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Greenville Business Magazine

University makes for a powerful partner in state’s capital city

By John C. Stevenson

Well into its third century, the relationship between the University of South Carolina and its hometown, the Palmetto State capital of Columbia, continues to create benefits and drive progress far beyond the city limits, according to city and university officials.

The university’s footprint has grown over the past several decades to encompass much of downtown that was once considered a world away from the university campus. Indeed, Columbia Mayor Stephen K. Benjamin has noted that today’s UofSC “announces to the world that [Columbia is] a center for technology and research, whether we’re doing work on nanotechnology or future fuels or the next insurance technology.”

Two current projects exemplify the benefits of the collaborative spirit shared by university officials and local political representatives: The UofSC/Columbia Technology Incubator and the Innovista Research District.

An innovative step forward

The idea of the Innovista Research District was hatched back in the early 2000s, according to Bill Kirkland, UofSC’s executive director of the Office of Innovation Partnerships and Economic Engagement, which until recently was the Office of Economic Engagement. Kirkland described the project’s roots as “a vision for bringing together industry and the university to collaborate in a public-private partnership to drive research and also to help with economic development and impact for our region and the state.”

The district is located on 500 acres in downtown Columbia. The site is defined on three sides by Assembly, Blossom and Gervais streets, and on the fourth side by the Congaree River. Its creation arose from discussions between then-UofSC president Andrew Sorenson; Harris Pastides, then-UofSC vice president for research and health sciences who would go on to also lead the university; and then-Columbia mayor Bob Coble.

The district comprises space for academics as well as for private research, university and private housing, and retail, dining and entertainment, in addition to open spaces suited to public gatherings, according to John Fellows, Columbia planning administrator.

Fellows described much of the property that now thrives in the district as having been “underutilized” when planning began.

“It really changed the character of that area of downtown,” he explained. “That area had been more industrial, and some residential, and it really changed how that area of the city is connected to the university and to the city. Innovista now is connected to the City Center area – Main Street; it is connected to the Vista area, and it is also connected to the university. The Innovista area is called a neighborhood; I would say it is the neighborhood where the university and the rest of the city start to come together.”

The project had to weather the Great Recession, but as economic fortunes turned, the Innovista Research District began to draw interest from some very attractive leaders in private industry; notably, Big Blue.

“The first success we had, we formed a partnership with IBM,” Kirkland recalled. “Part of that partnership was to become an IBM partner around (the internet of things), around the Watson platform, which is all about artificial intelligence. As part of that, IBM was the first company in our Horizon 2 building. IBM came in and the plan was to hire a couple of hundred people, and IBM took the entire floor.”

Since the initial success with IBM, a wide range of businesses have opted for a presence in the Research District, according to Kirkland, including Siemens, Boeing, Prisma Health and robotics manufacturer Yaskawa.

In 2016, the relationship between the university, the city and IBM grew again with the opening in the Research District of the Center for Applied Innovation and Advanced Analytics, which “supports university, IBM and private sector researchers,” according to a university website.

Another collaborator in the center is Fluor Corp., which is working to “develop real-world applications for the internet of things using cognitive computing, predictive analytics and predictive maintenance software,” according to the website.

Through it all, municipal and regional governments have supported the project in a variety of ways, including through making infrastructure improvements within the district. Currently, Fellows said, work is underway to extend Greene Street through the district to the banks of the Congaree River, further connecting the UofSC campus with the waterfront. Phase II of that program is expected to be completed during 2021. When the work is completed, Fellows said “Greene Street will run from Five Points to the river, with USC in the middle.”

A complete buildout of the Research District will take decades, Fellows predicted, noting “the first 10 years have been really successful.”

As evidence of that success, Kirkland pointed to several of the collaborative enterprises that have sprung up in the district, including the university’s McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research, which was founded in 2011 with donations from Darla Moore, Anita Zucker and Marva Smalls. The center is named for Palmetto State native Ronald E. McNair, a NASA astronaut who was a member of the crew of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle in 1986, which exploded moments after liftoff.

