The Buzz in Knowledge Park … Rock Hill’s Fledgling Start-Up Scene

Welcome to our inaugural blog from the Technology Incubator @ Knowledge Park.  Our purpose is to carry on a conversation with the community about entrepreneurship, technology and the building of a local knowledge economy in Old Town Rock Hill. To begin, it’s important to understand that Knowledge Park is a both a place and a state of mind. Geographically ranging from the Winthrop University campus to the Corporium Headquarters at Fountain Park, Knowledge Park is an unprecedented redevelopment initiative for our community, with plans for many new buildings and amenities, such as a streetcar.  Even more important, however, Knowledge Park is an economic development strategy focused on technology, talent development and new knowledge worker jobs.  One spearhead project to get the ball rolling was the opening of a technology-focused business incubator.  Now that we have been open for two years, it’s time to step back and see what we have created.

Last April I had the opportunity to attend the National Business Incubation Association’s International Conference in Denver. Brad Feld of Boulder, Colorado was our keynote speaker.  He is a successful serial entrepreneur -turned-capitalist who is generally acknowledged as the driving force behind Boulder’s thriving tech start-up scene.

The focus of Brad’s talk was on what it takes to create a startup community.  From his experience as both an entrepreneur and investor, he has compiled the ”lessons learned” into a book titled Startup Communities.  The book sums up the principles driving the development of an active startup scene, which the author terms the “Boulder Thesis”:

  1. Entrepreneurs must lead
  2. Leaders must have a long term commitment
  3. Community is inclusive of anyone who wants to participate
  4. Community has continual activities to engage entrepreneurs

I was very glad to see that, according to Brad, we are doing things right.

  • We have successful and soon-to-be successful entrepreneurs moving into leadership roles in Knowledge Park. Brad suggests that there must be both “leaders” (the entrepreneurs themselves) and “feeders” (all who assist entrepreneurs, including the Technology Incubator).
  • There is every indication that our entrepreneur leaders, and our feeder network, are both in it for the long haul. Building a startup community doesn’t happen overnight, but takes decades.  Over time, successful entrepreneurs are known to come back to fund the next generation of startups to sustain the community.
  • It is our policy at the Technology Incubator to assist everyone who requests our help. And beyond our walls, there is clearly a spirit of cooperation and collaboration amongst those who are asked to provide guidance to our entrepreneurs.
  • TI Center regularly schedules and hosts engagement activities for entrepreneurs and “wannabees”. These include Lunch & Learn programs, evening educational seminars, and socially-focused meet-up events.  All are open to the public at large.

All of this is well and good. However, it does not answer the question, “Does Rock Hill actually have a startup scene??”

The seeds of Old Town Rock Hill’s entrepreneur community were sown before the concept of Knowledge Park was solidified.  Companies such as RevenFlo, Social Design House, the Insignia Group and Span Enterprises were already successfully doing business prior to the opening of the TI Center (the Technology Incubator @ Knowledge Park).  This month, August 2015, the TI Center has been open for two years.  In that very short time, we have attracted a large number (to us at least) of would-be entrepreneurs with great ideas, from places as far away as Philadelphia and New Mexico.  Three companies have graduated, and one of those, Stark and Associates, with their MemberThrive product line, has located on to Main Street.   Also, one of our current clients, ACA Compliance Services, a fast-growing software-as-a-service firm, has located to Main Street.

We currently have nine client companies licensed into the TI Center, with an invitation out to number ten.  There is a waiting list of another six or so that would like to become clients.  In the last twelve months, we have met with 36 individuals interested in starting a business around an innovative idea. I have been surprised and delighted by the many incredibly talented people who have walked through our doors.  I have heard from our many stakeholders that the TI Center is contributing directly to the growing entrepreneurial vibe and the rising level of creative energy in our community.

During the past two years, other technology businesses have also opened nearby, for example Second Brick Ventures and New World Media.  And beyond the technology based companies, several consumer businesses have opened in our vicinity, including Amelie’s, Flip Side Restaurant, the Bottle Shop, and Provisions.  And Vinyet Architecture just relocated to a new permanent space on Caldwell Street.

So does Rock Hill actually have a “start-up scene”?  The answer is undeniably “yes” and it’s centered in Knowledge Park.

In conclusion, after I heard Brad Feld speak, I decided to pick up a copy of Startup Communities and ask Brad to sign it for me.  He wrote … “Keep Smilin’ South Carolina” (I think he must have seen our State’s tourism tag line from a few years ago).  Well, we certainly are smiling at the results we have seen so far, and we look forward to seeing how the exciting future of our startup community unfolds.

David & Brad Feld Photo