CONWAY, SC (WMBF) - An "innovation center" is set to open Wednesday afternoon in an effort to bring a focus on business and technology to Horry County. With the help of the new Conway Innovation Center, your clever idea could spark the next business boom.
The ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Conway Innovation Center (CIC) at 1119 Third Ave. will be held Wednesday, January 21, at 4:30 p.m. Additional parking is in the rear of the building.
The Conway Innovation Center (http://cicinnovation.com/) expects to make a huge impact on local entrepreneurs and the local economy. The center has been in the works for a couple years now. It is modeled after the Clemson Technology Villages program, and it is owned and operated by the Coastal Carolina University non-profit called "The 5th T Innovation Group". The center is also in close collaboration with the city of Conway to make it all happen.
It's all part of trying to bring more vitality to downtown areas," explains Dr. Michael Roberts, the CIC's president. "There is this idea of a new urbanism going on. Where basically the downtown areas need to be revitalized by bringing in companies, bringing in people."
It's no accident they've set up shop on Third Avenue, sandwiched in between existing shops and restaurants. They want to create a curious atmosphere where people feel comfortable to drop in and discuss possible business ventures. Since September, they've already seen 65 people come in and show interest in the center. Out of that, 25 companies have approached them to see if they could work together. Leaders at the center are currently taking on four companies, and two more are in the works for February.
"It's absolutely surprising how many people have come in here that would come from a walk of life that you wouldn't expect to have a great idea," said Kevin Shea, the executive director at the CIC.
So if you walk in with an idea for a possible business venture, here's what to expect. You'll meet with a board of directors comprised of leaders from CCU, HGTC, and the community. Together you'll spend time analyzing your idea and figuring out what resources you'd need to test and then commercialize the product. If it looks viable, the board will then help you develop a plan to get your idea to market in 6 to 18 months.
"We have at our fingertips the ability to reach out and find support for these projects. And it's not all done out of here. Our job is to coordinate and help these folks who are trying to start their businesses reach their goal by having the resources necessary to be successful," says Shea.
The center's goal is to help develop 10 to 15 companies in the next year. By 2018, they want to be generating $16 million worth of value. And the goal is for all of that money to stay in Conway and surrounding areas.
Starting a business is no easy task - especially the parts of the process that are expensive, time consuming, and intimidating. Local entrepreneurs say this center will make all the difference, not just for them but for others as well.
"I really wish that the Conway Innovation Center had been here five years ago, because it probably would've helped us through a lot of the pitfalls and challenges," says Brian O'Neil. O'Neil and his business partners founded B3C Fuel Solutions (http://b3cfuel.com/) in Conway six years ago. They manufacture environmentally-friendly products that combat the negative effects of ethanol in gas, which helps protects your vehicle and preserves your fuel. O'Neil says starting out was definitely a bumpy road. But today the company employees 24 full-time workers, has over 25,000 retailers in the U.S., and has product in 6 different countries.
"New entrepreneurs getting started, this is a blessing for them," says O'Neil. "For them to actually be able to have a place they can go and 'A.' confide in somebody about an invention that they have. 'B.' understand is it marketable? Can I actually take it to market? And 'C.' the road map of how to get there."
As a local business owner hoping to connect with CIC to help develop a new line of technology and product, O'Neil says the center is crucial in helping up-and-comers with resources that might not normally be available to them. So the innovation center helps build a sense of stability as entrepreneurs have to take big risks.
"I mean, that's a big chunk of change," exclaims Sheila Walberg-O'Neil. "This is someone coming up with an idea that are they going to throw their retirement on it? Are they going to quit their jobs over it?"
Walberg-O'Neil is married to Brian. She's currently developing her own product called the BooZi (www.BooZi.net). You put it in your alcohol, and it acts like a magnet by taking out all the impurities. This makes it taste like top-shelf alcohol no matter how cheap it is, she says. She's now looking to connect with the CIC to help perfect and market the product.
"Here they make you very comfortable and supported. And I'm glad that they're starting the CIC, because hopefully that will bring more innovative ideas out," Walberg-O'Neil says. "Because we gotta move forward."
The leaders at the center are looking for three main things: the use of technology, the ability to go global, and a guarantee of creating jobs. The founders of the Conway Innovation Center fully believe more rural areas still have just as much creative business juices as larger sprawling cities. So they provide resources typically only found in larger markets. What makes this center different is that it's run by a true non-profit - "The 5th T Innovation Group" out of CCU. Many business incubators will require you to pay them back in some way, but that's not how this innovation center will work. They received a grant from the James L Knight Foundation to help you for free.
And they're judging the success of a business not by how much profit it generates for the owner but by its community impact. So if you're not projected to make a massive profit the first year but you would create ten jobs, that's considered success.
And if you're wondering about the non-profit's name, The 5th T, here's the explanation. Turpentine, timber, tobacco, and tourism - these have been the basic driving factors for Horry County's economy. The 5th T is all about adding technology into the mix.
"Progress is inventing new," says Walber-O'Neil. "We can't dwell on the old and antiquated. Jobs don't start there. We've got to come up with new ones."