kevin Nichols, owner of Stark Lean Marketing Communications and a participating entrepreneur, says the incubator is mutually beneficial.

For $200 a month, start-up companies have 24-hour access to the incubator and access to a wealth of knowledge, he said.

Nichols, who is no stranger to start-up operations, is working on a tool large companies can use to manage their brand, logos and marketing material.

The software will be especially helpful to companies with multiple satellite offices or branches that need marketing material from headquarters, he said.

Nichols successfully launched and last year sold a mobile app specifically designed for YMCAs nationwide.

He got involved with Rock Hill’s incubator about three months ago.

“Basically what we’re looking for is a sounding board,” Nichols said.

The incubator’s resources are helpful during the early stages of a start-up, he said, adding that when he first waded into the world of technology innovation, he had no mentor support.

He noticed the difference during his first “idea night” at the Rock Hill center.

Before, Nichols said, he would “talk to people in the community and they would just shake their head and nod and agree with me.”

At the incubator, he said, the staff understood his ideas and how to help him develop them.

The partnership with Clemson will be especially helpful during the research and development stage of his product, Nichols said, and perhaps he can tap the university for user experience testing.

For less-experienced people, Clemson’s incubator will help cultivate business know-how, said Mac Horton, Clemson’s director of public service activities.

At the Bluffton center, Horton said, he has seen success for companies developing “green” pesticides and antibacterial coating for nearly every surface that kills germs quickly and is easy to apply.

“The ideas range from stuff that is really high-tech, all the way to stuff that, when you hear somebody say it, you say, ‘Gee, how come somebody hasn’t done that before,’ ” he said.

Rock Hill’s incubator already has attracted entrepreneurs with creativity, and Nichols said he hopes “that on down the road, talent and funding will come to this area, too.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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