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Upstate Moves to Ignite and Sustain an Innovation Ecosystem in the Manufacturing Industry

September 15, 2014

The power of innovation is an ongoing discussion throughout the manufacturing industry – what’s not to be overlooked is the power that a strong advanced manufacturing society can have on driving innovation. Developing an innovation “eco-system” is one of the key priorities for the Upstate in its mission to expand the value chain of its existing advanced manufacturing economy.

In a recent article on America’s manufacturing future, Jefferey L. Chidester, Director of Policy Programs at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center,  discussed America’s ability to win in the future in manufacturing with big trends and small firms: “The future of American manufacturing will be won by innovative small and medium-sized companies out to change the world – but only if they have the tools they need to compete.”

While many areas throughout the country have innovative companies, not everyone has a tool box that includes state and private funding, university-research driven education, creative incubation hubs and most importantly, stories of success.

For the State of South Carolina, the Upstate is leading the innovation game. In total, the Upstate accounted for more than 60% of the patents from the state’s top metro areas over the past decade. In the Upstate patents originate from both large multi-national organizations such as GE Power & Water, Electrolux, Michelin, and Milliken in addition to applied research at Clemson University, which has resulted in several successful spin-off companies like Poly-Med, Kiyatec, and Advanced Photonic Crystals.

Earlier this year, GE Power & Water announced plans to invest more than $400 million over the next ten years in Greenville, S.C., the Upstate’s biggest city, to “drive development of best-in-class technology,” with the expansion of the company’s advanced manufacturing capabilities, including the construction of a state-of-the-art Power & Water advanced manufacturing facility. Check out this video for GE’s take on a new era of manufacturing and how innovation is impacting the industry today:

As the Upstate’s manufacturing strength grows, the state of South Carolina has demonstrated its commitment to leading innovation with the Department of Commerce’s new  Office of Innovation. This office is focused on strengthening the innovation and technology-based job creation power in South Carolina. One example of these efforts is the South Carolina Innovation Challenge, providing up to $2.5 million in competitive funding for projects that focus on fostering technology-based economic development, entrepreneurship and innovation through university collaboration, local government participation or public-private partnerships. Projects at 14 organizations throughout the state have already received funding, including four projects in the Upstate: the NEXT Ecosystem Expansion, Innovate Electric City, STEMLinx: South Carolina’s One Stop Discovery Site for STEM Resources and Spartanburg Entrepreneurial Resource Network.

The Upstate Carolina Angel Network (UCAN), a group of accredited investors who invest in and support start-up companies and early-stage high growth businesses, has also been instrumental in supporting projects in the Upstate. UCAN was recently ranked No. 8 out of 370 angel investor groups by CB Insights, a New York City firm that tracks investments in private companies. The funding that UCAN provides helps keep entrepreneurs in the Upstate for development—a crucial element in sustaining the Upstate’s innovation eco-system. Further, angel investment groups like UCAN have helped nurture the success of small to midsize start-ups in South Carolina such as Selah Genomics, which  was acquired by EKF Diagnostics, a UK-based point-of-care diagnostics firm in April 2014 in a deal valued at over $70 million—more than 10 times UCAN’s investment.

Industry and education collaboration is another important way that the Upstate is sustaining innovation in manufacturing. As many companies in the U.S. are facing a manufacturing talent shortage, the Upstate is building the pipeline for industry-ready educational development.

Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research provides a great example on the graduate level, but the Upstate is also exploring ways to implement innovation and creative inquiry based curriculum much earlier in the educational experience beginning with the opening of A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering in 2009, the first engineering and technology based elementary school in South Carolina. The start of the 2014 school year has also brought new developments in a STEM-based education program at three Upstate middle schools and two high schools, where classrooms are starting to look more like a technical work place than a classroom, with the goal of preparing students for the jobs of the future.

While it’s clear that the Upstate holds a wide breadth of industry expertise today, it is forward-thinking moves like South Carolina’s creation of the Office of Innovation and the integration of STEM based curriculum and creative inquiry at all stages of the education system that have the power to sustain an ecosystem of innovation in the long term. The nexus between education, industry and government in the Upstate is the catalyst for its future success.

For more information on how the Upstate has become a center for innovation, please visit: https://www.upstatescalliance.com/about-upstate/upstate-sc-overview. 

TOPICS: Manufacturing, News You Can Use, Rankings & Recognitions, Upstate Thoughts