Big ideas bloom at USC Upstate’s GreenHouse incubator

By By Adam Orr, Herald-Journal, Spartanburg, S.C.

Mohamed Djerdjouri doesn’t skip a beat when talking about Spartanburg’s entrepreneurial future.

“This place isn’t Greenville, not yet,” Djerdjouri said Thursday. “But with the people we have right here in this building, I think it’s going to rival Greenville one day. It’s coming.”

Djerdjouri, dean of USC Upstate’s George Dean Johnson Jr. College of Business and Economics, presides over a program that’s changing fast. The college has recently added an undergraduate program in supply chain logistics designed to allow graduates to serve the region’s bustling manufacturing base, with a graduate degree in business analytics soon to follow.

But the most transformative aspect of The George might be the college’s GreenHouse business incubator on the third floor. It’s a 20,000-square-foot space currently housing eight startup companies. GreenHouse Director Brian Brady said at least one has received funding from an early-stage investment firm.

The firms include tech startups in the education and mental health spaces, along with a data savvy consulting firm and even includes an experienced executive-turned-entrepreneur in Donnie Hodge.

“The idea is that we provide lots of space and a lot of support right here,” Brady said. “They have a work space, the tools they need and other smart people to bounce ideas off of. Plus, that free WiFi and coffee is pretty nice, too.”

Managing big time growth

Burt Lancaster and EduTek Solutions are among the companies that call the GreenHouse home. He founded the company in 2015 after calls from multiple school districts convinced him there was a need for software to help manage increasing technology demands on school systems.

“I was actually approached by Spartanburg School District 3 and Cherokee County Schools in Gaffney,” Lancaster said.

Turns out technology directors at districts across the country were grappling with many of the same issues, Lancaster said, including making sure every student had their own devices like laptops or iPads, managing the strain those devices placed on school infrastructure, managing what’s been damaged and even whether all the devices get turned it at the end of the year.

“There were a lot of headaches, and they were trying to manage six different manual processes at the same time,” Lancaster said. “Our idea was to package that together into one software system. They said if I could do it they’d write me a check the next day.”

The project turned out to be successful, and Lancaster said his tool is used in half the state’s school districts, along with school districts in Missouri, Michigan and Wyoming.

He can pitch the software package from his desk at the Greenhouse via webinars, he said, and his company now employs 10 people.

The problem, he said, has been managing that growth and scaling it appropriately. He said it’s possible to grow the company faster — it’s increased by 300 percent since its founding — than his customer support functions can keep up.

“That’s going to be the challenge going forward, figuring that out,” Lancaster said.

Working out the kinks

The GreenHouse has also appealed to at least one Greenville-based company looking to make a move.

Yash Bhatia, president of Datos Consulting, said The George and its third floor GreenHouse space fit the company’s expanding mission perfectly. It was also the reason the company decamped from Greenville to come to Spartanburg.

A data-driven consulting firm, Bhatia said the GreenHouse puts the company in close proximity to attract the personnel and talent it will need to expand its operations.

“It’s that important to where we’re going next,” Bhatia said.

Hodge called the GreenHouse Spartanburg’s best kept secret, and he said the city is lucky to have a business incubator to foster the same kinds of connections and innovations that can be found in more famous business locales like Silicon Valley.

“You’ve got a great big open area, people talking and exchanging ideas, they’re downtown and they’re close to venture money,” Hodge said. “And that’s a big deal.”

Hodge’s business career spans decades and includes time as the CEO of Gerber Childrenswear and later Knights Apparel, the largest provider of college wear in the United States. He moved into social entrepreneurship with the founding of Alta Gracia Apparel, a company that produces clothing in the Dominican Republic but pays its workers more than three times the area’s living wage.

He said he sold his majority interest in that company earlier this year to a firm in Atlanta.

“The obvious thing is that with all these businesses here, there’s synergy, sure,” Hodge said. “But there’s also investment money, and that’s a key thing for companies at this stage.”

Hodge said he and early stage investment firm Venture South invested in Sharpen — a company that also holds down a corner of the GreenHouse’s space — in part because Hodge had seen how the company operated on a daily basis.

Distilled to its essence, Sharpen is focused on mental health services and provides educational resources that address “the root causes of stress, depression and anxiety.” The company has been focused most recently on the mental health of veterans.

“And the only reason I know of them — and I love what they’re doing — is because I saw them here and loved their idea,” Hodge said. “The opportunity that (Djerdjouri and Brady) has given small entrepreneurs is the ability to interact within this business community to a much greater extent than they might otherwise. You don’t see it happening like this in that many places.”

Djerdjouri and Brady said the next step is to continue working with the GreenHouse’s current businesses, but the longer goal is to create a road map of all the resources available to Spartanburg’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“You want to have a resource so that anybody looking to relocate here or start something here knows that this community is going to be behind them and where these resources are,” Brady said.

This article provided by NewsEdge.