Bluffton's business incubator building bigger, better nest

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Don Ryan Center for Innovation employees and board members, Town of Bluffton council members, staff and friends join together Nov. 14 for a ceremonial groundbreaking for the new DRCI facility at Buckwalter Place Commerce Park. Manning the shovels, from le

With a new staff, new program and groundbreaking for a new facility, the Don Ryan Center for Innovation seems primed for growing new companies of the future.

The ceremonial groundbreaking was held Nov. 14 at the new site, not far from the original building, in Buckwalter Place Commerce Park.

Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka presided over the event, with Town Council members joining her and officials of DRCI.

The Bluffton-based 501(c)(3) business incubator opened in 2012 to help startup companies and empower innovators. "We've graduated close to 40 companies and mentored and worked with many more," said Trent Williamson, CEO of DRCI. "Graduate companies have created 100-plus jobs. They have generated more than $5 million in annual payroll and another $30 million in annual revenue."

The new 3,000-square-foot space will offer an open and flexible design that allows for classroom-style meetings as well as co-working space with open and dedicated desks. A conference room equipped with state of the art AV equipment will also be included.

"The entire facility will offer fiber internet capabilities. We are looking for as many ways as possible to create 'collisions' for innovative-minded people in our community and this facility will be a great resource to do that," Williamson said.

Among the standout success stories to date are Elongator, Taylor Offshore, Monroney Labels, Green Bug and Village Features.

Williamson said that the center looks for companies that are a good fit for the area's "unique setting and unparalleled way of life. For the business incubator-accelerator program, we are looking for entrepreneurs and innovators who have an idea that is scalable to a sustainable business."

Guiding those with innovative ideas but little experience in setting up a company will be Charles Wohl, DRCI's new vice president of innovation, who has built a completely new acceleration and incubation program that Williamson said will provide great value to entrepreneurs in the region.

Wohl's extensive background includes launching the Innovators in the Woods program in Houston. "That was a clean tech program that focused on sustainability, clean water, clean air, environmentally friendly companies - all of the things that are near and dear to the hearts of people in Bluffton," Wohl said.

Innovators in the Woods was a partnership of the Houston Technology Center and the Houston Advanced Research Center.

Wohl's responsibilities will be to run the DRCI's incubation and acceleration programs, doing the mentoring and coaching for early stage companies.

"We're doing a reset with new staff, building a new program, setting a path for long term," Wohl added. "I get to work all the various pieces and components of all that, from finding builders and advisors to investors."

The acceleration program is an 11-week curriculum where the prospective new businesses attend class three hours one day a week, said Wohl, adding it is "basically teaching Entrepreneurship 101."

The course will include everything someone needs to think about when starting a business. In addition to presentations, there will be outside guest speakers who will talk on everything from intellectual property to legal structure and formation of a corporation, tax structures, types of insurance needed, the importance of marketing and branding and the benefit of learning from the experiences of other entrepreneurs.

"It's a safe, quick, top-level way to find out if you're serious about doing it," Wohl said.

The industries the center is targeting for economic development goals include technology space, biomedical/health care, corporate headquarters, aerospace and information technology.

Williamson said the center's goal is to help Bluffton and the surrounding area become known for being a place where entrepreneurs and innovative companies can flourish.

"Established, primary-industry companies feed off the energy of startups and innovative organizations so we think our organization is building a healthy mix," he said.

Bluffton area residents can also join the DRCI by becoming a member - business plan not required. Williamson said various levels of membership include complimentary registration for monthly events, insider information and the opportunities to connect with business mentors and consultants.

The primary goal, though, will be to attract and grow a diverse community of innovative companies by mentoring and guiding the creators. The staff and mentors at the DRCI will not be building the companies, the innovators will.

"They're not putting their plans in the hands of anybody," said Wohl. "They're doing everything. They're just getting outside mentoring and coaching. We're just helping make a more encouraging and conducive environment for success."

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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