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Avicenna's,  Tom Kaiser
LEADERSHIP PROFILE

Thomas Kaiser On Artificial Intelligence in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Moving from Texas to Atlanta to Oxford and now, to Charleston, and shifting from academia to professional chemistry to entrepreneurship, Thomas Kaiser's intellectual journey highlights both the cerebral and economic value of a scientific background as an entrepreneur and reveals the enduring need for exploration by scientists at large.

What began as a pursuit towards being a mathematician, then a physician, then a professional chemist and drug developer, has now evolved into his company, Avicenna Biosciences Inc., which employs artificial intelligence to assess the organic properties in varying medicines and to aid in drug discovery. Kaiser, in telling his story, emphasizes the need for adaptability when marketing scientific findings and advocates for an altruistic desire to discover, as a basis for scientific endeavors.

This series is brought to you by Charleston County Economic Development.

Would you like to start by telling me a little bit about your background? Where you're from, where you went to college, what you studied as an undergrad?

I was born and raised in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, and spent all of my childhood there. When I went to undergrad, I attended the University of Tulsa, so I moved away for a little bit. There, I studied biochemistry and mathematics, so I was initially doing two majors. The goal was to eventually go into medicine, and I got super interested in chemistry at that time. I was planning on going into an MD PhD program.

One of the frustrating things at that time was that I was instructed to not train as a pure chemist because the training was too long–most PhDs in synthesis are five to six years–so I felt that, if I had to choose between being a physician and being a chemist, I wanted to be a chemist. Then, I went to Texas A&M for my PhD and there I did total synthesis–or the synthesis of natural products and how to build molecules.

It's a pretty interesting field, seeing how you actually assemble a molecule without touching it. I also did some organometallics; and at that point, I knew I wanted to get into medicinal chemistry, so I went for drug design. You really have to have an understanding of organic chemistry in order to design drugs, due to their organic properties.

I was looking around for where I wanted to go next, and I applied to Dennis Liotta's lab in Atlanta because he's probably the most successful academic medicinal chemist out there. I think he's got up to ten drugs on the market and he's done a lot for HIV. He also founded the company called Pharmasset, that discovered the cure for Hepatitis-C, so lots of viral 'stuff' going on there. I knew that's where I wanted to go to learn how to do antiviral drug design; eventually I joined this lab as a postdoc and took over the antiviral group within the lab and led that for a couple of years.

At that point, I regretted not getting my medical degree. I spent a long time talking with my wife about it, asking 'how do we want to deal with this? Is it a wise decision to go back and become a physician?' Ultimately, she said 'fine.'

It's kind of a funny story when I was looking for programs. If you were an experimental PhD, there were programs that let you do an MD in three years. Columbia University had one of these programs, and I told my wife, Michelle, "Look, in three years we can be in and out," and she said, "Absolutely not - I like Atlanta, I'm not living in New York." At that point, I went back to the drawing board and British medical schools started popping up, and I actually got the opportunity to attend the University of Oxford for Medicine. My wife was so surprised, thinking that we would stay in the southern United States because New York was too much of a culture shock - but she ended up in the United Kingdom instead.

What does your company do?

We're an artificial intelligence company that does drug development. We take drugs that have problems and redesign them in light of some machine-running techniques that we've built, and we try to fix those problems.

Let's say you have an old drug: somebody's done a clinical trial and it was found to have new utilities - it was designed for indication X and now it's found that it helps with indication Y - the problem is, maybe it's not wholly bioavailable. It was fine for indication X in short-term therapy use, but it needs to be able to work for long term therapy for indication Y, so you redesign it to make it more amenable to the therapeutic process. Or, if there's a drug that has a toxicity problem and it precludes an indication, we can eliminate the toxicity to actually get it into clinical trials. So that's what we do: drug design and drug development

What is your cause, or the exigence, behind your research and all your efforts?

The exploration of the universe and the alleviation of suffering. I think most scientists agree with that - that's what motivates scientists.

What was your most memorable early professional experience?

As an organic chemist, you deal with a lot of exotic states of matter, so my most memorable professional experience was probably being on fire.

