New role for USC: Boosting SC economy

ashain@thestate.comApril 27, 2013 

An University of South Carolina fan carries a Gamecock flag in front of the South Carolina State House grounds following the Main Street parade honoring USC's 2010 College World Series championship. The parade started at City Hall and ended at the South Carolina State House. Columbia, S.C.07-02-2010. C. Aluka Berry - The State Media Company\caberry@thestate.com

C. ALUKA BERRY/CABERRY@THESTATE. — The State

  • New developments The University of South Carolina’s 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 USC’s faculty

    • Work with USC entrepreneurship and research centers

    • Provide mentoring and technical assistance to new companies

    • Lead an economic-engagement council with representatives from USC’s eight campuses

— 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.

USC’s Office of Economic Engagement will coordinate the Innovista research district, the expertise of South Carolina’s faculty and the school’s 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 today’s world, the role of the modern university is to help its community and its state be prosperous.”

The new office is an expansion of Innovista’s 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 USC’s 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 Greenville’s International Center for Automotive Research.

“That’s part of the (Clemson’s) culture,” said Ed Sellers, chairman of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, who will head the advisory board for USC’s economic office. “That’s what (USC president Harris Pastides) sensed, that we have very little aggressive outreach.”

‘A triage place’

South Carolina’s economic engagement office will cover many bases, university officials say.

The new operation will coordinate the school’s intellectual property office, which markets patents and licenses developed by faculty members; work with USC’s 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 USC’s 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 office’s 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 office’s successes, Bill Stephan, vice president of engagement at Indiana University, said they have been “more qualitative than quantitative.”

“We’re 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 state’s future.”

Indiana’s economic-development office doesn’t hurt with politicians who control the state’s purse strings, Stephan added. “It does add your credibility at a time when they’re being asked for a lot of assistance.”

Building a rep

USC’s 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 USC’s 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 state’s 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.

USC’s new economic-development office will coordinate the assistance the school has provided to the state for years, Hitt said. “All this feeds into itself.”

New developments

The University of South Carolina’s 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 USC’s faculty

Work with USC entrepreneurship and research centers

Provide mentoring and technical assistance to new companies

Lead an economic-engagement council with representatives from USC’s eight campuses

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