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VIEWPOINT: Innovista campus finds its footing with USC’s willingness to change

By James T. Hammond
Published April 16, 2012

Big ideas can change the world, the state, an institution or one person’s life. But the realization of a vision often depends upon a willingness to adapt to new information, a changing economy or market forces.

JimHamThe University of South Carolina’s Innovista research campus is one such big idea that has been forced to adapt by all of the above.

Today, the “campus” has been redefined. No longer is there an expectation that it will be limited to a few buildings on a dozen blocks between Columbia’s Main Street and the Congaree River. Innovista is becoming more of an idea that can foster startup companies and new products, as well as basic scientific research, anywhere in the region. And that idea is being embraced by the city and the business community.

There’s already one such business in downtown Columbia that is outside the narrow geography once described as Innovista, but which has embraced the idea of the research campus. IT-ology, a consortium of information technology concerns that aims to build IT human capital in the region, set up shop in the tower at 1301 Gervais Street. The building now carries the brand of IT-ology @ Innovista.

In the Upstate, there’s a good example of a world-class applied research and development institution: The Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research.

CU-ICAR would not exist in its current form if Clemson and the Upstate business community had not been willing to change its plans to develop the university’s big idea. The original CU-ICAR concept included a wind tunnel for the auto racing industry. Along came German automaker BMW with plans to build cars in the Upstate, and it quickly became clear that Clemson’s priorities needed re-evaluation.

BMW wanted a world-class graduate school dealing with the arts and science of building cars. And it made its point with a $10 million check to kick-start the graduate research center that now stands prominently beside Interstate 85 in Greenville. There’s no wind tunnel, and you are unlikely to hear any regrets in the Upstate about how the original big idea has changed to meet the needs of South Carolina’s citizens, industry and economic development.

Change is good

In the case of CU-ICAR, change has been good.

USC and Clemson started working on their research campus visions about the same time. The General Assembly fueled those plans by creating an endowed chairs research program to attract talented scientists to the state. Lawmakers also appropriated more than $200 million of state funds for new facilities. With those subsidies, the General Assembly effectively subcontracted high-tech economic development to the universities.

Clemson had a natural advantage in an engineering program that meshed nicely with the needs of BMW. A willingness to adapt to a changing economic and industrial landscape also helped them succeed quickly.

USC did not have a natural partner at the outset. The institution also made some poor leadership decisions for Innovista. Private partners to construct buildings in the campus have so far eluded USC.

Don HerriottBut the university has found a visionary in Don Herriott (pictured, left), former chief of global chemical manufacturing for Roche, who is reshaping the big idea of a research campus. As director of Innovista Partnerships, Herriott has played down the need for more buildings on campus, and emphasized the development of programs and startup companies, as well as attracting great talent. If those initiatives are successful, the buildings will come, he reasons.

And a little luck doesn’t hurt either.

After a run of bad luck in trying to attract developers to construct buildings, USC had the good fortune of two highly successful alumni, South Carolina natives Lou and Bill Kennedy, returning to the fold with a $30 million gift to establish a center of entrepreneurship in pharmacy. That program, currently being developed in concert with the schools of business and pharmacy, is housed in one of the buildings in Innovista, a facility built with the General Assembly’s research campus funds.

Timely benefactors

And the Kennedys, owners of Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corp. of Orlando, Fla., have trumped that gift with the start of construction on a $313 million pharmaceuticals manufacturing and research facility in Lexington County.

Bill Kennedy said at the groundbreaking for the new plant last month that the facility will have substantial provision for research. Talks with USC pharmacy faculty already have led to expectations of new products for the company, he said.

Certainly, the idea of Innovista was not the only factor in bringing the expected 700 new jobs and a major private research facility to the Midlands. But it clearly was one factor in the Kennedys’ thinking when they chose the Saxe Gotha Industrial Park site for their new plant.

The General Assembly envisioned that its investment in research facilities would attract private investment in similar facilities. Even if the Nephron complex will be a few miles down the road in Lexington County, USC and the idea of Innovista played a role in bringing it here.

Let’s not get too hung up on the fact that so far no private research buildings have gone up between Main Street and the Congaree River. If the evolving idea of Innovista is realized, we likely will see private companies put up research buildings in downtown Columbia.

For now, Columbia and South Carolina can say with confidence that Innovista is spurring economic development in the region. And that accomplishment likely will breed further success.

James T. Hammond is editor of the Columbia Regional Business Report. Reach him at 803-401-1094, extension 201.