To explain: if you want to deal with organometallic species, you have to rid it of oxygen and water in the solvent. We had a sodium metal still, which you use to distill the solvent from this sodium pellet. And this system - we didn't know this at the time - didn't regulate the internal pressure appropriately, and it blew up. It caught all the sodium on fire, and I was caught on fire as a consequence because I was standing right next to it.

What did you initially see yourself doing as a professional? Did you lean towards entrepreneurship or academia when you began your journey?

I started off with the idea of just being a mathematician. I drifted further and further away from that in my training when I came back to it with artificial intelligence. I think I wanted to be in academia initially; but, if you want to find medicines, you have to do it in industry. The amount of money necessary for that is just prohibited from academic lives. We have academic interests that we like to explore on the sides, but the priority lies in finding new medicines.

What kind of physician did you initially want to be?

I started off wanting to work with infectious diseases; I've always been fascinated with infectious diseases. But I shifted more towards pathology. The only downside to that is that you don't see as many patients as a pathologist, but you deal with the fundamental principles of disease: why things happen and the classification of disease, which is really useful if you're a medicinal chemist. If you're trying to design a drug to treat a disease, you really need to understand why that disease is problematic.

What inspired you to start your business?

We were at the right place at the right time; we had some evidence that we were truly on a good path. We started it to really help facilitate drug development. So we had some core technology that we built when [my business partner,] Pieter, and I were postdocs. We built the company so we could have a conduit for the development of drugs. We just needed a vehicle.

How does AI play into your business?

Basically, your query space is quite large when you're trying to find a drug-like compound–it's an unintelligible number, estimated to be somewhere around , so the AI trims down the evaluation space. We can break down from billions to millions down to maybe 70,000 possibilities, and we take from the top and explore them to see if they work the way you think they will.

What obstacles have you faced on your journey, and how did you overcome them?

I think the biggest obstacle is the amount of time that it takes; it's been a stressor on my relationship with my wife but I'm incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful wife. Trying to deal with that has probably been the biggest obstacle; we move so much - I even spent a couple of months in Japan as a visiting scholar - so, I've been away a lot.

The other biggest obstacle is: how do you know you're even doing something relevant? You can ask a question, but does it have any meaning in this universe? I think it can be emotionally exhausting when you think you're on the right path and it blows up and you have to start over.

What do you see as the future of your company?

To grow and actually get drugs on the market. We actually have a couple of compounds that are moving into animal trials, and we think they'll actually turn into drugs. But we just have to keep cranking that wheel to find new medicine.

What brought you to Charleston?

My business partner Pieter did. His wife is actually a pediatric radiologist, and she was not moving on account of our shenanigans, so I'm here because of them.

How has it been building your team in Charleston?

It's been great; I've had a good time. It's a very nice place to live and work, I like the people, the food is great, there's lots to do outside of work.

What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?

I visited Pieter seven years ago, and it was really sleepy here, in that regard. There wasn't much going on, the CDC didn't exist, so it seems to be growing explosively.

What level of engagement do you have with the Charleston tech community?

Zero probably. We keep a low profile because we're still kind of in stealth mode. Most of the interesting things we have to say, we can't really talk about because of intellectual property. That's the downside of doing drug development.

You need to be able to raise enough money that you can run the clinical trials; phase one is around $10 to $15 million, phase 2 is $20 to $50 million, phase 3 is the real issue: it's somewhere around $300 to $600 million. The only way to achieve that is to attract capitalists; you need to protect what you do, so you can have appealing intellectual property.

The only way to find new medicines is to patent them, and the people who invest money want to make money, that's the reason we don't really talk much with other companies.

What were your misconceptions about being an entrepreneur?

We knew we were going to have a hard time attracting talent, because we don't have any brand recognition, and I think that's been more problematic than expected. I guess I underestimated how hard it was going to be to get scientists to join us, but that's hopefully changing.

What do you look for in the people you hire?

Inquisitiveness, do you eat and breathe this–'this' being medicinal chemistry–and the ability to be critical of your own ideas without being harsh. Those are the three key things to me.

What's your day-to-day routine like?

Wake up, come here, annoy Pieter, go home, and hangout with my wife, maybe watch a movie or play some games or have a beer, go to bed, wake up and do it all over again.

