In May 2021 I met with a cross-section of the Upstate’s startup community at NEXT on Main, a second location for incubator and coworking organization NEXT Upstate that opened in in downtown Greenville in 2015 following the 2007 opening of the NEXT Innovation Center. NEXT, which supports more than 120 high-growth companies, is one of more than 50 incubators and coworking spaces that have sprung up in the region, backed by a blend of public and private organizations.
Cliff Holekamp, cofounder, managing director and general partner, Cultivation Capital, relocated to Greenville in 2020 to open Cultivation’s first office outside St. Louis. The early-stage venture capital investment firm, which specializes in tech from the coastal markets, is involved in about 60 deals a year, and was looking to expand its East Coast presence. Going virtual at the onset of the pandemic, as it did for many, sparked a change in perspective.
“I had more flexibility than I thought I did with regard to where I was living, and how the company was thinking about location and geography,” Holekamp said. “We looked from Arizona to Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Texas. After full analysis, we ended up in Greenville.”
Unfollowing the Crowd
Scott Pancoast is CEO and founder of Zylö Therapeutics, which has developed a proprietary topical delivery system for various medical applications. He was a San Diego biotech leader for two decades, at one time leading the San Diego Venture Group, whose meetings he watched balloon from a handful of people to an average attendance of 450 10 years in. He was first introduced to Greenville when his son attended Furman University. The idea of the city as a place to do business didn’t arise until he was working with Professor Joel Friedman at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, and the topic of site selection came up in connection to his nascent company.
“He said it had to be New Jersey or the Philadelphia area,” Pancoast remembers, “one of those centers of life sciences.” But Pancoast looked seriously at Greenville’s incentives, then learned about the broader and growing ecosystem for startups. He was further convinced by the area’s reputation for manufacturing, as Zylö was considering manufacturing the small silica topical drugholder system itself. Once he started hearing about institutional support from NEXT and the South Carolina Research Authority (SCRA), “I made the decision to start the thing here,” he says.
His home is two blocks away from NEXT. Lab space was found at the Clemson University Biomedical Engineering Innovation Campus (CUBEInc.) at Prisma Health Patewood Hospital. A first round of financing was led by Venture South, a growing affiliation of angel venture capital groups in 15 cities that got started in Greenville. Two grants have come from the SCRA as has $200,000 of investment. For manufacturing, Zylö in November 2020 moved into a former Michelin showroom facility with 25-ft.-clear ceilings that can be outfitted as a “box in a box” in the event the company needs a cleanroom environment.
He says Zylö is also benefiting from a regulatory environment quite different from California’s. “To wit,” he says, “every sales tax audit we or my portfolio companies had in California, they are basically told that you don’t leave the audit until there’s a finding. There were all these claims. Very frustrating. Contrast it with the first sales tax audit here. He said, ‘You guys are screwing it all up. Here are five tax exemptions you’ve been missing. Look back five years and I’ll help you do it.’
“We’re in the line of airplane approaches for Greenville Spartanburg International Airport, so it was an extra two weeks for a permit,” Pancoast continues. “But it was nothing. In California, I may have never gotten a permit, and if so, it would have been held up forever.”
California is still a global model for both venture capital and life sciences. But the Upstate could be home to types of hubs other than those attached to Michelin tires.
“This has a long way to go to be a San Diego,” Pancoast says, “but it continues to flourish, and I see continuing evidence it will get to be something people outside the Southeast will have heard of.”
Both Pancoast and Holekamp credit university connectivity with helping them ramp up their own networking and talent connectivity. Holekamp, who served as the first full-time faculty member in entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis, knows a blossoming ecosystem when he sees one, and likes what he’s seeing from Clemson, Furman and other schools. “For any entrepreneurial ecosystem, you have to have a combination of talent and density,” he says. “Talent is number one, and having universities as strong partners is really important. The fact that Anthony is at this table right now and not sitting on campus is huge.”
That would be Anthony Herrera, executive director of Furman University’s Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. The former Toyota leadership development executive from Texas is leading Furman’s entrance into the innovation space.
