The Next initiative could grow beyond this 60,000-square-foot Next Innovation Center in downtown Greenville. (Photo/provided)
By Liz Segrist
Published May 23, 2011
Greenville business leaders are in the early stages of planning a new innovation campus to spur entrepreneurialism and potentially become a downtown gateway along the Church Street Corridor.
The idea is to expand the Next initiative, an Upstate innovation hub that nurtures high-impact, high-tech, knowledge-based companies with the potential for significant growth. These can be existing or start-up companies.
The initiative is most visible at the Next Innovation Center on Church Street and University Ridge, a 60,000-square-foot building that opened nearly two years ago and houses many companies in an open environment meant to promote collaboration. Next is a communitywide partnership managed by the Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce.
Next visionaries want this innovation hub to become a globally recognized entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“We want to attract more intellectual capital to the community and we want to create more of our own,” said Sam Konduros, Chamber chairman and president of SK Strategies LLC. “We want to radically expand the Next initiative that’s already in place. Ultimately, this would create the opportunity for a downtown innovation campus that could be a physical manifestation of the growth of this initiative. But again, we’re presently at the ideas stage.”
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The goal is to attract and retain talent and create high-quality, high-paying jobs.
The future Next plans focus on five major industry clusters: automotive, aviation, advanced materials, energy and life sciences and medical. Today, the Next Innovation Center nears capacity and the project leaders have to find out: What’s next for Next?
“We got to 80% committed, which happened in the last two years,” Chamber Entrepreneurship Vice President Brenda Laakso said of the $10 million building’s capacity. “We’re definitely going to need a lot more space. We want to attract companies and keep companies that are growing here.”
Two committees have been meeting to develop a 10-year plan for the Next initiative and a short-term plan to build upon the idea. The committees will concentrate on creating a focus, recruiting industries and companies and discussing expansion possibilities.
Chris Przirembel, a partner with Konduros at SK Strategies and former vice president of research and economic development at Clemson University, chairs one of these committees through his role as vice chairman for community prosperity at the chamber. Przirembel, one of the visionaries behind Clemson’s International Center for Automotive Research campus in Greenville, believes the area around the Next center has great potential to create an attractive connection and gateway to downtown.
“Additional facilities and developing that area could really tie very much into this innovation campus, but it really requires a partnership of the chamber, city, county, local developers and others to develop a cohesive, integrated approach,” Przirembel said.
The committees are only in the brainstorming part of the process. Neither specific building plans have been created nor have properties been identified.
The current Next facility is focused principally, although not exclusively, on IT and software companies. The Next expansion could focus on prototypes and pilots for other types of companies. “We don’t really have any facilities in Greenville that provide space that allows a company to do the prototype, pilot type of work,” Przirembel said.
“The objective is to look at the entire innovation process and the idea of invoice to see how Next can become kind of the one-stop information resource for somebody who is anywhere along that project for either a start-up or existing company,” he said.
This is not seen as an economic development plan, but a one-stop information source for anyone with intellectual property that wants to form a company. The key is customer focus and getting the needs met for the companies through the Next center.
“By far the most critical component is to bring higher-paying job creation for the Upstate and Greenville to move the curve of per-capita income to at least the national average,” Przirembel said.
Chamber Executive Vice President John Moore said special attention is being paid to different industry and company needs when discussing the potential growth. Regardless of location, he said there’s a need to find a place for new companies to go and for existing companies to expand.
“This is growing rapidly. So we went out to the business community and asked: What’s the next big idea or need that transcends the city, the county, the chamber? It’s not about all of these areas. It’s about us working together,” Moore said. “We want to take the time to really think about this process.”
The Greenville Chamber, the city of Greenville, the Hughes Development Corp. and Next created the current center. The Chamber spearheads the Next initiative, but it involves collaboration with numerous community entities.
Current Next member industries include internet technology, advanced materials, biomedical, electronic device, software, nanotechnology and pharmaceutical.
The fully furnished cubicles, writable walls, community café, shower facilities and Nintendo Wii rooms are not exactly typical for office prototypes. This 60,000-square-foot space evokes a sense of community, allowing its inhabitants to connect, collaborate and innovate. (photo/provided)
“We have to be able to attract talent and the breakthrough seems to be crisscrossing different industries in one building so they can be creative,” Moore said. “They don’t just want to be in a cool space, they want to be right across the hall from one another.”
CEO Colin Martin of Promo Pipeline, an information aggregator for the IT sales and distribution chain, is one such example.
“We all talk to each other and help each other. We are interested in each other’s success,” Martin said of his office being a few feet away from other companies. As for potential expansion, Martin said technology companies are ideal with the usually lower overhead and start-up costs.
“There’s no need for a cluster of buildings, but there’s a big need for a cluster of companies to collaborate and be successful in a cost-effective way,” Martin said. “This is just a new twist on an old concept.”
Lab 21, a genetic testing laboratory, helps doctors implement personalized medicine in oncology and infectious diseases by extracting DNA from tissue samples and analyzing the genetic coding to help physicians determine which patients can respond to which drug therapies.
This U.K.-based company decided to make its only U.S. headquarters in the Next center in Greenville because of the recruitment of fast-growing, high-impact “cheetah companies,” President Michael Bolick said.
“It’s the outstanding partnership with developer Bob Hughes and everyone else, the cool building, the neat people here and the structure being able to handle the physical aspects of the laboratory that drew us here,” Bolick said.
The Chamber hopes to develop a growth plan by 2012. There’s hope to find some new funding sources, along with retaining investors that supported the initial Next group. It’s unknown at this time if the current funding model is long-term.
“We’re calling this the Upstate innovation hub. It’s not just Greenville-centric. We’re really looking at connections for 10 counties,” Przirembel said. “The objective is in 10 years for this Upstate innovation hub to be globally recognized as a benchmark or best practice for an entrepreneurial ecosystem. People will literally come here for what they do to truly drive innovation.”