The title of this column is not a wish or an aspiration -- it’s a statement of fact.
For years now, economic development people and politicians have talked about building the technology sector like it was the Holy Grail, and the Holy Land was Silicon Valley. With the help of some clever marketers who came up with cute names -- there is now a Silicon Something sprouting up almost everywhere you look -- Silicon Alley (New York City), Silicon Shore (Santa Barbara), Silicon Hills (Austin), Silicon Mountain (Denver), Silicon Forrest (Portland), etc.
And it’s not just a U.S. phenomenon -- there is a Silicon Glenn (Scotland), Silicon Fjord (Finland), Silicon Oasis (Dubai), Silicon Beach (Australia), Silicon Dock (Northern Ireland), Silicon Cape (South Africa), etc.
If you search in Wikipedia, you will find it lists Silicon Something in 28 U.S. cities and regions and 61 globally -- and there are probably twice this number which haven’t yet got on to Wikipedia’s list. My favorite was Silicon Bayou in Louisiana; I’m not sure how they deal with the alligators, but I guess that’s a different story.
All of which brings us to our own Silicon Harbor – i.e. Charleston.
As in many communities, back in the late 1990s, some smart folks in Charleston figured out “this internet thing is going to be a big deal.” Soon some city officials and business leaders began to coalesce around the idea of the need “to do something” to encourage tech growth. Following a familiar pattern of other similar ventures (see the 100 or so initiatives above), what became known as the Charleston Silicon Harbor and its related Silicon Corridor (there’s that name again) were born.
In time the initiative grew to house and manage two “incubators” (and a third is in the works) as places to house small companies (often one or two people) who could share space, share cost and most importantly share ideas. Since 2009, there have been 76 startup companies that have graduated from the incubator.
Today, more than 200 tech companies call Charleston home.
The statistics are dazzling: there are 243 tech companies in Charleston; Charleston now has a higher percent of its work force in tech businesses than such tech-Meccas as Austin and Raleigh; our tech economy is growing 26 percent faster than the national average -- on par with Silicon Valley (the original one); more than 11,000 people work in the tech sector; we are in the top 10 fastest-growing software development regions in U.S. … and on and on it goes.
And one could write a book (and someone should) about the individual innovative tech companies that have flourished in the region. Here are just a few:
• Blackbaud, developer of software and services for nonprofits, moved to Charleston from New York 26 years ago. In 2004, the company raised $64.7 million at its IPO and now has more than 3,000 employees.
• Benefitfocus was also founded in 2000 to simplify enrollment for benefits at large companies. The company raised $70.6 million from its IPO in 2013 and now has a 40-acre campus in Charleston housing 750 employees.
• Automated Trading Desk was started in 1988 as a pioneer in high frequency stock trading. In 2007, ATD was sold to Citigroup for $680 million and at the time was handling 6 percent of all the trades on the NASDQ stock exchange and had 115 employees.
• BoomTown is a real estate software company and since opening in 2006, Boomtown has surpassed $8 million in revenue and now employs nearly 100 people.
• PeopleMatter, is a human resources software developer for the service industry. Incubated in the Digital Corridor, it has raised more than $47 million and its products are in more than 33,000 restaurants.
• Blue Acorn designs, builds, markets and optimizes e-commerce sites for brands and other online retailers. Started in 2008, it now has more than 80 employees and $8 million in revenues.
• PhishLabs, a cyber security firm also incubated in the Digital Corridor, has completed $1.2 million Series A round of venture financing and now has nearly 50 employees.
• BiblioBoard started with only four people and is now the world’s first digital global publishing platform. Today, several hundred publishers use its technology as do thousands of libraries. The company was started by Mitchell Davis who had previously cofounded BookSurge which was sold to Amazon.
There are lots of reasons why this is happening. Two of the biggest reasons are 1) Charleston is a great place to live and attracts young smart people who want to live here, and 2) the South Carolina Research Authority’s S.C. Launch program has provided millions in startup and expansion capital to entrepreneurs with an idea.
The bottom line on all this is Charleston’s tech community really is truly exploding. It is creating great jobs for smart people who are building great companies that are having national and even global impact.
Pay attention folks, something big and real and important is happening in Charleston – right now.
(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange. Contact noble at email@example.com).