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs or new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?

Be skeptical of your own ideas and make sure you can correctly position them in light of the other ideas out there. Also, just have a good time. Pursue it for the sake of discovering and see if you can find something new, because that's really where innovation comes from.

RAPID FIRE

Mac or PC? PC

Favorite App? Pandora, I listen to a lot of music

Favorite Book/Podcast? I love Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais, it's an absurd and hilarious story.

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT

Blackbaud Spotlight

We are pleased to spotlight Blackbaud, whose main goal is driving impact for social good organizations.

  • Company Founded - 1981
  • Chief Executive - Mike Gianoni
  • Total number of employees - 3400+
  • Fun fact - 89% of Blackbaud employees either volunteered or served on a nonprofit board over the past year
  • Blackbaud Career Opportunities

Google Selects South Carolina For Undersea Fiber Project

In seeking an East Coast site to launch an underwater cable that will stretch from North to South America, Google selected the Grand Strand as the ideal location. The cable, dubbed the "Firmina" venture, will run thousands of miles along the Atlantic seafloor from The Palmetto State to Toninas, Argentina. Read more HERE andHERE.

College of Charleston Establishes Electrical Engineering Major

The College of Charleston has launched its newest major, electrical engineering.

"We set up the program to support companies in the region, including Bosch, Mercedes-Benz Vans, Volvo, Boeing and Cummins," said Sebastian van Delden, dean of the CofC School of Sciences and Mathematics, in a statement. "Our electrical engineering program focuses on autonomous electric vehicles –- a market projected to grow from $50 to $500 billion in this decade." Read more:

Event Solutions Platform LASSO Acquires Intrinsic

LASSO, the people platform for the event and entertainment industry, has acquired Intrinsic, a market leader known for providing high-end, technical talent for the most complex and consequential live events across the country.

This achievement was made possible thanks to a mutual expertise in and passion for the unique needs of the live events industry. Intrinsic built their business by sourcing and cultivating the best AV talent in the industry to ensure a deep bench of technical event staff. They've put their people first at every step of the way with consistent, healthy investments in their rigorous technical education programs for AV professionals in key markets across the US including Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlanta, Nashville, and Dallas.

LASSO, the people platform for the events industry, is an end-to-end software platform and mobile app for event professionals. Built by and especially for live event professionals, LASSO's solutions are designed to put people first, empowering everyone in the event production ecosystem to connect, communicate and collaborate. With visibility to labor costs and transparency to event details, LASSO users are able to control the chaos of event production and focus on what really matters: the people who make every event a success.

LASSO's latest product, the LASSO Crew Marketplace, is a tech-enabled marketplace that allows software users to submit additional labor requests to supplement their AV talent bench directly within the platform. With the acquisition of Intrinsic, LASSO's Crew Marketplace pool of live event professionals is larger and more robust than ever.

"We're thrilled to welcome Intrinsic into the LASSO family," said Clay Sifford, founder and CEO of LASSO. "They are selective, compliant, rigorous in their training, they deliver for their clients, and most importantly, they're good people. LASSO believes every event is only as good as the people that make it happen. As we continue to grow, Intrinsic's supply of top-end technical talent for our clients coming into Las Vegas is a natural fit. We're excited about our future together, and we look forward to bringing more innovative solutions to our industry. "

"This is a fantastic outcome for both our employees and our clients," said Intrinsic CEO Todd Walton. "Having worked with LASSO over the years, we have come to know and appreciate how closely aligned we are in our values and business philosophies. I have found LASSO to be an amazing company and I am ecstatic for the opportunities this will create for all of our stakeholders."

Editor Note: Lasso has an office at the Charleston Tech Center and is hiring.

PranaScience Founder, Dr. Sundar Balasubramanian

Synergizing Customs and Chemistry

With exponential growth taking place in the global wellness industry, people worldwide are increasingly leaning away from fad diets and trendy supplements and are instead recognizing the immense benefits of more transcendent topics like holistic medicine, yoga, spirituality and mental health on a grander scale. Dr. Sundar Balasubramanian, however, has long been on the road of demonstrating the empirical basis of such wellness practices. Having grown up in southern India, these practices were pivotal parts of daily life for him and after finding his passion in science, he has coupled those two seemingly disparate parts of his life to help heal others, from cancer patients to yoga practitioners.

