Here’s the link to the story that appeared in June 2014 Hilton Head Monthly.
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Bluffton’s new-business accelerator helps small companies take large steps
By Tim Wood
Innovation isn’t just about apps or computers.
That’s the message that Executive Director David Nelems is emphasizing as the Don Ryan Center for Innovation begins its third year of operation in Bluffton.
When the new business accelerator first opened in May 2012, the first under the Clemson Technology Villages program, the buzzwords around town were “tech park.”
While bringing more high-tech jobs is still a goal of the nonprofit cooperative between the town of Bluffton and Clemson University, it’s not the sole focus.
“We want innovators, period,” Nelems said. “That’s a big message I find myself spreading around the community. High-tech companies have been our focus, but above all, we’re looking for innovation. If you have an idea that can grow into a regional, national and global business, we want to talk to you.”
The 49-year-old has been hard at work evolving the mission and scope of the center since he took over as its second executive director in August 2013.
The Atlanta-area transplant seems tailor-made for the tall order. He founded his own startup in 1999 with a vision for taking focus groups and broadcasting them over the Internet. His idea took hold quickly, as Nelems worked with many Fortune 500 companies before selling ActiveGroup in 2007.
He came to Bluffton with his wife Janelle in June, more for the lifestyle and to be closer to his son Michael, a sophomore at The Citadel.
“I wasn’t really looking for a job, but when I saw this job description, it’s everything that I did in my former life. It was impossible to pass up,” he said. “I wanted to pass on my years of experience to others and really help a community grow through evolving businesses.”
Companies accepted into the DRCI are put through an 18-month program, helping to evolve ideas into businesses and scale smaller companies into larger operations.
The center has “graduated” eight companies thus far, with seven companies currently working under the tutelage of Nelems and a team of mentors, innovators and potential investors.
“We’re extremely blessed to have so many retirees in this area that have incredible industry experience,” Nelems said. “It seems like every month, we are able to bring more and
ore of these folks into the center, because they want to keep a hand in the game and pass on their learning.”
The range of companies currently involved is impressive. They include:
- MobiPET, a mobile app that serves as an Amber Alert for missing pets;
- Surface Scientifics, a company evolving an epoxy coating meant to kill germs and bacteria;
- CERAS, a company marketing an eco-friendly, rapid-assembly shelter system;
- Elongator, a tailgate extension system for flatbed trucks;
- U-Auto-Fixit, a do-it-yourself, full-service repair facility concept;
- Page 1 Media, a video production company specializing in video search engine optimization;
- Village Features, a company specializing in 3D rendering services.
“It’s really a wide range of issues and objectives,” Nelems said. “A company like U-Auto-Fixit, he had a great idea and we’re helping him evolve it into a business. Elongator, they want to take the next step and need help figuring out the manufacturing part of the business. Whereas a company like Village Features, they’re an established company that is trying to figure out how to scale the business. So we provide tailored assistance for every step of a business.”
Those part of the current class say DRCI, and more specifically Nelems, has been everything they were hoping for.
“I’ve been in the program for a couple months now and it’s just what I was looking for,” said Joshua Hale, founder of Village Features. “I’ve been a one- or two-man operation for a while now. David and the mentors, they’ve helped me get better at what I do, showed me how to run a business effectively, and how to find the right kind of clients with proper marketing.”
Hale, who received his master’s degree from Clemson, said having the university as a resource is a huge bonus. But Nelems was the marquee draw for him to join the center.
“Here you have a guy who has done exactly what I’m trying to do and had great success,” Hale said. “That’s invaluable. I don’t feel alone, he knows all the stresses I’m dealing with and how to tackle them.”
David Ropes, one of the owners of MobiPET, shares those sentiments.
He moved to Bluffton from Connecticut a decade ago after a successful career as an executive for international brands such as Reebok.
He and his partners had a vision but said Nelems and the center have helped with the growing pains of getting a business off the ground.
“I had the brains of someone who helped evolve businesses and managed people. David has that entrepreneurial experience that I lack, and has really helped take us to another level,” said Ropes, who recently worked with fellow DRCI company Page One Media to develop one of its first commercials. “We’ve been testing this product in the area for the past year and DRCI has helped us prepare our business plan to go out and get the seed funding that we’ll need to roll this product out nationally to every vet, clinic and pet boarder.”
The center is currently funded by the town of Bluffton with help from a number of corporate partners. It provides business advice and helps connect the businesses with funding, but doesn’t put any money into the companies or take equity out.
The long-term goal is to become self-sufficient financially, and potentially to even start providing seed money to the center’s companies.
Nelems recently won their first grant, $100,000 from the S.C. Department of Commerce, which will be used to market the center and to grow various programs for both local innovators and area high school and college students. In addition, DRCI will also buy a 3D printer and eventually make the exclusive technology available for public use.
“We’re really focused on bringing the local community into the center, making Bluffton the capital of innovation in the area,” Nelms said.
DRCI has launched a series of successful monthly workshops for the public, focusing on everything from writing a business plan to applying for a patent. Those sessions will resume this fall.
DRCI is working to launch an annual innovation summit, bringing in big thinkers from around the nation to witness and foster success in Bluffton.
“A company or a person doesn’t have to be in the program to get help for us,” Nelems said. “We want to grow this into a resource and a place that fosters folks on the local level to really think big.”