Group seeks high-tech culture

There is no reason what happened in Austin, where a University of Texas student named Michael Dell started a company from his dorm room, couldn’t happen in Columbia or Orangeburg.

“There is nothing about Dell Computer that couldn’t happen in South Carolina.” said John Warner, founder of InnoVenture, an Upstate organization dedicated to helping create high-impact companies.

But what Austin, Texas, has and what S.C. cities do not have is entrepreneurial cultures and infrastructure.

The drive to build such cultures in South Carolina long has been a passion for the 45-year-old Warner.

Since leaving his post in June as vice president of strategy at Kemet Corp. in Simpsonville, Warner has focused more and more on what it will take to make South Carolina a launching pad for the next Dell or Google.

On a recent trip to Austin, Warner was struck that several major companies, like Dell, were started by 19-24 year olds. But those entrepreneurs didn’t do it alone.

Someone took those bright young people under his or her wing and showed them how to build a business, Warner said.

In Dell’s case it was George Kozmetsky, dean of the University of Texas business school and a successful entrepreneur himself.

William Hewlett and David Packard got their start in what became known as Silicon Valley with the help of the head of Stanford University’s electrical engineering department.

Warner hopes to use InnoVenture, the Upstate organization he began as a way to host an annual venture capital conference, as a vehicle for the growth of similar businesses.

InnoVenture is going to begin to focus on: “How do we take really bright, talented people and give them an infrastructure so that they can really dream big and start companies that can be worth $80 billion 20 years from now?”

To help make that happen, InnoVenture is looking at two initiatives: the Prism Project and Snow Island.

The Prism Project would identify the best and brightest young talent in the state and help introduce them to the region’s most innovative and entrepreneurial organizations.

And importantly, Prism would help identify talent that reflects the diversity of the state.

Only two African-Americans attended InnoVenture 2005, Warner said. “There is a very talented group of people in that community that need to be a part of this and we are missing that talent base somehow,” he said.

But the key, Warner said, is, “You make this list because you’re very good and you’re very smart, and you have the potential to be among the best in the world at what you do.”

You then need to provide an infrastructure to help those young people create businesses. That is where Snow Island comes in.

Snow Island, named after the retreat where Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion went to plot strategy, would be a process run by InnoVenture.

Warner takes much of his inspiration from Marion’s exploits. His Swamp Fox Web list and Swamp Fox Insights blog are an ongoing source of news and conversation about the quest for a knowledge-based economy in the Southeast. He authored a book this year, “Swamp Fox Insights,” that is almost a how-to manual for launching a high impact company.

Under Snow Island, InnoVenture would take an entrepreneur’s business plan and put together a creative team to help launch the venture. The team might include other entrepreneurs and professional service providers or even other bright students.

The process would begin with an intense two-day structured workshop.

The creative team would continue to work with the entrepreneur who would have to make a progress report every quarter for the next year, Warner said.

“After a year, if we’re successful, they kind of graduate from that program,” Warner said. The envisioned end result is a pipeline of emerging companies in the state.

Such a process would get people, both the entrepreneurs and the creative team members thinking outside the box, Warner said.

“If you look at the really huge things in the last three or four years, it tends to be business models as opposed to products themselves,” Warner said.

Amazon.com didn’t really change the book. Dell Computer didn’t really change the computer. E-bay is still retail.

“I really think if we look out 20 years from now, and there is a Dell Computer somewhere around here, it is probably someone who is a student today. And the innovation is probably a business model innovation,” Warner said.

“And there is no reason to think that kid isn’t sitting on the USC campus or the S.C. State campus.”