His company, PranaScience is the manifestation of decades of research on cellular and molecular biochemistry as it regards breathing exercises. He offers online and in-person classes on pranayama - the name for these breathing control exercises - two books on his practices and his own mentors, yoga teachings and an encouraging story of how often-overlooked practices can serve people in exceptional and unexpectedly beneficial ways.

This series is brought to you by Charleston County Economic Development.

Would you like to start by telling me a bit about your background? Where you're from and your educational background?

I grew up in a small village in the Tamil Nadu State in southern India. I started learning alphabets when I was in third grade, so in sixth grade, in my village, if a bunch of people raised their hands in a class of maybe 30-40 students, about 3 or 4 of them would know the English alphabet. That's how we learned English in such a rural part of India, so it's not very well-exposed. But that's where I studied, and I learned and operated entirely in the Tamil language. Then I came to college and that's when I started studying science and chemistry and everything in English. So that was a big challenge - changing the entire medium of your education. I completed my undergraduate degree in chemistry followed by a Master's degree and PhD in biochemistry.

For my PhD, I studied how the immune system responds to different types of plant molecules; for example: the oleander plant. The oleander has so many different compounds, like chemical constants, and some of them can be poisonous, some of them are cardiac glycosides, like they act on the heart and cause erythema. Sadly, people consume that as an accidental and intentional poison. We developed a technique to detect oleander poison, and that was my PhD thesis.

That project pretty much got me into the immunology field; immunology was my favorite subject in my Masters. I like chemistry, I like organic chemistry and then immunology is my favorite. I had an opportunity to go to the National Institute of Immunology in Delhi to study the mimicry of molecules, like one molecule may be chemically different - it's a sugar molecule, and the other would be a protein molecule, so a smaller peptide - but they, geometrically, look alike. The immune system doesn't care about the chemical properties of the molecule, it will just assess the geometry. So, it will detect and react to the molecule in the same manner, despite the chemical at hand.

What brought you to Charleston?

I came to Charleston from India for my post-doctoral research in 1999. That's how I came to Charleston. There were about 3 or 4 Indians total and it was very nice and quiet back then - a very close community. I was here in Charleston for four years, then moved to Yale for four years for another research associateship. Then I came back here in 2006, and I've been here ever since.

What pushed you to pursue the research that you conduct and develop your company?

I love structural biology; it gives me a deeper understanding of how molecules are arranged, how they track with each other and how they function. I would say that one year exposure helped me build up my career later. When I came here, the first study I did was on the activation of some of the molecules or protein networks in cardiac cells. The heart cells, when they are under pressure, they'll expand, they'll grow or remodel, so I studied how they remodeled.

After learning I had a passion for cellular structures, I studied bone cells up at Yale. Also, when I was at Yale, I had a lot of opportunities to study the different types of microscoping - how we can look at an image of cells in different ways. I did live microscoping, where you can see things as they happen, like how cells will change their structures.

Then, I came back here to the cardiology department, where I continued my research until 2014. Then, I moved to Hollings Cancer Center in 2014 and that's where I am right now, in the Department of Radiation Oncology. We have a couple of different focus areas; one is to understand how tobacco and other smoke interacts with radiation therapy in cancer cells, and the other is breathing exercises. That's what my company is about.

What does your company do?

PranaScience was started in 2007 to spread my life's knowledge and expertise to help others through pranayama. We provide talks, workshops and other information on breathing exercises as well as develop content for others to learn the exercises.

How did your company do during the pandemic?

When the pandemic hit in 2020, all travel had ceased. I was going to a big yoga meet in Sedona. I think I was on the first leg of my trip to Phoenix, and when I landed, Arizona entered a state of emergency. Being that I used to travel to teach my classes, that made it very interesting moving forward.

Oddly enough, I began using Zoom in 2018 to hold some of my classes. I'm an early bird, so that gave me plenty of time to hold my classes on Zoom every morning from 5:30 to 6:00am. During the pandemic, I just expanded my use of that platform – making it an easy adjustment for me.

