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Incubator for Innovation

DON RYAN CENTER EXPANDS OPPORTUNITIES FOR STARTUPS AND GROWING BUSINESSES

When Louise R. Hodges entered the inaugural class of Bluffton’s Don Ryan Center for Innovation in 2012, it was like taking Business 101, she said.

The lessons paid off for Hodges’ Greenbug, Inc., and now the business owner is back with DRCI as a member of the Growth Program for businesses seeking assistance in the growth phase.

Greenbug is one of 50 businesses incubated at the DRCI since the town started it eight years ago. Early this year, the town completed a new facility for DRCI at Buckwalter Place Commerce Park.

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Known as The HUB, the facility offers a flexible workspace for individuals and small businesses who are DRCI members or are enrolled in one of the Innovation Programs.

Bluffton created the non-profit to support startups and fledgling companies that could help grow the area’s economy. It now has the Growth Program for expanding businesses, said David Nelems, vice president of innovation. The Resiliency Program was added earlier this year to offer businesses short-term help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The DRCI has been instrumental in our success as the support from the beginning was paramount to a good foundation,” Hodges said. “Now that we are in the Growth Program, we are working harder on our business as opposed to working in our business, which is key to long-term success.”

Producers of eco-friendly pest control products made from cedar, Hodges and her husband, Dan Hodges, 63, went to the DRCI with an idea that became the Greenbug System, which offers automatic pest control through lawn sprinklers, she said.

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Greenbug contracts out its production to the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Center, which employs disabled adults.

The center is now helping Greenbug as it looks to expand into new markets, she said.

“They helped us prioritize, develop business plans and find partners to help us,” said Hodges, 59, who serves on the DRCI Board of Directors.

DRCI’s new location provides members with high-speed internet; computers; design and creative software; monthly education webinars; special Facebook groups; and meeting rooms. The idea is for entrepreneurs to be able to interact with, and provide support for, one another, said CEO Mike Levine.

Because of COVID-19, the center has waived annual membership fees ($99 for individuals and $450 for businesses with up to five employees) and rent for The Hub for 12 months from the time of sign-up, Levine said.

davidn3Innovator Karam Tascoe, 41, turned to DRCI about a year ago when he decided to move his business concept from idea to actuality. He is developing what he calls a web-based marketplace (called RightNowHelp) that will connect people looking for temporary workers to those seeking such employment.

“It’s like a Craigslist 2.0, but we will have done background checks for security and allow parties to exchange funds electronically,” he said.

DRCI tries to have 12 companies in the incubator annually. Applicants go through several evaluation steps, Nelems said.

“If it is a good fit, we invite them to a pitch event before the entrepreneur committee,” he said. “They have 15 minutes to pitch and then they go through 15 minutes of questions.”

The five-member committee assesses whether DRCI can help the entrepreneur move forward with his or her idea. They are looking for companies that can be based in Bluffton and Beaufort County, but have the potential for a regional or national reach. Nelems said there isn’t one thing that makes a startup successful.

“In my experience, you want the right idea and person who can manage all of the different things that have to happen to start a company,” said Nelems, a serial entrepreneur who once ran DRCI.

He left to help a graduate evolve their business and when that contract expired, returned to the center in his current role.

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“It’s challenging to start your own business but with the tools, resources and advice we offer, we make it easier,” he said.

The DRCI has more than 42 active volunteer mentors, mainly from this area, said Nelems, noting it has counseled more than 150 companies or individuals.

Ned Nielsen turned to DRCI for help in 2014 when he was trying to raise capital for his business. His original idea was turned down when pitched, said Nielsen, 73, who was once a multi-franchised car dealer.

Nelems helped him plot out a plan on a whiteboard.

Now, MonroneyLabels.com manufactures and sells automotive factory “as-built” data to new-and-used car dealers, insurance companies and salvage yards, Nielsen said.

“Our company wants to be an example for other small companies on how the Don Ryan Center can move their company forward,” Nielsen said.