Encouraging change for Innovista

THE GREATEST value of Innovista, the thing that is exciting and worth pursuing, has always been the idea of the state's flagship university using its academic weight and vision, much as leading research universities long have done, to develop marketable products and attract entrepreneurs and transform one of the nation's most struggling economies - not the buildings in which that work will be done. But you'd have been hard-pressed to remember that in recent months, as all the buzz about USC's research campus has centered on how the shiny buildings and parks could transform the physical face of downtown Columbia - or not.

All that hoopla about buildings was one of the reasons it was so disastrous when two private developers failed to deliver on promises to build and fill them and the university seemed slow to react to serious questions about the judgment and ability of the person overseeing its centerpiece initiative. When you over build expectations - or even merely allow them to be over built - it becomes nearly as important that you meet those overbuilt expectations as that you meet your own goals.

So it's encouraging that USC has brought in a new director for Innovista, Don Herriott, who is determined to refocus the conversation, and the effort, on attracting businesses rather than simply building the buildings. As the retired Roche Carolina CEO and current member of the state Board of Economic Advisors told The State's Jeff Wilkinson, "'Build it and they will come' is not a business concept."

It's also encouraging that the university turned to a well-respected business and community leader to take over Innovista, and that President Harris Pastides appears to have given him wide latitude to oversee the university's entire economic development operation. Unlike his predecessor, and the developers that didn't bring in new businesses and build the buildings to house them, Mr. Herriott is a known quantity, a successful executive who has a reputation here in South Carolina to maintain.

Although we are far too quick in South Carolina to make decisions based on personal relationships, and to call on the same small handful of well-connected people time after time, the fact is that there are some times when trustworthiness trumps a fresh perspective - and when the trustworthy person comes with an solid resume and track record, all the better.

But changing the internal and external focus alone can't overcome doubts that are beginning to emerge in some quarters about Innovista. That will require Mr. Herriott to score with the new old expectations: to leverage USC's burgeoning research capabilities into spin-off businesses and to attract other businesses to the research campus, in order to turn the state's considerable investment into the high-paying knowledge jobs that can drive an economy. Every day that this recession lingers further demonstrates how vital that task is.