“Furman hadn’t really played in this space,” he says, “and was not really thought of as a stakeholder in the universe of entrepreneurship.” But they are now. He envisions a time when Furman, Clemson, the University of South Carolina and other schools form a brainpower nexus to rival what UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke and North Carolina State University have done in the Research Triangle. Connecting to the entrepreneurial world is a strategic priority for the school. There’s even a side benefit: All the Furman parents like Scott Pancoast who suddenly discover a region while visiting their child on campus.
“I’ve heard that story multiple times,” Holekamp attests. Herrera admits it’s part of his duties now. “I meet with parents now who are looking to move their companies here.”
Jacob Hickman, director of business recruitment for the Upstate SC Alliance, is at the table too, and notes how cultivating firms like Cultivation and Zylö is the next level for a region already saturated in advanced manufacturing. He doesn’t need to say much more, because the company leaders are saying it for him. “I’m on the road all the time, looking for the next Scott,” he says of Pancoast.
“I’ve lived in eight different cities, including New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Oklahoma City,” Pancoast says. “We love Greenville. And recruiting from out of state is a lot harder in New Jersey than Greenville. We’ve recruited five people, and there is not one bit of evidence of resistance to moving to Greenville.”
John Moore, principal, Momenteum Strategies, and the founder and former CEO of NEXT, says the hotness of the market can even sometimes become an HR issue. He was recently at lunch with leaders from a large corporation in the area that brings in people from all over the world. “They complained they had a big problem,” he says. “People wanted a position here, or they were exiting.”
For Holekamp, the Upstate made sense from a personal perspective and from a growing business perspective. “Our firm is focused on developing ecosystems in second-tier markets. I looked at Atlanta, Raleigh and Charlotte, but as a company we would not have an opportunity to be a leader in the community. We did that in St. Louis. I want to do that again. Here, we have an impact on the community, but proximity to deal flow in Charlotte, Atlanta and Raleigh. I’ve been here four months and I have done a deal in each of those cities.”
It’s a contagious philosophy at Cultivation and a growing number of venture organizations — to not just be takers of resources, but community builders. It resonates. “We earn the respect of the entrepreneurs because they see we are leaders in our community, building the entrepreneurial system we operate in,” Holekamp says.
If there is one challenge now, it’s the same as everywhere else: talent provision.
A focus on diversity, equity and inclusion is one avenue NEXT, Clemson, Furman and others are taking. Ken Brower, interim CEO, NEXT Upstate, says 33 of the 121 companies NEXT supports are female- or minority-owned, and the most recent Zoom call had the most diverse crowd he’d seen in a long time. But he knows there are many more faces to be discovered.
“While we support 121 companies, there are probably 400 we should be involved with,” he says. “We are making a very intentional effort.”
Among the spaces in the Upstate breathing life into the entrepreneurial scene is Village Launch, which “exists to equip and enable under-resourced entrepreneurs to become providers, creators and contributors in their community,” and is part of Mill Community Ministries in Greenville, headed by Furman University alumnus Dan Weidenbenner. Herrera calls the social enterprise organization the town’s “best kept secret,” with a roster of entrepreneurs that is 90% Black, and fast-growing numbers of women and Hispanic founders.
An additional 7-acre innovation district is rising along Poinsett Highway, within an Opportunity Zone on land between Greenville and the Furman campus. The project is a collaboration between Hartness Development, Furman University and its Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. With plans for Flywheel Coworking and others to invest there, the district is intended to provide entrepreneurs of all demographics with access to resources.
Furman’s I&E office itself is forging new partnerships: University President Elizabeth Davis announced in December that the Furman I&E would move into NEXT on Main. The move came a year after the NEXT Fellows program launched in order to engage and retain top entrepreneur talent at Clemson University and Furman.
“It’s much easier to have a seat at the table and to help bring organizations together around a table when that table is literally steps away in a shared space,” Herrera said.
“This is an excellent opportunity for our students, faculty and staff to engage in meaningful work with the city,” said Davis, “and to help make Greenville a leading innovation hub in the country.”