December 2013

Don Ryan Center for Innovation: Incubating businesses and Bluffton’s new economy

Author: Debbie Szpanka

Sitting around the conference table at CareCore National a few years ago, Bluffton’s Mayor Lisa Sulka felt a surge of decisive motivation. Those gathered were a local, human brain trust of greater Bluffton—leaders from different facets of the community—who wanted to bring better jobs to the region. Those leaders included Don Ryan, the late CEO of CareCore, county representatives, business leaders, top officials from regional educational institutions and Dr. Mac Horton, director of Clemson’s Institute for Economic and Community Development.

They were debating a risky decision: Does Bluffton, known for its eclectic, artsy community and historic district, have enough innovative, creative, technical, knowledge-based companies to sustain a local business incubator? No one knew the answer.

However, Clemson University’s Institute for Economic and Community Development had a mission to establish business incubators in the state’s non-metropolitan areas. It was Horton’s job to find towns and cities that would partner with Clemson and create so-called “technology villages.” The concept is, if the rural areas of the state ignite innovative success, the entire state’s economic engine will produce more energy.

Bluffton wasn’t even on the map for consideration for the program until resident Larry Hughes attended a lecture about the concept and pitched the idea to Clemson officials. Now Bluffton was on the map and would be the first. The eyes of the state would be on Bluffton, which until 15 years ago, was one-square mile and had 738 residents.

Mayor Lisa Sulka glanced around the table and made a decision. “The train is leaving the station. We want you to join us. There will be no ticket; there will be no fare. However, Bluffton is pushing this train out of the station and we are leaving now,” she said. With that statement, Bluffton’s mission to self-direct its own economy was born.

Without knowing what greater Bluffton held in terms of innovative companies, Ryan told the group his company would donate 1,600 square feet of his building to the Center. Committed to the decision of making a business incubator work here, he was the first CEO to relocate his company’s headquarters to Bluffton and became the namesake of the state’s first incubator. Two years later, the Don Ryan Center for Innovation has graduated six companies, and the pipeline remains full of innovative companies.

“The Don Ryan Center was the first technology-transfer center that Clemson partnered with a community to establish,” Horton said. “Since that time of development, the Don Ryan Center has led the way for technology centers, and Bluffton is a model for other communities in the state.”

“It is an honor to be the mayor of a town that isn’t afraid of risk-taking,” Sulka said. “Great risks sometimes produce great rewards, and establishing the Don Ryan Center was a risk and an investment that keeps producing results, rewards and returns.”

During the Hilton Head Island—Bluffton Chamber of Commerce’s “State of Region” event in early November, Sulka said the train is moving further down the track and she and the town would love more cars to join them as it gains momentum.

One of the successful cars of that train is Nutrifusion and its CEO, Bill Grand, the first graduate of the Don Ryan Center. At Nutrifusion’s graduation ceremony in May, Grand told the audience about the Center’s benefits: connecting companies with local contacts, Clemson University and research through the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC).
MUSC conducted research on animals to assess the health benefits of Nutrifusion’s product, GrandFusion, a nutritional powder consisting of the nutrients of fruits and vegetables.
MUSC’s research indicates the product reduces oxidative stress and can actually repair damaged DNA at the individual cell level. Research is currently examining GrandFusion’s ability to reduce strokes, the amount of damage caused by strokes, stamina, recovery time, aging and traumatic brain injury.


David Nelems, executive director of the Don Ryan Center for Innovation, speaks to a packed “Coffee Talk,” a HHI-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce event.

This research gives Nutrifusion credibility as it markets its projects to food and nutrition companies. Nutrifusion was featured in January’s Forbes Magazine, because the product was infused in the Girl Scout cookie Mango Cremes. By infusing the fruit and vegetable powder into processed foods, such as Mango Cremes, the cookie contains 15 percent of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin B-1, and five percent of the suggested levels for Vitamins A, C, D, and B6. Grand said infusing nutrition into processed foods is very significant due to the severe decline in the consumption of fruits and vegetables and the subsequent loss of key nutrients for America’s health.

“The Center provided me with resources for my business plan formation, marketing analysis and mentoring. Through those resources, I connected with the right people to complete product research at MUSC,” Grand said. “I am proud of being the first to graduate, and I plan to locate my business in Bluffton as Nutrifusion moves forward.”

David Nelems, director of the Don Ryan Center, said Nutrifusion makes a perfect case for the process. “Our focus is supporting innovative companies, strengthening their potential with research, funding and business support resources. After they graduate, they base their company in Bluffton, Nelems said. “The ultimate goal is to make each company competitive. The new companies then collectively diversify and strengthen Bluffton’s economy. In the end, we want to attract high-paying, career-rewarding jobs for Bluffton’s residents.”

The Center’s newest innovator, Bluffton resident Dave Ropes, co-founded mobiPET to help owners find lost pets by offering a recovery system using patented mobile image recognition technology. MobiPET is the only lost pet recovery company in the nation that offers a program allowing pet owners to instantaneously send out a photo “Amber Alert” of the missing pet.

“Using the greater Bluffton area as the company’s pilot market is a natural fit since this community is so pet-centric,” Nelems said. “MobiPET is another great example of the type of innovation and creativity that exists in the region. It is a company that will experience tremendous growth but will stay headquartered in Bluffton as it introduces the service nationwide.”


Business, town and community leaders in Bluffton toast the Center’s first anniversary in May 2013.

According to Sulka, not all companies will taste success; however, that’s part of the process. What’s important is that each company, along with the Town of Bluffton, is being proactive and directing its future.

Ryan gave the Town of Bluffton the office space to launch this pilot program back in 2011. Now Hartsville and Rock Hill have followed Bluffton’s path. The plan is for non-metropolitan areas of the state to ignite a stronger economy as each company’s success adds another log on that fire.

Sulka admits that when she made that decision more than two years ago, she never imagined Bluffton being the pilot and the pioneer for other cities and towns. “We are proud that we are doing our best to provide a better future for Bluffton,” she said. “It’s just icing on the cake that our progress is rippling to the region and throughout the state.”

Wanted: Innovative Companies

The criteria used to evaluate prospective innovators throughout the application process are based on the mission and objectives of the Don Ryan Center for Innovation program. In order to be eligible for consideration, a potential innovator should:

1) Be a for-profit business in a high-growth field. 2) Have a product or service that can be commercialized within a reasonable amount of time. 3) Be in the early stages of business development. 4) Demonstrate strong market for products or services. 5) The company should intend to remain in the Bluffton area. 6) Have a basic business plan or a written description of a business and a financial forecast. 7) Have the ability to pay the incubator’s monthly licensing agreement fee for the intended term of occupancy. 8) Have potential for positive economic impact on the community. 

For more information, visit ryan-innovation-center.com or call (843) 540-0405.

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