Don Worthington

March 16, 2014

Group seeks young, technology-minded ideas for Knowledge Park investment

A second group of businessmen, less formal, younger, but no less august, are willing to make an investment to create an investment climate for Knowledge Park success. They call themselves Second Brick Ventures.

Rock Hill, Winthrop University and Sora-Phelps are getting deeper into the details of what it will take to transform a former textile site into a high-tech center – a center where people, live, create and play.

It’s a long-term strategy, spread out over eight phases. If everything goes according to preliminary plans, there will be 19 buildings on the 23-acre former Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. site. Development will yield 1.3 million square feet of retail, restaurant, office and residential space. The site could employ as many as 1,000 people, most in high-paying, technology-related jobs. Sora-Phelps and others are expected to invest nearly $200 million in Knowledge Park.

The city and Sora-Phelps moved forward with the plan, in part, because of the support of the Knowledge Park Leadership Group, a coalition of established businessmen. These businessmen not only helped the city select Sora-Phelps but also are willing to make investments in Knowledge Park.

Lee Gardner of Family Trust Federal Credit Union and Gary Williams of Williams & Fudge instantly come to mind. Gardner’s credit union is building a new headquarters in the Knowledge Park. Williams, along with developer Skip Tuttle, is investing in the first phase of Knowledge Park, the redevelopment of the Lowenstein building.

A second group of businessmen, less formal, younger, but no less august, are willing to make an investment to create an investment climate needed for Knowledge Park success. They call themselves Second Brick Ventures.

Second Brick Ventures plans to move at a quick pace to back technology businesses, the very backbone of what Knowledge Park supporters want.

Second Brick Ventures understands that technology moves at a dizzying pace. What’s here today will likely be eclipsed tomorrow. They understand that youngsters – ages 18 to 24 – often drive the pace, developing ideas from doodles scribbled just about anywhere. Great ideas are no longer limited to dorm rooms and garages.

Second Brick Ventures understands that the person with the idea has just that – an idea capable of floating in the computer cloud. Usually they are idea rich but poor in traditional business capital.

So where do they turn to for help?

Agie Sundaram, co-founder and CEO of technology developer Span Enterprises, wants them to turn to Second Brick Ventures. The idea is the first brick, Sundaram said. The second brick is the money – and expertise – investors from Second Brick Ventures can offer.

Second Brick Ventures has about 30 people who could invest in tech projects, Sundaram said. Other principles of Second Brick include Sundaram’s business partner, Naga Palanisamy, real estate agent and lawyer J.D. Rinehart, insurance expert Watts Huckabee, and Brendan Kuhlkin, owner of Millstone Pizza and McHale’s Irish Pub.

The idea for Second Brick Ventures came from Sundaram’s and Palanisamy’s experience in starting Span. They went to 18 banks seeking loans. They had to open accounts at seven of them just to talk about a loan, Sundaram said. Ultimately, Sundaram and Palanisamy had to sell almost all their possessions to start Span.

“Bankers couldn’t grasp that you have a product that you can’t touch, and it’s in the cloud,” Sundaram said.

People with great tech ideas – new apps or software – can come to Second Brick Ventures. The group will evaluate their idea, and if ready, offer it to their investors. Those selected for funding must meet just two Second Brick Venture rules: they must locate in Rock Hill and they must agree to an exit strategy from Second Brick Ventures’ support. Funding won’t be open-ended.

Second Brick Ventures, Sundaram said, understands that technology companies are a risky investment. He couldn’t say what return on investment Second Brick Ventures was seeking, but Sundaram noted “this is not community service” or angel investors. Second Brick Ventures’ strength, he said, is capital and “360-degree” support in developing and bringing to market a product.

So far, four possibilities have come before Second Brick Ventures, but none was ready, Sundaram said.

Discussions at Second Brick Ventures, however, have already resulted in the spin-off of two companies, Second Brick Technologies and Second Brick Events. Second Brick Technologies is developing a health-related app, Sundaram said. Investment is projected to be about $1 million, he said. “We want to launch as quickly as possible to show people that it can be done.”

The idea behind Second Brick Events is to create a company to hold marketing events that will create a viral buzz for local young entrepreneurs. These events would target the 18-to-24 demographic, he said.

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