When Scott Pancoast was raising money for his health-care startup earlier this year, one of the most important stops was a country club in his hometown of Greenville, S.C. His presentation drew almost 50 angel investors, twice the number that showed up when he pitched to potential funders in Charleston, S.C., and Charlotte, N.C.
“It was a very, very strong showing,” Pancoast says. “Having that kind of inclination to support local entrepreneurial activities was stunning to me.”
Startups such as Pancoast’s have pride of place in Greenville, whose downtown is sprinkled with young businesses the way coffee shops now dominate the main drag in other cities. Zylö Therapeutics LLC’s office is in a co-working space on Main Street that houses about a dozen other fledgling companies. ChartSpan Medical Technologies Inc., a digital medical records startup with 120 local employees, is nearby.
Early stage companies in Greenville have received funding from VentureSouth, the local group Pancoast spoke to at the country club. Its 230 angel investors in North and South Carolina have funneled $28 million to 61 companies.
Pancoast moved to the city partly for family reasons and has been “surprised” by the budding infrastructure available to startups. His company is developing nanotechnology that delivers medicines and therapeutic agents through the skin. He says the city is “rich” in bioengineering and chemical engineering talent.
Jon-Michial Carter, ChartSpan’s co-founder and CEO, recalls that after making a pitch to almost 600 local investors, he got a message from Greenville’s Office of Economic Development requesting a meeting. After talking, the agency helped him secure 100,000 square feet of office space. “Nobody in Silicon Valley would help me like this,” says Carter, which is why if a potential investor tells him he needs to relocate to New York or California, “it is a short conversation.”
ChartSpan’s revenue grew 334 percent last year and will expand 110 percent this year, Carter predicts, adding he’s been able to recruit staff from the largest metro areas, “people who share our view of fatigue of working in a big city.”
This city of 670,000, a onetime hub for textile and apparel production, seems to have found the answer to the question confounding the U.S. right now: How do you revive postindustrial towns and make them part of the knowledge economy?
In per capita terms, the city’s rate of new business creation approaches that of Boston, one of the country’s hotbeds of innovation. Here’s another marker of economic dynamism: Greenville’s population grew almost 20 percent from 2000 to 2016.
Greenville’s transformation includes decades of political commitment to creating a community that’s appealing to college graduates and high-skilled workers. The city also has access to technology and research talent from nearby Clemson University and state-of-the-art manufacturing plants turning out Michelin tires and BMWs.
“We look at Greenville as where we want to be—what they created downtown and all the startups,” says Eva Doss, chief executive officer of the Launch Place, a company that provides consulting services and seed capital to companies that create high-paying local jobs.
Greenville had almost 5 young businesses per 1,000 people in 2014, the latest year for which data are available—close to the national total of 5.2, Boston’s 5.5, and Chicago’s 5.6.
Greenville has excelled at creating an appealing—and walkable—commercial district. The scenic riverfront features a park bordered by a mixed-use development, a waterfall, and a pedestrian bridge. “Twenty years ago, you didn’t want to go downtown,” says David Condrey, who started a data management and security software business with his wife, Mary, in 1998. Now “we have people that live downtown and walk to work.”
State and local entities have been willing to encourage such efforts, with the goal of creating what economists call innovation clusters. Take Kiyatec Inc., a nine-year-old company that analyzes tumor cells to predict the most effective therapies for treating a patient’s cancer. Greenville Health System, a regional nonprofit, provided lab space on the same floor as its flagship hospital’s cancer institute, while South Carolina Research Authority, a state-chartered nonprofit, has provided more than $500,000 in grants and equity investments.
Thanks to Craig Torres and Catarina Saraiva for Article Context