A project to cultivate entrepreneurs specializing in new technology is launching in Bluffton as a partnership between the town and Clemson University.
The incubator, to begin by the end of the year, aims to help start-up companies fine-tune their business plans and create new jobs -- a shift from economic-development efforts that rely on recruiting existing companies.
Town business leaders and staff appointed to lead the effort also will get training at Clemson to provide the fledgling companies with expertise in intellectual property, product development, financing and recruiting.
The start-ups will be housed in donated office space at CareCore National's headquarters in Buckwalter Place. They will have access to operational and administrative services, CareCore CEO Don Ryan said.
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The town will form a nonprofit governing board to oversee the "storefront incubator" and hire a consultant to staff it, town manager Anthony Barrett said. The board also will be responsible for recruiting the companies in fields such as energy, environmental sciences, defense or aquaculture.
Those start-ups will grow for several months at the incubator before moving on, Barrett said. He hopes they will keep their headquarters in the Lowcountry as they hire more employees, although they won't be required to do so.
"It's a rotating list where they learn, catch on and then move out so the coaching and mentoring continues," Barrett said. "No one is going to stay there forever, which creates opportunities for even more companies."
Clemson University will provide training, resources and support for both the community members running the program and the entrepreneurs, according to commercialization and technology incubation director Karl Kelly. That includes an online Clemson program called the Innovation Network and daily support from staff at the Regional Entrepreneurial Development Center in Columbia.
Clemson has been developing the model for five years and has spent nearly $1 million studying it, according to Mac Horton, director of the Clemson Institute for Economic and Community Development.
Five non-metro areas have been selected to test the program over three years, with each young company staying between four and eight months.
Bluffton is the first to announce the venture, Horton said.
Kelly said the model is unique because it combines public-sector involvement, the university's expertise and local business leaders to get the companies on their feet.
Encouraging smaller communities to take an active role in job creation is part of the mission, Kelly said.
"I think we have forgotten a great deal about our entrepreneurial spirit in South Carolina, and it is time to revitalize that," he said.
Buckwalter Place developer Matt Green said Bluffton's involvement will attract other entrepreneurs, as well as a talented workforce. Green said start-ups produce twice as many jobs as recruiting existing companies does, and that the venture is the way of the future.
"We have a great opportunity here," he said. "Let's face it, now in America is the time to change and try something different."
Larry Hughes, who serves on a Clemson extension advisory committee and helped connect the project to Bluffton, said the venture represents "more than just lip service to small businesses."
While some start-ups might stay small, there's also a chance one of them could become the next CareCore National, he said.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP.
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