Gov. Mark Sanford on Wednesday said USC is right to move away from a "field of dreams" approach of constructing speculative buildings in its Innovista research campus to attract high-tech businesses.
And the state shouldn't "continue to throw good money after bad" when it comes to making Columbia a hydrogen hub, Sanford said. The governor vetoed funding for hydrogen and Innovista in 2007 but was overridden by the General Assembly.
USC has spent more than $100 million on Innovista since it was announced in 2005, and it has not created permanent, private high-tech jobs in any significant numbers.
Millions more have been spent on developing a hydrogen economy in the state, also without a significant influx of jobs.
But advocates for Innovista and hydrogen, including Columbia Mayor Bob Coble, say USC and the region should stay the course but Innovista should evolve with technology breakthroughs and changes in the economy.
The reactions came after new Innovista chief Don Herriott told The State on Tuesday that USC had "overhyped" the need for buildings and the potential for a hydrogen economy in defining Innovista.
Herriott, former head of Roche Global Chemical Manufacturing, is rebranding Innovista as a concept rather than a campus. He envisions matching entrepreneurs with USC researchers through a system of venture capital, product development and business management support based at the school.
But the businesses could be located anywhere in the Columbia area, rather than on campus.
Sanford on Wednesday said USC and the state should move away from its aggressive economic-development efforts and let the free market take over.
USC has spent the $100 million-plus for two publicly funded research buildings and accompanying parking garages. The city and state spent millions more developing a hydrogen infrastructure, including two fueling stations, and staging last year's National Hydrogen Conference & Expo.
But USC has struggled to build two private research buildings in Innovista, which college officials announced with great fanfare would be an "innovation district" stretching for 200 acres from Senate Street to Catawba Street and Assembly Street to the river.
It would be a place where researchers, students and businesspeople would interact in pubs and parks, labs and offices to forge a new economy, USC officials said when Innovista was announced.
But since then, USC has dismissed two developers who couldn't build the two planned private buildings or attract big-time firms to the district. The former Innovista executive director resigned amid controversy over his vetting of a developer who had pleaded guilty to felony tax evasion.
And the school said it would outfit two publicly funded research buildings for two star researchers, who have been working in substandard facilities since arriving in 2007 and 2008.
Herriott was hired to take over earlier this year based on his experience in the corporate world and knowledge of the state. With the help of a new advisory council of business and government leaders, he is developing a new model for Innovista.
"So now we're going to a Plan B," Sanford told The State "But I think we're still barking up the wrong tree. We're still pre-supposing that that government can link entrepreneurs with researchers.
"I'm not belittling Don," he added. "But it begs the larger question of when are we going to get universities back to the core mission of educating students. That money could have been more wisely spent going back to that core mission."
But Columbia Mayor Coble said it will take time for the "knowledge-based economy" to take hold. In the meantime, he said there have been successes.
He noted that the city landed last year's hydrogen conference and basked in the exposure that went along with it.
More than 700 researchers, entrepreneurs and businesspeople from 22 countries attended the April 2009 event. An additional 2,000 people showed up for the events on a public day to ride in hydrogen cars and learn about the technology.
The region, through the efforts of agencies like EngenuitySC and the USC-Columbia Fuel Cell Collaborative, also has attracted a hydrogen fuel cell firm - Trulite - which is operating a small hydrogen fuel cell manufacturing facility at Midlands Tech's incubator in Blythewood. It is also home to several hydrogen fuel cell distribution projects.
And Coble noted that on Tuesday, Fuel Cells 2000 - a fuel cell education website - in a new report named South Carolina one of the top five fuel states along with, in alphabetical order, California, Connecticut, New York and Ohio.
"But Innovista is bigger than one field or a building," Coble said. "You have to make adjustments for the economy and technological breakthroughs."
Coble said that the city and state "hyped" hydrogen because of the conference and because hydrogen and fuel cell research is one of USC's areas of expertise. "But we've also emphasized the insurance field and nano-technology and other fields."
The mayor said he isn't surprised by Sanford's reaction.
"The people who were against this at the start will continue to be against this," he added. "But the fact remains that, like (North Carolina's) Research Triangle, Innovista will create jobs ."