Charleston area leads state in business innovation grants

Phil Vasilevski, a Charleston Digital Corridor CODEcamp instructor, boots up a computer in the training classroom at a 2012 session.

Business incubators in the Charleston region on Tuesday brought home more of the state's first innovation grants than those from any other part of the state.

With 35 percent of the $2.4 million handed out by the Commerce Department, four Charleston area organizations are among 14 across the state selected to receive inaugural grant funds to encourage high-tech and entrepreneurial economic development.

All of the grants must be matched by nonstate funds, and a second round is expected to be announced later this year.

The Charleston Digital Corridor Foundation's software education initiative CODEcamp will receive $247,000; the College of Charleston's International Cross-Curricular Accelerator for Technology, or I-CAT, will pick up $250,000; the Harbor Entrepreneur Center in Mount Pleasant will receive $250,000; and Lowcountry Local First of Charleston will get $100,000.

CODEcamp focuses on developing new talent and providing students with hands-on training, mentorship and networking to enter the workplace and develop high-tech software skills.

"The grant will allow us to strengthen the existing programs and update the computer lab and spend a little more time with students," said Ernest Andrade, director of the Charleston Digital Corridor. "It has the effect of developing the workforce for the technology industry in Charleston."

The College of Charleston computer science department set up a software innovations laboratory a few years back to help students take an idea from development to commercialization.

The $250,000 grant will be used to scale up what's been done in the lab by broadening its reach into the business and liberal arts departments, said Christopher Starr, chairman of the college's computer science department.

"We would like to have teams of three students from three different departments - business for an entrepreneur, computer science for technology and software, and liberal arts for creative input," Starr said. "A secondary effect of this program will be the ability of the computer science department to recruit more capable students from South Carolina high schools and top high schools across the U.S. because it can be included in scholarship packages."

Starr said 84 percent of the college's computer science graduates stay in state, and the program will help the talent pipeline even more. It will roll out its first students in the spring of 2015.

The Harbor Entrepreneur Center plans to use the money to open four more sites across the Lowcountry where business founders with at least $250,000 in revenue and three employees meet and share ideas, said John Osborne, co-founder and director.

The other sites are planned for North Charleston, Summerville, peninsular Charleston and either West Ashley or James Island.

"The geography of Charleston lends itself to staying isolated," Osborne said. "You can find entrepreneurs in Mount Pleasant who never connect with those in Summerville or with those in James Island. This draws them out, and they bump into one another. If they communicate with one another, they will do more good stuff."

The first couple of sites ideally will be open by year's end, he said.

Lowcountry Local First's grant will help foster programs such as Local Works, a community co-working facility, and Dirt Works Incubator Farm to offer resources of mentorship, educational opportunities and connecting to funding in the region.

Other grant recipients are in Anderson, Beaufort, Darlington, Florence, Greenville, Horry, Pickens, Richland, Spartanburg and York counties.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524.