And being that the labs were closed, that gave me time to apply for grants. That was actually when I earned the grant I have now from the National Cancer Institute.

What do you hope to do in the future?

I have three goals. One is to understand the mechanisms of breathing exercises - how they work. The second is to determine which exercises are good for certain people at certain times. The third is to disseminate the knowledge. To achieve these goals, I secure funding through grants. My goal is to put this entire library on a subscription-based model so that everyone can access it.

What has been one of the most fascinating findings of your research?

I grew up with an Indian background called the Siddha; the Siddha is one of the most ancient traditional mental systems in the southern part of India, based in the Tamil land. It uses all the natural elements: earth minerals, materials from the ocean, any type of plant material - but they will not kill a tree to get the medicine, in order to preserve nature. Growing up, I practiced yoga with my family. I had a lot of teachers from the family who would do yoga with me and practiced medicine. That gave me a lot of exposure and learning experiences in that area. I sort of started the yoga practice when I came over here, with my friends and my friends' kids.

In 2005, I got a book called Thirumandiram, an ancient book written by Saint Thirumoolar. He wrote that book, it's 3000 poems and some of them are about yoga, some are about wisdom, and do's and don'ts–-all kinds of ethical 'stuff.' It's basically a tool for enlightenment. When I was going through the chapters on pranayama, which refers to the breathing exercises that I study, that's where I started developing a scientific interest in the practices. I wanted to see how it works, and what things from that and yoga practice that can be useful.

One of the things that happened inside me when I was following the breathing exercises in the text was salivary stimulation. I saw that you produce more saliva when you do those relaxation exercises. It was fascinating because you have two systems - the stress system and the relaxation system - and the relaxation system becomes stimulated when doing those breathing exercises and it has tremendous impacts on your biology: like, how your body responds, how your breathing changes, how your heart rate changes and the salivary stimulation in the throat and eyes. It's profound.

Any memorable moments when conducting research?

I saw that experience in me, when I tried the breathing practices on my own accord, and I started connecting it to biology. Saliva changes so much as you grow up, during different emotions and exposures; so many things can change saliva. I thought to myself: 'Okay, if you do this exercise and it induces some changes, what are those changes?' Even though I had that experience back in 2006, I didn't get to study it until 2013 in the lab. When I did get to study it, I found a lot of molecules that are important to your brain's function, functions of the immune system, functions of the stress system - all of these things changed. We published a bunch of papers from that time, between 2014 to 2016. And then I thought, 'Okay, there are a lot of uses from my research for the general population.'

People who are stressed experience dry mouth, and as we age, we develop dry mouth and maybe you're getting ready to go to an interview and that's when the dry mouth starts, when you're tense. This also manifests in internal secretion systems like mucus, and that makes it easier for bacteria to grow internally. The infection rate is very high in people who experience dry mouth and dry eyes.

I wanted to use these concepts in my own patient populations at work. We have cancer patients who undergo radiation treatment for their head and neck cancer, so their salivary glands are basically destroyed. We can train them ahead of their treatment on how to help those glands preemptively through relaxation. I just keep thinking of how this stuff can be useful and I keep finding out more.

How helpful has the Charleston Digital Corridor been for you?

Ernest is a great colleague; he has a lot of ways through which he trains people. I told him about my business when he was working for the city, and he has been such a great mentor for me ever since. When I was applying for grants, someone made a comment to me about the fact that I didn't even have an office - I was running my business from home. The CDC has not only fulfilled my need for a flexible office, but it's also a great atmosphere that I can use to interact with like-minded people, to know the business world - I'm a scientist, so I only knew the lab, then I began to know the yoga industry - but my interaction with the Charleston Digital Corridor gave me insight into business as a whole.

What advice would you give to aspiring researchers or new graduates seeking to be entrepreneurs within science?

There's a lot of opportunities for you. Once you know what your passion is, you can pursue that. There are so many different ways that you can get to where you want to be. Be open, talk to people and expand your network. If there is an academic talk about your passion, sit in the front and ask the speaker your questions. Don't be intimidated by people misunderstanding your work. The effort you spend on familiarizing your work makes it easier for people to connect with and work with you. If you want to go further, go together.

