Pickens Innovation Center Aims to Boost Economy in Pickens County

In the few months since the Pickens Innovation Center has been open, the business incubator has become a place where four new businesses are poised to launch, and an unexpected amount of savvy business thinking has come to light in the greater community.

Mark Davis has accelerated businesses for 18 companies in 9 countries, but he said the practical and creative business ideas people bring to him at the Pickens Innovation Center are impressive—and refreshing. Even though Pickens is in many ways worlds away from the multinational corporations and governments he has worked with, many of the challenges are similar. The difference is that large companies have a large team of people to fall back on, but entrepreneurs in Pickens don’t.

The incubator will focus on 12 companies this year, four of which are set to launch by the end of March. Davis said the center is currently ahead of schedule for 2016. He said 260 people contacted the center in the first four months, and nearly 100 have visited. The companies launching in the spring will be coming four months earlier than planned.

People who work through the center can expect a detailed process if their ideas fit with the economic development goals the Center is designed to support. The first meeting to discuss the business idea is informed by a pitch document the center provides. This helps would-be entrepreneurs come to their first meeting ready with an elevator pitch and the basics of their business plan. Then it is time to discuss marketing strategy and the best legal structure for the business. As the process continues, entrepreneurs can expect coaching on a weekly basis, including support from existing businesses and resources in higher education.

In fact, the Center’s small staff is bolstered by connections to businesses in various industries and is looking to strengthen ties with those that can contract manufacturing. Those relationships will help small businesses jumpstart product manufacturing and sales without making huge investments in infrastructure outright. The six universities that are within 30 miles of the center are also important resources for Pickens Innovation to draw upon.

The Pickens Innovation Center is part of the statewide Clemson Technology Village program, which includes 27 incubators. Five of those, including Pickens, are in rural locations. The top three focus areas are automotive; communications and software; and educational technologies. In addition to that, however, a large number of people have come to the Center with ideas for businesses in the travel, hospitality, and agricultural sectors. Those people are redirected to appropriate resources elsewhere after a conversation.

“There are very interesting thought-provoking people hidden up in these hills and they’re blowing me away with these ideas,” Davis said. While most others in his position have to go out and recruit, Davis said his challenge is to manage the volume of people with good ideas streaming regularly into the Center. Whether they come from a recent college graduate or two relatives who sketched out an idea on a napkin over lunch, most of the ideas are aimed at addressing real needs in the community. Businesses and products currently in the pipeline include a lighting system to improve moped safety at night, a security system, and software to help high school students acquire work-ready technical skills.

To grow entrepreneurship in the economy-boosting automotive and tech sectors, partnerships with existing companies will be key. Being part of a statewide network is also an important asset. Davis said successes at Greenville’s NEXT Innovation Center and innovative uses of mill infrastructure in Upstate neighbor, Rock Hill, are examples from which to draw. Resources like these, added to the enthusiasm and ingenuity of the Pickens community, might equal just the right inputs for a powerful boost to the Pickens economy.

Images courtesy of Pickens Innovation Center

Jennifer Oladipo is a writer in Greenville whose work appears in local and national publications.