After more than two years in development, the Don Ryan Center for Innovation opened its doors Thursday in Buckwalter Place.
Four start-up firms in the digital media, biotech and nutrition sectors have joined the business incubator, which town officials hope will lead to a high-tech renaissance throughout the Lowcountry.
The four businesses are:
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"It's the beginning of something really, really big for our town and for our region," Mayor Lisa Sulka said during the grand opening event at the center. "We welcome our neighbors to be part of this because it will benefit everyone greatly if they come on board with us."
The center was formed as a partnership between the town and Clemson University, which is developing at least three other incubators across the state in non-metropolian areas. Bluffton's is the first facility to open.
Businesses that join the center get more than just office space, said director Jordan Berliner.
Experts from Clemson and greater Bluffton will provide mentoring services and assist with everything from honing a business model to marketing and sales support.
"What it's going to be is help for these companies to grow and develop and become much larger companies and successful companies," he said.
The center was named for Don Ryan, the former CareCore CEO who died last fall. Ryan worked with the town to make the center a reality, Sulka said. CareCore donated roughly 1,600-square-feet of space inside its offices for the incubator. Businesses pay a fee to join. Berliner declined to say what those fees were.
Hargray Communications, St. Joseph's/Candler Health Systems, the Hilton Head law firm Nexsen Pruet and Regions Bank donated money to the facility. Bluffton has pledged $50,000 a year for the next three years.
Berliner expects companies will spend from a few months to a year or longer in the incubator before moving to their own space.
Once that happens, officials expect new firms will fill the vacancies.
For now, there are at least seven people working at the center, but Berliner expects that number to grow.
Within six months, he said the space could accommodate as many as 10 small businesses.