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to know?

I'm a people's person. I love interacting with strangers. I'm also very involved with community work. From 2003 to 2015, I was very active on this blog that was written in Tamil language. When Blogger had started, I started blogging with around 15 other people in that language. It was a very deeply connecting thing for me. I am also very politically involved, especially relating to Tamil's politics. They're like part of me.

Outside of work what keeps you busy?

Like I said, I'm very politically inclined. I've been occupied with social movements here. I'm part of the local Tamil organization, I was President and one of the founding members of that, and we started it in 2003. I was also a supporting director for the national Tamil organization for two years. We did a big convention here in Charleston at the Gaillard with a thousand people from all over the country. When I think about those things now, I wonder how I had all the energy to do it. I have a lot of different hats that I wear.

Rapid Fire

Favorite book or podcast? Thirumandiram

Favorite Charleston beach? Isle of Palms

Favorite Coffee shop? Starbucks. It's consistent.

Abuzz co-founder, Susan Porter

Breathing ‘Life’ Back Into ’Student Life’

Susan Porter, has long been in the business of sharing insider info about college towns. She began with a website that was geared towards parents of college students, through which she shared suggestions for meal spots, shopping and places to stay. After learning that college campuses had never moved beyond the paradigm of advertising via flyers, she realized that parents were not the audience in need - but students were. Thus, the app Abuzz was developed with her work as co-founder.

Abuzz is now utilized by over twenty different collegiate institutions, providing students at those schools with information like upcoming events, local student discounts, a digital marketplace for buying and selling and information about graduation classes–collectively trying to highlight the obsolescence and disconnection of flyers. Through Abuzz, Porter aims to foster greater connectivity among college students and hopefully quell retention issues that so often result from students feeling disconnected from their school.

This series is brought to you by Charleston County Economic Development.

Would you like to tell me a little bit about your background? Where you grew up, where you attended college, what you studied?

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and I attended Denison University, which is a small, private liberal arts school in Ohio, where I studied Political Science. After Chicago, we moved to Boston and now we're in Charleston.

Any memorable first jobs?

Yes. I remember my first job out of college in Chicago, where I sold copiers for 3M. My territory included high-rise buildings filled with lawyers, and I tried selling them door-to-door. It was intense.

Do you feel that has become more relevant as you've taken on entrepreneurship?

No. It's such an old-school job; but the sales part of it and the tenacity involved was almost like a mini entrepreneurship within a company - so that would make it pretty similar.

What is your goal with Campus Abuzz?

Our goal with Abuzz is to connect every college student to their campus and find the best that their campus has to offer. We really want them to maximize their college experience. I think on one side there are people who go to school, they don't really connect, say they want to transfer and go home after a month or two. Then, there are people who take advantage of everything on their campus, graduate and have an amazing experience. Especially in this age, when mental illness is being taken more seriously and being in the midst of Covid-19, there are a lot of ways that students aren't connected.

Our greatest goal, to put it shortly, is to get rid of flyers. When I went to school, there were flyers everywhere. That's how we found information. The reason we started Abuzz was because I couldn't believe that students still used flyers. Everyone has a phone; why can't you find all the information from the flyers on your phone? And why can't you sign in using your school email to a space for just students? There are individual Slacks and GroupMe's, but there is not one space that provides all the student discounts, events and student organizations that should be accessible on your phone.

How successful would you say you've been at achieving that?

Well, Covid began right in the middle of things. We first launched in September 2019 at the University of Colorado and then we partnered with Colorado State. At first, it was very successful. People understood our goal and they were looking for a way to connect with their campus, and then Covid hit. Interestingly enough: when everyone left the college campuses, it was the southern schools that began finding out about Abuzz. They were still on campus, like Texas A&M and Central Florida, and we had people contact us and say, "We need this here. We're the least connected we've ever been." So, that's how we grew during Covid

What drew you to catering to collegiate audiences?

I started a website about six years ago, called "College Town Insider." It was for parents and explained where to stay, where to eat and what to do when visiting different campuses - the inside information.

