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Greenville Business Magazine

Innovation: The Choice for S.C.’s Future

Mar 01, 2017 04:31PM ● By Makayla Gay

By Phil Noble

Co-Founder of EnvisionSC

Innovation – noun: in·no·va·tion\i-nə-ˈvā-shən\ 1: the introduction of something new 2: a new idea, method, or device, novelty

Antonym (opposite) of innovation: dull, pedantic, pedestrian, stodgy, assembly-line, canned, cookie-cutter, derivative, hackneyed, unoriginal, impractical, useless, uncreative, unimaginative

This is how the Webster’s Dictionary defines innovation and its antonyms – but within the context of our state’s future, it could be summarized in two words: our choice.

If we as a state make innovation a hallmark of who we are and what we do, we as a state will grow and prosper. If we as a state do the opposite, we will stagnate and die.

The choice is that clear and that stark. Am I being overly dramatic? I don’t think so.

• “Innovate or die.” - Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft

• “The only way to thrive is to innovate. It’s that simple.” - Alex Tabarrok, Canadian economist

• “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” - Steve Jobs, founder of Apple

The good news is that the state of South Carolina is beginning (repeat, beginning) to take the need for innovation seriously. The Department of Commerce established an Office of Innovation and in 2013 issued a report calling for our state to focus on four basic goals: 1) Develop a critical mass of high-tech, high impact companies; 2) Grow a supportive, connected innovation community; 3) Support access to capital for companies at all stages of development; and 4) Grow workforce talent equipped to work for high-tech/high-impact companies.

So fast-forward four years to January of this year, the Department of Commerce again issued a new South Carolina Innovation Plan. It began with recounting our state’s history of innovation: in Charleston, the first golf course in America and the first submarine; in Summerville, the invention of sweet tea; in Anderson, the first electric city; in Columbia, the first patented antibody to diagnose infection, to name just a few.

This plan’s recommendations were: 1) build innovation into S.C.’s reputation; 2) increase collaboration among entrepreneurs and expand resources statewide; 3) increase company growth and retention; 4) increase access to angel and venture stage financing; 5) increase communications between industry and higher education; 6) provide access to mentors for innovators, entrepreneurs and inventors; and 7) develop and maintain infrastructure for crucial needs for the sector.

The report concluded: Innovation is not merely a boon to a healthy state economy – it’s a requirement.

What is striking about the two reports four years apart is that they both basically say the same things. One could distill all these recommendations in both reports into this: to be successful requires talented people, with a vision and adequate capital, and (I would add) a willingness to break the rules.

• “A key ingredient in innovation is the ability to challenge authority and break rules.” - Vivek Wadhwa, tech entrepreneur and Stanford professor

• “When you innovate, you’ve got to be prepared for everyone telling you you’re nuts.” - Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle

• “I have always been driven to buck the system, to innovate, to take things beyond where they’ve been.” - Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart

Our phychic makeup as South Carolinians is conducive to this ‘break the rules’ requirement. After all, twice in our history we have been leaders in breaking the rules - when we led the charge to break from the English government and then, 100 years later, when we led the charge to break from the U.S. government.

And there is reason for optimism, as we are making (some) progress:

• In the last five years, the number of major venture capital deals over the previous five years increased from four to seven and the average value went from $21 million to $52 million.

• SC’s innovations in advanced manufacturing, especially in Greenville and the Upstate, are being recognized globally - aided by Clemson and the Center for Manufacturing innovation.

• In the last seven years, the number of patents issued annually in the state has more than doubled and in 2015 we topped the 1,000 mark for the first time.

The tech sector in the Charleston region is exploding with nearly 300 companies and the tech growth rate is 30 percent above the national average.

The major universities and post-secondary schools are beginning to take their role in developing an innovative state more seriously. Although they have given lip service to the idea of innovation for years, they are just now beginning to act - though not nearly fast enough.

In the Lowcounty, the Trident Innovation Partnership (TIP) is being formed to bring together a public-private partnership that will leverage assets and foster innovation in the various economic sectors of the Trident area. This TIP could well serve as a model of what the other metro regions of the state could do.

But, this is not enough; we must do more, a lot more.

• “Low-wage jobs have gone offshore. We (in the U.S.) need to innovate to stay competitive.” - Jeanne Shaheen, Governor of New Hampshire

• “Most of us understand that innovation is enormously important. It’s the only insurance against irrelevance… It’s the only strategy for out-performing a dismal economy.” - Gary Hamel

• “My view is there’s no bad time to innovate.” - Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon

What should our priorities be? From my perspective (based partly on nearly 25 years of expertise in the tech sector), there are two big things that we should focus on right now:

1.  Statewide broadband - as the 2017 Innovation Plan says, “Broadband serves as the lifeblood of innovation companies…” We have the technical capacity to have (nearly) adequate broadband service throughout the state, but making it a reality it is not anywhere close to the priority of decision makers that it should be.

2. Statewide innovation/tech council - There is no single entity that is developing and effectively driving the innovation agenda in this state. We desperately need a very strong leadership group that can and will make things happen - even if they have to go to war with the forces of the economic and political status quo that are holding us back.

Bill Gates said it best: “Never before in history has innovation offered the promise of so much to so many in so short a time.”

Phil Noble runs a technology firm in Charleston, is Co-founder of EnvisionSC and writes a weekly column for the SC Press Association. Reach him at and get his other columns at