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Benefitfocus is on the hunt for companies to mentor and add to its benefits platform. File/Staff/Brad Nettles

Benefitfocus Inc. wants to add as many choices to its benefits platform as possible to keep employees healthy, and now it wants to help companies develop those options.

It is the first time the cloud-based Daniel Island software company, which sells a platform where workers can choose and buy their benefits, has had an accelerator program. The publicly traded firm isn't offering money or taking a stake in the companies, but it is offering mentorship, the use of its office space and the chance to break into the benefits market.

The 15-week program, called InnovationPlace, starts in December. The company is closing the application process this week, on Oct. 31. 

Benefitfocus announced its new accelerator this year at its One Place conference this spring. Natalist, which sells fertility goods on a subscription basis, was the first member company. The startup recently closed on a $5 million seed round of investments.

Companies spend about $2 trillion per year on employees' "unwellness," said Patti Leahy, vice president of transformation for Benefitfocus. Those costs stem from chronic conditions, stress, injuries, and anything else that results in lessened productivity. 

"It's a big cost problem for employers," Leahy said. "Investors are pouring billions into this industry."

Benefitfocus wants to mentor companies that are offering wellness solutions — really, "anything that's going to make your health better," Leahy said. That could also include financial wellness.

If the program works out, the startup would be able to list its product on Benefitfocus' platform, where millions of employees around the country go to select their benefits every year. Benefitfocus is also inviting a group of investors to meet with startups that complete the program.

To qualify, companies need to already have some investments lined up. Companies based in the Charleston area will be given a preference, Leahy said, but startups from anywhere are encouraged to apply. 

Rural broadband

Rural South Carolina is getting a signal boost with new funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture

The agency is providing $9.8 million in grant funding to Orangeburg County, which in turn will invest the money in its internet infrastructure. Specifically, the county would run fiber optic cables to bring connections closer to homes and businesses.

The grant is expected to improve broadband access to about 3,900 households, 21 farms, 17 businesses, 13 educational facilities, a health care center and more. The county agreed to match part of the federal grant with $3.3 million. In its application to the USDA, the county said 1,090 households lack a sufficient broadband connection. 

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"From enhanced health care access to modernizing our educational and workforce resources, these funds will be instrumental in ensuring that Orangeburg County, and all of South Carolina, will remain competitive in the global economy," Gov. Henry McMaster said in a statement.

News of the USDA program funding for South Carolina came a few days after the agency announced it would give $2.9 million in similar funding to Tennessee, the first award in the program that USDA is calling ReConnect. More awards will follow: Congress sent $600 million to the USDA to improve internet availability in rural America. 

The announcement coincided with trip to Orangeburg by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. On Tuesday, Perdue paid a visit to a local farm and announced the grant program.

More of the money could be coming to South Carolina if a handful of other applications are approved. 

Roughly 537,000 South Carolinians don’t have an adequate internet connection at home — about 11 percent of the state’s population, and 26 percent of the rural population.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.