Start me up
By Chris Horn, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3687
When Al Quick graduated from USC, words like “entrepreneur” and “startup” weren’t in his vocabulary. He had a degree in electrical engineering and job offers galore.
“Nobody at Carolina was thinking about entrepreneurship in 1968, me especially,” Quick says. “I could have had 50 job offers, so many companies were recruiting.”
After a few years working for a federal agency in Washington, D.C., where he also earned two graduate degrees, Quick returned to Columbia and became a plant manager and eventually a vice president for computer systems manufacturer NCR. He retired in the mid 1990s, a few years after AT&T bought the company, but boredom set in pretty quickly. That’s when Quick launched the second act of his career — and the very first start-up company to come out of USC.
Using licensed technology from NCR and technical assistance from USC engineering faculty and students, Quick and a few business partners created a start up called Kryotech. The company focused on cooling computer chips to make them run faster.
“I had stayed in touch with Ken Humphries (then-dean of the College of Engineering and Computing) and knew he was trying to commercialize university research,” Quick says. “I told him what we were trying to do and asked if we could move into the college for a while to get started.”
The college made room for Kryotech in its 300 S. Main St. facility. Quick and his partners hired engineering students for internships and contracted with engineering faculty for testing and design consultation.
“We were in an ideal situation,” Quick says. “We stayed in the engineering college’s ‘incubator’ for a year, got a contract to cool IBM mainframes and later sold the company to a large computer chip test equipment manufacturer in California."
Off to the races
Buoyed by the success of its first hatchling, the college and USC’s research administration set about creating a freestanding incubator that could accommodate several start ups at once.
At the same time, Carolina beefed up the management of its intellectual property — invention disclosures and patents from faculty research — and began offering more legal and logistical support for professors who wanted to commercialize their research.
Joel Stevenson, an entrepreneur with four previous start-ups of his own, was recruited as the first incubator director and helped orchestrate a deal with the City of Columbia that turned a former municipal building on Laurel St into the USC-Columbia Technology Incubator.
Success soon followed. IDV, the fourth company admitted to the incubator, developed software called SpeedTree for creating digital treescapes used in video games and movies. Earlier this year the company won an Academy Award for its special effects prowess. A company called Ometric, founded by USC chemistry professor Michael Myrick, hit paydirt with a sensing system using proprietary optical filters.
“Everyone points to Gatorade as the ultimate homerun in terms of a university startup. We never hit one out of the park like that, but we hit a lot of singles, doubles and triples,” says Stevenson, who left as director in 2011 to teach entrepreneurship at the Darla Moore School of Business. “Ometric was a triple and a half.”
For those keeping score, the university’s success in cultivating start-ups since Kryotech was born has been notable. Fifty have graduated from the incubator, creating some 800 jobs with average salaries of $62,000. The incubator currently has 59 fledgling companies, representing 175 jobs and 50 student internships. And every year a few more of the incubator’s tenants strike out on their own and make room for new ventures.
The USC/Columbia Technology Incubator was selected by Inc. magazine in 2013 as one of the nation’s top three “Incubators to Watch.” The incubator maintains a strategic partnership with USC’s Office of Economic Engagement to cultivate entrepreneurism and work with industry.
"We've been working hard to build entrepreneurship at all levels, including helping students explore and develop their passion for entrepreneurship,” says Bill Kirkland, a former startup entrepreneur and current director of the Office of Economic Engagement. “USC is becoming one of the most approachable entrepreneurial resources in the state, and our aim is to help startups at every level be successful."
Incubating companies is only part of the start-up equation. There’s a thriving entrepreneurial vibe now among USC students — enrollment in entrepreneurship classes has doubled and membership in the Entrepreneurship Club is at an all-time high — and the university has built an ecosystem on campus to foster that interest.
The Kennedy Pharmacy Innovation Center and the Music Leadership Laboratory are helping pharmacy and music students, respectively, think about their career paths and skills in more entrepreneurial ways.
An $8 million gift earlier this year from USC alumnus and Houston Texans owner Bob McNair — himself a serial entrepreneur — will establish a new McNair Institute for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise. One of eight such centers in the country, it will offer USC students a big-picture view of American capitalism, how the nation’s economy works and the national and global policies that affect it.
At the Darla Moore School of Business, the Faber Center for Entrepreneurship wants to cultivate an entrepreneurial culture that extends past the boundaries of campus, says Faber Center director Dirk Brown, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
“We do a good job with fostering startups that grow to point where they have up to $25 million in sales, and in South Carolina, that’s great,” he says. “But those companies then usually either stagnate or sell out. We need to build the next generation of Millikens and Sonocos, the companies that create headquarters jobs. That’s different than having a regional hub with an out-of-state headquarters.”
The tools that are used to help startups grow can also be used to help larger companies grow even bigger, Brown says. And with its built-in connections to international business through the Moore School, the Faber Center can help local startups leverage the global landscape, find international partners, talent and new markets. “We’ve created a high-impact consortium to help these companies get to the next level,” he says.
