Conway Innovation Center aims to stimulate job creation for the Myrtle Beach area

A new technology center under development in Conway will use the resources of business and academics to foster new business start ups that could result in as many new jobs in Horry County as those created through formal economic development processes, officials said.

Although the Conway Innovation Center won’t have a formal grand opening until later this fall, the center’s backers already are in discussions with Coastal Carolina University on two to four possible start ups, said Karl Kelly, director of commercialization and technology incubation at Clemson University.

The Conway center will be the fourth of five planned in South Carolina as part of Clemson’s Technology Villages concept. Others already operating in Rock Hill, Hartsville and Bluffton spawned 34 businesses in just two years, Kelly said.

The center will be administered by the 5thT Innovation Group, a nonprofit corporation formed by CCU, Horry Georgetown Technical College and the Conway community. Mike Roberts, CCU dean of the College of Science and vice president of research and emerging technologies, will be chairman of the board.

Roberts said it’s hard to define an ideal applicant for the center, but mentioned that the Don Ryan Center for Innovation in Bluffton has fostered businesses that produce items as diverse as anti-bacterial coating for counters, windows and other surfaces to a company that will franchise lobster roll restaurants.

“I don’t want to stifle any ideas,” Roberts said of too closely defining who may get help.

Renee Meighan, a board member of the Bluffton center, said it gets a plethora of applications with all sorts of ideas.

Not every one is or will be accepted for incubation, but those that are will have experienced people to help them move from idea to production, taking into account everything from budgets to potential competition.

Karl said there are four critical points in the incubation process.

The first is that the venture has sustainable costs.

It must also:

• Survey competitive international intellectual property to determine if the idea is really competitive;

• Have somebody on the start up team who has experience developing a product similar to that the team wants to produce;

• Develop a corporate relationship for potential needs in marketing, research or pilot manufacturing space, among other things.

Kelly said the start ups that will emerge from the centers will be designed to compete with the top 10 percent of start ups in the U.S.

Not all will be successful, but Kelly said that only two of those started under Clemson’s Technology Villages concept are no longer in operation.

Roberts said that the start ups typically will be in the incubation phase for six months to a year.

“A successful business, you want them to leave,” he said. “For them to hang out with us for three years is not a good thing.”

Even after they are cut free, though, consultations with personnel from the incubator and experts at Clemson may continue.

Kelly said the new businesses normally will start out with two or three employees, which likely will sustain the operation for a couple of years. After that, many will begin adding employees, with the number depending on the demand for the product.

Kelly said that most incubator programs can have a budget of $800,000 to $1 million a year, but those under Clemson’s Technology Village will have costs significantly below that.

The Conway center, for instance, plans to run on a budget of $150,000. Its first year of operation has been funded by a grant from the Waccamaw Community Foundation, thanks to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Donor Advised Fund.

A big reason for the lower costs in the Clemson program is that the university’s MBA and graduate students will provide key help in the incubator process.

The center will be expected to find its own future funding, but Roberts said he doesn’t think that will be a problem. He said that the center’s initial grant could be used to apply for a matching grant from the state Department of Commerce.

The administrative group’s name, 5thT, identifies technology as the fifth driver of the Grand Strand economy. The first four are timber, tar, tobacco and tourism.

The city of Conway has set business and technology innovation as a key element in its downtown strategy, and Mayor Alys Lawson said that most of the businesses that start out in Conway could be expected to stay in Conway.

She said that customarily, a start up business that gets a warm reception in the city where it begins will stay in that city.

Kevin Shea has been named the center’s first executive director.

Kelly said that one-third to one-half of the entrepreneurial efforts could be expected to come from CCU, where students have had a chance to work on their concepts and may be anxious to put them into practice. The rest could come from anywhere.

Kelly said that incubator-driven businesses may well create as many jobs as are created through formal economic development efforts.

“What the program is about from an economic development standpoint is creating the other 50 percent of jobs,” he said.

People interested in forwarding their ideas can call Roberts at 843-349-2282 or Shea at 842-902-8253.

“Individuals can come to us now and tap into the network,” Roberts said.