After 18 months, incubator's value to Bluffton hard to measure, startups say

dburley@islandpacket.comNovember 17, 2013 

Standing outside the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas on Thursday, Bill Grand practiced his pitch to potential investors.

"A customer of mine said he had a booth at SupplySide West," Grand said of the trade show where food-and-beverage buyers look for up-and-coming ingredients to use in their products. "I told him I'd give a hand and answer any questions about my product."

Grand owns NutriFusion, a startup company that manufactures a fruit- and vegetable-based nutritional additive for processed foods.

He said more than 30 food products contain his powder, which enhances nutritional value, and he's working on contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense and "multibillion-dollar food companies."

His firm was the first to graduate from the Don Ryan Center for Innovation, a Bluffton-based incubator that helps small businesses launch.

The taxpayer-supported incubator, a partnership with Clemson University, started 18 months ago. Fourteen companies have enrolled; six have graduated.

The center receives nearly 80 percent of its funding from the town of Bluffton, including more than $154,000 for the director's salary and $50,000 to Clemson for its services.

The center provides entrepreneurs with state-of-the-art office space, marketing help, and business and legal advice, among other things.

Companies ideally stay in the program from four to eight months, and when they finish, they have few obligations to the town. Participants pay $200 a month. They are not required to set up permanent shop in Bluffton, and the town does not own equity in the businesses.

Nonetheless, town and business officials hope the incubator -- one of three sponsored by Clemson University, and one of 20 in the state, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce -- will give Bluffton a foothold in emerging-technology fields and bolster the area's economy.

It is still too early to measure the center's effect, according to entrepreneurs and incubator officials.

"There's always somebody who wants to run in and know exactly what we're paying for," said Karl Kelly, director of commercialization and technology incubation at Clemson University. "But if you look at the growth of a company for the first five years, they might have three to five employees. Then it grows exponentially."

Attempts Friday to reach town manager Anthony Barrett to ask about the center's effect on the town were unsuccessful.

Grand has not hired any local residents for his company, though he did interview someone last week who could become a sales and marketing representative at his Hilton Head Island location.

"We're starting off slow and building," he said.

Grand said he plans to stay in the area, and he's trying to finance a manufacturing plant in Bluffton that would create 20 jobs in three or four years. He also expects to use fruits and vegetables from local farms and co-ops for his products.

Louise Hodges owns Greenbug, a startup in the incubator that produces an organic bug-repellent system that sprays onto lawns through homes' irrigation systems.

She said she hopes to keep the business near the place it started -- in her Lady's Island garage.

"I've got visions of a big building in Beaufort County where everything is manufactured," she said.

Since her firm got off the ground, Hodges has hired three employees -- two in social media and marketing and one in sales.

"I can safely say I wouldn't have brought them on without the advice I got from the center," she said. "We've had several 'ah-ha' moments that have focused my product."

Bluffton Town Councilman Mike Raymond, whose company Surface Scientifics is in the incubator, said staying local is not the center's imperative, but it is encouraged.

"You just can't guarantee companies stay in the area," he said. "I know I'm not going to build a Pittsburgh Paints plant in Bluffton, but my company will definitely have an application here in town."

Raymond, whose firm produces antimicrobial coating to sanitize surfaces such as door knobs, faucets and stair rails, said he does not attend the incubator's board meetings, to avoid a conflict of interest.

He also said the success of the incubator is hard to quantify empirically, so far, "but it's huge."

Kelly, who oversees the statewide program, agrees.

"What's the payback on it?" Kelly said. "I think you'll really start to see a five- to seven-year payback in jobs."

Follow reporter Dan Burley at

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