Charleston incubator to offer space for startups with fast-growth potential

Charleston Regional Business Journal
Andy Owens
April 21, 2010

A group of professionals is planning to open an incubator in downtown Charleston and will offer space for qualified startups at no cost.

Spark Charleston is unveiling its space at 480 East Bay St. in early May and will begin official operations on June 1. The organization will provide desk space, basic office functions and support for 12 to 16 people that represent “high-potential companies from all industries.”

“Many entrepreneurs are isolated in garages and coffee shops throughout Charleston. By uniting them under one roof, we hope they can inspire and learn from each other, create a local community of entrepreneurs and ultimately build successful companies,” said Chris Clark, the project’s coordinator.

Spark founder John Rivers, who owns the commercial space where Spark will be located, brought several individuals together to build the organization, which will work to identify and incubate companies with potential for profit and growth. The Spark Charleston team includes Rivers, Clark, Larry Burtschy, Mindy Diehl, Will Evans, Kristen Hawkins and Tim Tipton.

This group includes professionals with experience in property management, financial accounting, investing, public relations, architecture, computer science and entrepreneurship.

Clark, who works at Blackbaud, also is the founder of Oberon Socks, a Charleston-based company that specializes in designer clothing.

“I have a little bit more experience with what early stage tech companies look like,” Clark said, giving an example of the range of experience reflected in the group.

There is no type of startup or industry the group wants to focus on, he said, which is why the criteria for qualifying for the space haven’t been narrowly defined. The group expects all the companies to possess job creation potential, a clear revenue model and a demonstrated work ethic.

“We realize we’re not Silicon Valley, so we’re going to get people who are being a little more creative: designers, ad firms, product line manufacturers,” Clark said. “We’re sort of evaluating (companies) in the context of that greater goal.”

The goal is to develop a 21st-century “high-pressure crucible of innovation” that values growth potential and job creation and helps bridge the gap for entrepreneurs who might be trying to grow out of a home office or do-it-yourself setting.

“We want to provide free space for free thinkers who will contribute to the local knowledge economy,” Rivers said.

Clark said Spark also will focus on providing a flow of companies through its space to keep movement in the area. For this reason, companies that are selected for Spark Charleston’s space will be given six months to live in the incubator before they must leave the nest.

“The idea behind the six months is that it is free space, so we don’t want people to kind of linger there,” Clark said. “Right now, it’s about seeing what works and seeing what the community responds to. We’d like to find some companies who will make money and grow out of the facility.”

At the end of six months, Spark Charleston will hold an event to introduce the startups to the public and potential investors.

The organizers are billing Spark Charleston as an altruistic venture and said they would consider a way to eventually monetize the effort in the future, but they have no immediate plans to generate a profit from the effort.

“We’re not naive about it. We know that something like this isn’t going to be around forever if no one makes a dime from it,” Clark said.

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