Is Columbia an entrepreneurship hub?

SOCO BullStreet
SOCO BullStreet (a.k.a. home to COLAtoday) | photo by @BullStreetSC

#Voices: 14 incubators in Cola

Columbia has a growing entrepreneurial spirit fostered by annual competitive comparison reports, available incubator programs, and a community willing to push the envelope.

There’s something for everyone – but most of the programs for budding entrepreneurs and innovative startups often fly just below the radar. Sure, you’ve probably heard of the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator, but most Soda Citizens probably don’t know the extent of what they do and how they do it.

The region’s livabilitya measurement based on “employment in arts and entertainment, healthcare access, commute time, vitality, cost of living, crime and overall wellbeing”is above average according to the 2017 Regional Competitiveness Report. Meanwhile, we continue to seek improvement in the areas of talent, innovative capacity, and entrepreneurial + business environment. Cue the insane amount of incubator options in the Greater Columbia area.

Let’s break up the local incubator market into some manageable, strategic categories:

  1. Creative Incubators
  2. Technology and Business Incubators
  3. University and College-Level Incubators
  4. and Coworking Spaces.

Creative Incubators 🎭

The Cafe at Richland Library Main opened in February, operated by Chef Sarah Simmons and her husband Aaron Hoskins. Drawing from their own experiences in the food and beverage industry (from New York City with Birds & Bubbles and City Grit to Columbia with Rise Bakeshop), the two business partners are developing an incubator program for aspiring Columbia restaurateurs. Participants are selected by the duo to obtain hands-on experience operating a downtown restaurant in a low-risk environment. Isn’t that reason enough to pop the bubbly?

food and menu from Richland Library's The Cafe
Photo by @colatoday

Soda City Market is Soda City’s namesake – a European-inspired street market that brings together creative class professionals year-round. (Full disclosure: I work here.) Since its inception in November 2005 under the name “All Locals Farmers Market,” the weekly event has expanded from merely 6 vendors to over 150 vendors, spanning 3 blocks of Main Street. The growth has allowed greater cultural inclusion, increased profit for the involved small businesses, and more opportunity for additional ventures outside of the regular Saturday commitment. Soda City Market serves as a incubator of sorts for the product makers of Columbia, looking to explore their passion projects and make a profit. Outside of coaching vendors through the process of reserving a spot on the map to optimal space set-up, the Soda City team strives to leverage brand activations for improved promotional + social media engagement results. Success stories range from Indah Coffee, now the proud owner of a Cottontown brick-and-mortar, to Avocado Toast, the operator of Avocado Toast SC and Avocado Toast CA …yep, as in California.

Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College has been helping mold performing artists’ careers in Columbia via the Performance Incubator since 2012. Participating professional performers are encouraged to create and maintain their own career opportunities through the process of developing new work that could tour other theatres + venues after presentation. Connecting local performers with visiting artists is another aspect of the program, helping to educate and influence a higher level of professional development and experimentation. According to the program’s website, four Performance Incubator alumni productions continue to tour the Southeast and maintain profit. Kristen Cobb, Executive Director of the Harbison Theatre, took some time to elaborate: “The Incubator Series is an important component to the work of Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College.  Our most recent show, Misery is Optional—Recollections of Recovery played to an almost full house. The hope is that with the launch here at Harbison, the show will be able to tour throughout the Southeast to many venues and allow the director, producer, and actors to see the project manifest into a successful and impactful theatre piece.” Other past incubator artists include Columbia’s newly-named Jazz Ambassador, Mark Rapp.

701 Center for Contemporary Art hosts an Artist-in-Residence program, creating an educationally engaging environment and challenging local, regional, national + international artists to creatively blend art and the Columbia community. Exhibitions and public presentations are an integral aspect of each six, ten, and twelve week residencies. We’re talking more than just canvas art here, people.

Exhibition by sculptor Dustin Farnsworth at 701 Center for Contemporary Art
Exhibition by sculptor Dustin Farnsworth at 701 Center for Contemporary Art | Photo by @ashcadd

Tapp’s Arts Center is a self-proclaimed “giant artistic laboratory” in the heart of downtown Columbia. Offerings range from providing 30 affordable studio spaces to executing a slew of events aimed at creative education and advancement. Similar to 701 CCA, Tapp’s developed an artist-in-residence program called Tapp’s Initiative Artist in Residence. Three artists are hosted each year, working through months of research and development before completing a site-specific project and solo-exhibition. The program’s mission is to convey a sense of understanding toward contemporary art, various modes of practice, and the impact of visual language in local culture. Seriously, it’s cool to take a look inside some of the workspaces in the Tapp’s building. Not to mention a visit here also makes for an out-of-the-box date night.

Technology and Business Incubators 🖥

USC/Columbia Technology Incubator: Helping turn entrepreneurial ideas into technology startups. This innovation center boasts three distinct programs. CoLab is best suited for freelancers needing an inviting coworking space. LaunchPad is a ten week training camp for  testing and validating ideas using proven startup methodology. Last, the Business Incubation, which has successfully molded startup companies for the last 20 years, is all-inclusive. Ultimately, the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator is the collaborative brainchild of the City of Columbia and the University of South Carolina that strives to recruit and develop tech-oriented companies for more job creation and the deeper integration of innovative technology. Curiosity Coffee a Soda City Market vendor + Vino Garage’s other half – went through the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator. Admittedly, business partners Sandra + Greg weren’t actively looking for an incubator at the time, but found working with a spectrum of startups to be helpful when were building their business model. And if you’re a graduate of the incubator, you’re a part of the family for life. A year and a half after Curiosity Coffee completed the course, they still leverage the incubator team to bounce ideas off of and receive immeasurable insight from.

