By Liz Segrist
Published July 17, 2014
Entrepreneurs need space in their communities where they can collaborate and innovate together, according to several people who run incubators, coworking spaces and tech firms.
Tech companies thrive when municipalities provide low-cost facilities where startups can work alongside one another, said Nate DaPore, president and CEO of Charleston-based PeopleMatter.
DaPore started his software firm in such a space at the Charleston Digital Corridor’s Flagship. It has since established a headquarters and expanded on King Street, secured more than $60 million in venture capital and hired around 200 people.
“We started as three guys in a broom closet and we built a viable business,” said DaPore, one of the panelists during the Municipal Association of South Carolina’s annual meeting last week. “Entrepreneurs need a place where they can get together and mingle.”
Tech companies that are clustered together often breed other companies, leading entrepreneurs to create their own startup ventures. DaPore founded PeopleMatter after his time at Daniel Island-based Benefitfocus. He has since seen at least seven companies that were offshoots from PeopleMatter.
As the local tech sector sees a ripple effect of innovation and job creation, DaPore said the talent shortage is a serious and growing problem.
“We’re getting to a point where we have to poach from each other, and that’s not good,” DaPore said. “We’re growing our own engineers with CodeCamp and Iron Yard, but with 28 software engineers coming in with over 200 open positions here, it’s very difficult for tech companies to build.”
Bobby Hitt, the secretary of the state’s Commerce Department, said South Carolina has exploded its manufacturing sector growth, earning it the nickname “the beast of the Southeast.” But Hitt said the state also needs to focus economic development efforts on creating a startup culture to promote homegrown, high-tech jobs, as well as a workforce to support that growth.
Rock Hill is one community that has had success in attracting manufacturing jobs to the region while neglecting to grow its own entrepreneurial community, said David Warner, the incubator director at Knowledge Park.
To address that, community leaders created Knowledge Park, a tech community in downtown Rock Hill and Winthrop University. Its incubator and coworking space currently has nine companies, of which five are IT-focused, two are agricultural-focused and two are chemistry-based.
“The talent has been here. We just never identified it. We needed to nurture it,” Warner said. “Entrepreneurs are everywhere. You just don’t know who they are or what they’re doing in their garage. You need to find them and talk to them and identify their needs.”
Stakeholders in Hartsville also saw a need to grow entrepreneurial businesses in that Pee Dee town, which about 8,000 people call home. The Community Foundation for a Better Hartsville partnered with Clemson University and created an incubator space — the Duke Energy Center for Innovation — about two years ago.
About six entrepreneurs have used the 1,400-square-foot space in downtown Hartsville and worked with mentors, and one has graduated into a larger space, according to the center’s director, Ben Chastain.
“We’re rural South Carolina, so we looked to find our own niche,” Chastain said.
Coworking space and workforce development require collaboration at every level, said Nikki Seibert, director of sustainable agriculture at Lowcountry Local First.
Entrepreneurs need to be on board with sharing space, resources, ideas and people if they hope to join incubators or participate in training programs.
“People are looking for quality of life at work. Collaboration plays a big part of that. ... We want to create an environment where they can meet and build relationships that can result in more business ventures,” Seibert said.
Lowcountry Local First took an entrepreneurial mindset to the agriculture sector and launched the first farming incubator in the state, Seibert said.
Through the program, entrepreneurs interested in starting or owning their own farm can participate in apprenticeships or work on an incubator farm, which provides them with access to land, equipment and mentorship for three years.
Nearly 100 people graduated in the first year and the program now has a waiting list.
“How do we sustain the demand for local food in the future? Innovation is key,” Seibert said. “You need to find out what your community needs and figure out a way to supply it.”
All of the speakers agreed every community has its own entrepreneurial niche. They said community leaders need to discover the needs of their local entrepreneurs and work to provide the necessary space or programs to those create jobs.
“You need to figure out what you are and then be who you are,” Hitt said. “Find out your own community’s needs and meet them.”
Reach staff writer Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119 or @lizsegrist on Twitter.