COLUMBIA, SC — The University of South Carolina will start an economic-development office in July, seeking to broaden its reach beyond academics.
USC will join Clemson University and the College of Charleston among S.C. public colleges that operate economic-development arms.
USCs Office of Economic Engagement will coordinate the Innovista research district, the expertise of South Carolinas faculty and the schools entrepreneurship and industry centers.
We had a lot of independent flowers growing in the university, but they lacked a cohesive approach, Innovista executive director Don Herriott said. In todays world, the role of the modern university is to help its community and its state be prosperous.
The new office is an expansion of Innovistas eight-year mission to boost jobs and development, Herriott said.
That $144 million project has drawn criticism for failing to produce results envisioned when it was launched. Since 2010, however, Herriott has worked to refocus Innovista from a campus-centered project to a region-wide economic-development operation.
The improving economy, along with USCs new economic-development focus, could allow the university finally to attract a private developer to construct a long-planned campus building for technology firms, school officials said.
USC is trying to create a business-development identity like the one that Clemson started decades ago with its county extension services and, later, expanded into other areas, including Greenvilles International Center for Automotive Research.
Thats part of the (Clemsons) culture, said Ed Sellers, chairman of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, who will head the advisory board for USCs economic office. Thats what (USC president Harris Pastides) sensed, that we have very little aggressive outreach.
A triage place
South Carolinas economic engagement office will cover many bases, university officials say.
The new operation will coordinate the schools intellectual property office, which markets patents and licenses developed by faculty members; work with USCs seven satellite campuses to aid businesses; and provide technical assistance to new companies.
In addition to helping develop and expand businesses, the new economic office will work with economic-development arms in the state from local offices to the S.C. Department of Commerce to provide resources to potential business recruits.
This is a triage place, said Sellers.
Bill Kirkland, who now oversees USCs technology incubator, will run the Office of Economic Engagement. Herriott said he will leave his Innovista post and join the advisory board of the new office.
The economic offices budget and staffing have not been completed. The office will use existing USC employees but could add four staffers within a year, Kirkland said. The office will be paid for with research money that now is allocated to other business-related work at the school.
Before proposing the new office, USC spent more than a year studying economic-development efforts at 77 other schools with the help of BlueCross corporate strategy group, Kirkland said.
Indiana University, which opened an economic-development arm in 2007, was among the schools that South Carolina closely researched.
Asked how about his offices successes, Bill Stephan, vice president of engagement at Indiana University, said they have been more qualitative than quantitative.
Were perceived as being responsive, he said. We did not have much history of outreach. We needed to show more could come from higher education. We needed to be more visible in the states future.
Indianas economic-development office doesnt hurt with politicians who control the states purse strings, Stephan added. It does add your credibility at a time when theyre being asked for a lot of assistance.
Building a rep
USCs reputation for economic development took a hit with Innovista.
The project promised four buildings filled with the latest technology and medical research as well as businesses with highly paid workers when it debuted in 2005.
But Innovista found little traction and became a sore spot at the State House after lawmakers agreed to issue more than $70 million in state bonds to support it.
Gov. Nikki Haley compared giving Innovista a final $13 million injection last year to throwing good money after bad. She approved the funding despite her opinions.
The university says Innovista has become a success under the three-year oversight of Herriott, a former pharmaceuticals executive. Two academic buildings one centered on biomedical research and another on next-generation energy research will be filled after final construction work is finished soon.
Meanwhile, about 30 tech-related businesses have opened nearby in downtown Columbia and elsewhere in the metro area. Those companies have roughly 1,000 employees. One office building with six floors dedicated to Innovista firms is out of space, Herriott said.
Now, USC has asked for bids from private developers for a new building on its campus for tech firms. The new building is tied to a proposal to build two new dorms behind the Carolina Coliseum.
Innovista was supposed to have two private buildings under its original plan, but the projects never took off because of the Great Recession and management problems.
Feeds into itself
The new office should solidify USCs role as a major economic player statewide, university officials say.
The university could get a list of prospects from the S.C. Commerce Department and offer companies more proactive assistance, instead of waiting for requests for help, Kirkland said.
The economic office should not compete with other university operations, such as those at Clemson, Kirkland said. Economic development offices in Indiana and Purdue University co-exist, USC officials say.
The S.C. Commerce Department could help coordinate work between the state schools if necessary, Kirkland added.
S.C. universities already provide a lot of assistance to the states business-recruitment efforts, S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt said.
Colleges help businesses improve their productivity, Hitt said, citing a College of Charleston study of port operations, and retain good employees, citing fellowships for BMW employees at USC.
USCs new economic-development office will coordinate the assistance the school has provided to the state for years, Hitt said. All this feeds into itself.
The University of South Carolinas new Office of Economic Engagement will have a number of responsibilities:
Manage the Innovista research district
Coordinate contact with economic-development organizations
Connect businesses with intellectual property created by USCs faculty
Work with USC entrepreneurship and research centers
Provide mentoring and technical assistance to new companies
Lead an economic-engagement council with representatives from USCs eight campuses