Curiosity Coffee
Curiosity Coffee | Photo by @curiositycoffeebar

For independent entrepreneurs and startup companies in search of the perfect location for day-to-day operations and manufacturing business functions, you’ll find what you need at SCRA USC Innovation Center. The space is adjacent to the University’s Engineering School, the McNair Center and EngenuitySC. Talk about quick and easy collaboration.

I3, the University of South Carolina College of Social Work’s baby, serves to support social sector organizations that are “developing new and innovative ways to better address social problems” in S.C. through expert mentoring, relevant networking, and “rapid-cycle” testing.  Sustainability is the name of the game with 7 distinct stages of incubation (idea selection, project planning, idea refinement, prototyping, evaluation, outreach, and grow). Richland County Public Defender’s Office and Autism Academy of South Carolina are currently enrolled, tweaking programs and campaigns to combat juvenile reentry and address job-training and employment placement, respectively.

University and College-Level Incubators 🎓

Benedict College has an Incubator Program dubbed the Business Development Center, established in 2002 to encourage small business ownership and improvement among minorities in the Columbia region. With the focus on more than just an academic education, businesses are given the opportunity for real-world experience paired with financial + technical support. Overhead costs are minimized and economic capacity is increased. Developed under the Tyrone Adam Burroughs School of Business and Economics, the Business Development Center programming strives to “provide a vehicle to increase contracting opportunities between small businesses and large corporationsas a community-focused initiative.

Meanwhile, the UofSC’s Faber Entrepreneurship Center is based on two distinct priorities. First, “facilitating education, experiential opportunities, and research that nurture and foster the entrepreneurial spirit of the University of South Carolina to create future domestic and global entrepreneurs.” And second, “providing students with intensive exposure to entrepreneurial concepts, small business management training and interaction with a network of successful entrepreneurs in South Carolina.” FEC is certainly a more internationally-driven program, much inline with the Darla Moore School of Business’s widely acclaimed International Business program. Makes sense. According to their webpage and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “over half a million businesses are started each year, and studies by the Kauffman Foundation show that net job growth occurs in the U.S. economy only through startup firms.” Wowzers.

The McNair Center for Entrepreneurialism calls Columbia College home. Serving both undergraduate and graduate students, the McNair Center connects aspiring entrepreneurs with regional innovation communities and local movers and shakers. Through proven programming, student participants are provided “education, apprenticeships, mentoring, capital access and professional skills development.” Within the McNair Center for Entrepreneurialism are The McNair Entrepreneurship Fellowship, the Micro Seed Fund, the Columbia College Entrepreneur-Mentor Network, and the McNair Entrepreneurship Cabinet. From business modeling and design to speaker series, a mix of local and “study away” coursework is encouraged. Fellows are also paired with practicing professionals through speaker series and lifelong learning initiatives. The opportunity for funding is available for students and alumni through the completion of the Micro Seed Fund application and selection process. Lastly, the Cabinet represents a diverse makeup of industry sectors and have the ability to provide pro-bono advisement to the College and its student body (which is 73% female). #GirlPower

Midlands Technical College has its own program as well: the Center for Entrepreneurial Success (CES). CES focuses on helping students become their own bosses, and turning business ideas into real businesses. The program provides an “entrepreneurial toolbox” to help budding biz owners thrive by leveraging the people, services + technology of both MTC and a community of (real, successful; really successful) local entrepreneurs. Offerings include mentor services, state-of-the-art workspaces to create things like blueprints and drawings, prototyping, engineering + technical reviews; and connections with community partners.

Coworking Spaces 💼

Two locations, one great community for creators. SOCO Vista and SOCO BullStreet give creatives compelling and connected spaces to work effectively. Programming for SOCO-nians helps create a more connected community whilst supplying opportunities for designers, developers, makers, entrepreneurs to “hone their skills, grow their craft, and build things the world needs.”

SOCO BullStreet
SOCO BullStreet (a.k.a. home to COLAtoday) | photo by @BullStreetSC

Richland Library has rebranded and grown their footprint using a human-centric design and development plan and execution. Within their Main Street location on the second floor sits an adult makerspace, fully equipped with tools and other supplies. It’s the perfect room for creating prototypes for techies and non-techies, alike. Science, technology, engineering and art are blended through innovative ideas and testing. Do Good Columbia teams utilized the makerspace in fall 2017 to compile a slew of river-focused development ideas, bringing them to life for judges to determine which project would be executed. The space is open to the public and any entrepreneur/tech-enthusiast/small business/etc. can use the space for free.


Want more info? SC Innovation Hub supplies more in-depth information on startup programs, innovation centers, investors, coworking spaces + research infrastructures across our state. Start by creating a profile and connect with the tribe that best fits you.

Put your thinking caps on, join a bland brainstorming session or shoot for the stars by joining a cool local incubator program. After all, there’s plenty of them. Hello, resources.

Stay creative, stay collaborative + stay fabulous,

Heather Cooper, PR Director for Soda City + fitness trainer

This is a #Voices contributor submission. Want to write your own? Here’s how.


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