On campus the Faber Center recently introduced the Instigator, a resource for business students who have ideas for start-ups but aren’t ready to compete for a spot in the incubator.
“We encourage and promote student entrepreneurship, not necessarily with the thought that our students will start businesses but simply to show them that there are alternatives,” says Dean Kress, the Faber Center’s associate director. “Starting up a company from scratch or working for yourself isn’t for everyone, but thinking entrepreneurially is always an asset.”
On a more nuts-and-bolts level the firedUP Startup Accelerator provides venture funding to start-ups; Google’s Startup Grind places a global spotlight on local entrepreneurs; and Founders’ Farm presents workshops on how to compete for Small Business Innovation Research grants.
This fall the university’s new Leadership and Service Center offered a weekend start-up conference to teach students how to hone and pitch their ideas at events that offer start-up funds. One such venue is the Faber Center’s Proving Ground in which students and recent USC graduates present their business ideas in a “Shark Tank” style competition.
Mike Meyers, a 2014 Moore School graduate, won last year’s competition with Tradeversity, his and his brother Evan’s idea for an online marketplace for students and faculty to buy, sell and trade within a university community. Since winning the competition, Tradeversity has moved into the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator and recently garnered additional funding from SC Launch, a venture of the S.C. Research Authority. With technological know-how from 52 Apps, another USC student-run company, Meyers relaunched Tradeversity on a mobile platform and introduced it this fall on five college campuses, including USC.
“We had no idea how to run a company — I just graduated and my brother is still in college,” says Meyers, now the CEO of Tradeversity. “But we’ve surrounded ourselves with mentors from USC and the community and that helps grow companies like us.”
The beat goes on
Seventeen years after helping launch Kryotech, USC’s first startup company — and nearly 50 years after graduating from Carolina — Al Quick isn’t slowing down.
After Kryotech was sold, Quick tried his hand at retirement again and still didn’t find it to his liking. He heard about a USC chemical engineering professor, Mike Matthews, who wanted to commercialize his research on using carbon dioxide to sterilize surfaces. The alumnus and professor teamed up and a new company called Carbonix was born.
“We’ve focused on using super-cooled CO2 to kill allergenic proteins — dust mites — in mattresses and rugs,” Quick said. “Those are a common trigger for childhood asthma and are the cause of a lot of medical bills in the U.S.”
Carbonix has received two patents, a $1 million Small Business Innovation Research grant, and it’s been selected for a commercialization assistance program. The prospects look bright
Just another day at the office for Quick and another success story in USC’s efforts to stoke the startup energy of its faculty, students and alumni.
Walk to the top of the heart pine stairs of the old Columbia Supply Co. building on Gervais Street in the Vista and you’ll discover what has to be the city’s coolest shared work space.
Billing itself as “a new place for creative professionals to come together to work in a collaborative way,” SOCO is the brainchild of five partners*, four of them USC grads, and it’s laser focused on building community in a co-work environment.
“We want to change the way people think of work in Columbia,” says Greg Hilton, a 2003 masters in international business studies graduate of the Moore School of Business who has become a force in building and promoting an entrepreneurial community in the city.
It’s been estimated that one-third of American workers consider themselves freelancers or independent contractors. With that shift has come a new word — co-work — that describes professionals who are mobile and work collaboratively from home or from alternative sites.
“The recession taught people that the future is not guaranteed, that you are on your own,” Hilton says. “ The message we’re trying to send at SOCO is all that, except for the last part — you never have to go it alone.”
SOCO has attracted programmers, writers, illustrators, videographers, photographers, computer code instructors and other skilled professionals. About 50 are regulars, using the workspace from every day to once or twice a week or month. The shared space is a regular host site for user groups, meet ups and computer coding classes.
If there is a such a thing as a typical SOCO resident, it would be KRIT, which builds software, websites and mobile apps. The company launched early last year at USC, graduated from the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator and were in the first cohort of firedUP. and has made SOCO its home base. Now based at SOCO, KRIT’s partners include two newly minted USC grads and a USC student. They met while working together at 52Inc, another USC student startup success story.
“We’ve seen that the cities that want to grow their entrepreneurial base often start here, with a co-work space, creating a more inclusive and progressive culture. We need to build an environment for that,” said SOCO founding partner Giovanni DiFeterici.
SOCO’s 3,000-square-foot loft space with pine plank flooring, tall windows and scattered work stations and furniture is nearing capacity, and the partners plan to open a second location in the Bull Street development in the spring.
"Our vision at SOCO simple — build an incredible community of people that want to realize their full potential,” Hilton says. “We do that by offering techies, creatives and startups alike incredible places to work, fantastic events to connect into the community and a host of learning opportunities to help them hone their craft. We're building community first — everything else follows.”
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