Op/ed: SCRA a much larger contributor to the state’s economy than most people appreciate.

Swamp Fox
John Warner
December 16, 2010

I’ve been involved with innovation and entrepreneurship in South Carolina for over thirty years. I’ve seen what does and doesn’t work to build companies and create jobs.

Our new Governor and General Assembly have incredibly difficult decisions to make next year as a result of the national economy, and the necessary budget cuts will be painful. The South Carolina Research Authority (SCRA) is a key institution in the state that will help improve our economy and create jobs, without contributing to our budget problems.

SCRA was created as an enterprise corporation by the General Assembly in 1983, and for two decades quietly grew into a significant manager of applied research collaborations of government, universities and industry organizations. In the last five years the contract value of programs under SCRA’s management has grown from $235 million to over $1.4 billion. For its services, SCRA self-generates over $170 million in annual revenue. Analysis by the Moore School of Business indicates that the annual economic contribution of SCRA to the state is over $1 billion.

This impressive surge of productivity was sparked by the recruitment in 2005 of Bill Mahoney as SCRA’s CEO. I met Bill shortly after he joined SCRA and have closely followed its progress under his leadership. My most direct association has been through involvement with the SC Launch program, which provides capital and support services to high-impact start-up companies in the state. The General Assembly passed the Innovation Centers Act, which mandated that SCRA create and fund a program such as SC Launch, about the time Bill became CEO.

Eight years ago, I founded InnoVenture LLC, which manages conferences and forums to create innovative communities around academic and industry research centers. A special emphasis is helping to create and grow high-impact entrepreneurial companies. From its inception SC Launch has been an anchor partner of InnoVenture. We have a great relationship with SC Launch, working with our other anchor partners to grow the knowledge economy in the state.
While there are dozens of companies that SC Launch and InnoVenture have collaborated to help, there are two in particular that stand out.

At an early InnoVenture conference, a pharmaceutical company executive, Michael Bolick, found carbon dot technology invented at Clemson University. SC Launch provided early seed capital that helped Michael start his new company, Selah Technologies, to commercialize Clemson’s invention.

Selah also worked closely with the NanoCenter at the University of South Carolina and the Greenville Hospital System to develop their leading edge technology. Recently Selah merged with a UK pharmaceutical company, Lab21, which has located their North American headquarters and will open one of the world’s first personalized medicine laboratories in South Carolina.

A couple of years ago, Ralph Hulseman, then the director of external research of the Michelin Americas Research Company, approached me about co-founding a new company, Hoowaki, to commercialize technology invented by a researcher at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. SC Launch provided us a start-up grant, matched funding we have received from federal agencies through the Small Business Innovative Research grant program, and made a seed capital investment in our company.

Hoowaki is currently in a Clemson incubator. A Columbia native, Andrew Cannon, recently received a PhD from Illinois and was able to come back home to the state to be Hoowaki’s research and development manager. Hoowaki technology is enhancing the products of many large companies in the state.

Neither Lab21 nor Hoowaki would exist in South Carolina today without the close collaboration of InnoVenture and SC Launch.

Having a strong working relationship does not mean we have always judged business opportunities the same way. I’ve taken proposals to SC Launch that they chose not to participate in. I’ve seen SC Launch make business decisions that I would have made differently. Differences in judgment do not mean either of us lack integrity. Strong partners seek to collaborate where it is in their enlightened self-interest, and not force the issue where it is not.

Especially in the last five years, SCRA has grown into a much larger contributor to the state’s economy than most people in the state appreciate. I look forward to continuing to work closely with SCRA to help South Carolina grow and prosper.

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