Industries that have partnered with the university through the McNair Center include IBM, Siemens, Boeing and Gulfstream.

Kirkland said the Research District’s many successes bring benefits to all partners.

“What’s cool about it is that it’s a revenue stream back to the university … to help continue to fund research,” he said. “It also is allowing our students to work with these companies like Siemens to build prototypes, and what we’ve found since we started this is the folks that are working with Siemens engineers, we’ve had several of those students hired by Siemens the day they graduate. So it’s great to have that real learning lab, but also you quickly have interaction between industry and our students and increased job opportunities.”

He said that the university’s ability to graduate students who already possess in-demand skills and experience creates an attractive lure to entice more businesses to locate not only in Columbia, but to the Midlands and the entire state.

“We’re here to be the engine behind creating that educated workforce that can go do what it’s needed to do in the marketplace,” Kirkland said. “We had a five-year review of this office – we have a very small office that’s self-funding, at this point – we looked at economic impact of our office, and if you look at the cumulative impact over five years, we had over a $791 million indirect economic impact on the economy of the region and the state. The direct economic impact was $713 million, with jobs created, federal grants and industry grants.”

Growing new businesses

An aging, unassuming brick building on Lady Street in downtown Columbia houses a hotbed of business activity. It’s the UofSC/Columbia Technology Incubator, which was created in 1998. Today, the 40,000-square-foot structure, which once served as home to Columbia’s water department, provides a wide range of services and facilities to entrepreneurs, researchers, small businesses and large industry partners.

The incubator offers a variety of programs, including the CoLab shared workspace and LaunchPad, a program that allows entrepreneurs to validate their concepts prior to launching a business, as well as mentoring and business incubation. It is currently home to more than 40 small startup businesses, according to the Technology Incubator website.

Current executive director of the incubator Chad Hardaway said the incubator works in a variety of ways to provide a fertile beginning for area businesses. One case in point: Hardaway discussed TCube Solutions Inc., a startup that began at the incubator with a staff of four. TCube Solutions’ staff quickly grew to more than 200, and the business attracted attention from Capgemini, a global consulting and technology firm, which wound up buying TCube Solutions and has since opened an advanced technology development center in Columbia, employing hundreds of additional workers.

While Richland and Lexington counties and Columbia all provide financial support for the incubator, Hardaway said the relationship between the university’s incubator and the regions it serves is a two-way street.

“We’ve had startups that come to us, and we kick those to the city and county when they are ready to grow, to graduate,” Hardaway said. “And vice versa, the city has used the incubator like a landing pad for companies, for small businesses, to kind of get … a footprint in Columbia, so we have a very active relationship with” city officials.

The incubator has also been valuable in helping the university draw large corporate partners - such as IBM - to the area.

“Having the incubator as kind of the nexus between the university and high-tech companies and the community – that level of trust that we have between the incubator and the city and the local economic development people has made it [so] we can approach those big opportunities in lockstep,” Hardaway explained. “If Richland County has a big company that they’re trying to recruit, they bring us to the table as an asset, and how we work together to create positive things.”

An appreciative partner

The value of having the university in the state capital of Columbia is not lost on Columbia’s Mayor Benjamin, himself a UofSC graduate.

“We’re so fortunate to be the home of a high-powered, multidisciplinary university that not only serves as the home for tens of thousands of students, but tens of thousands of students who represent every one of the 194 sovereign nations of the world,” Benjamin said. “[It has] a first-class engineering school, the No. 1 international business program in the world. And having all these different strands working together in an intergovernmental, intersectoral partnership between the city and university has been beneficial to Columbia in so many ways.”

Looking to the future, Benjamin said the work currently underway to tie the city and the university to the riverfront to the west will provide the groundwork for decades of growth.

“We hope it’s a robust and dynamic district that pulls together the excitement of downtown Columbia and the Vista with significant research institutions … [combined] with the excitement of finally opening up Columbia’s riverfront,” he said. “So the long-term engine of a waterfront district bordered by an innovation district bordered with our traditional center-of-business district is potentially transformative.”