When we were acquiring more content for the website, I asked Melissa, a former student who now works with us: "How would you go about finding the best biology tutor on campus?" And she said, "I'd text my friends, or my sorority. If I couldn't find it, I'd visit the biology department and there would likely be a flyer for that." And I asked, "Why can't you approach the campus about that?" And she said: "Well, there's not one app that we all use to talk to each other," and that's when we launched Abuzz - that's when we went from a website to an app for college students.

I couldn't believe that [students] were still obtaining information from flyers. Imagine a highly sought speaker comes to campus and the only notice about it was on a flyer, and you didn't find out until the day after their presentation? That's why we made the shift.

Where has Abuzz been most popular?

Texas A&M and the University of Central Florida have been amazing, because we have great ambassadors and digital teams at those schools. They were on campus during the beginning of Covid, which was very helpful. Now we got lucky and just launched at our first school in which the administration is helping implement the program. It's kind of a test, versus other schools, at a small school, Adrian College, in Michigan. They're helping us pump information into the app directly from the school, rather than just gathering information from students. This will show us the difference between just having students enter information and allowing administrators help by adding things like career-building events, campus speakers, athletic events or any other insular knowledge.

What have students had to say about Abuzz?

The first thing they usually say is: "I wish our campus had this." Also, they love the food deals–we have all of the local food deals for students on the app. We didn't know if it was going to be those deals, or the lists of events or the marketplace–we also have a marketplace where students can buy and sell things like dorm furniture, sports event tickets and other items–we didn't know which part of the app would be best-liked, but the food deals have been the most downloaded and saved.

What obstacles have you faced building your business? How did you overcome them?

Covid. That was the big one. Additionally, getting school administrations to buy in. You go to the President's Office or Student Life, and they typically say, "Oh, well we already have a website that students use," and students usually don't use that website–they really don't. But they have their way of doing it and that has been tough to work around. Having Adrian College work with us has been huge, and hopefully their administrative involvement will be a selling point to other schools, so we're lucky to have them.

Where do you see Abuzz moving in the future?

We'd love to be on every campus. That would be the goal, and we would like our digital teams that work with Abuzz on campuses to start setting up scholarships for students that work for us. The long-term goal is to have Abuzz for alumni; so, you graduate, and your profile switches over to an alumni profile, and this allows students and alumni to talk to each other to foster connectivity when entering the workforce. When you graduate college, you're kind of a freshman in life, and we really want Abuzz to help facilitate that transition by allowing users to still have access to the app.

How was Abuzz impacted by Covid-19?

I'd say that it was affected both in a good way and a bad way. It was impacted because we were at the University of Colorado–our team was there for the entire second semester–doing events and abruptly had to leave. Everybody was gone. But it was good because we were shown that connection is everything.

Since we found that out, we've realized that there are two major reasons why students leave college campuses: troubles with finances, or connections. If we can solve the connection part, then they can stay. So often students leave a campus because they don't feel connected to the school, and that's not fully the fault of the school.

What has it been like building your team in Charleston?

It's been great. I came to Charleston about 20 years ago from Boston and we were in Kiawah first, but we're downtown now. Our two other team members both moved to Charleston this past month; so, we're building the team and our office space all at once, which is great. I can't imagine a better place to start your business because it's a booming city, with great weather and so much to do - if I was young, I'd definitely want to start out here.

What level of engagement do you have with the Charleston tech community?

We're just starting–we literally just moved in. We picked this building because of everything they have to offer and because of all the engagement that it entails. I'm looking forward to becoming even more connected with this community

What are the biggest misconceptions about being an entrepreneur?

The thinking that you can get so much done in your free time - it's really 24/7. There's flexibility in it–like my team decided that Thursday's can be a work-from-home day, even though we were sending each other emails at 7 in the morning that day. So, it's all the time, but there is flexibility. Somebody said that being an entrepreneur is like chewing glass, it's great but it's surely a lot to take on.

But that's also why I love this space–it's a collaborative space. I don't want my staff to ever feel like they have to come into this office from 9-5. I tell them "Come here whenever you like. If you're here, we can collaborate; but if you're just working on things that you can do from home and you're only present because you feel obligated, then don't come." I don't care where anybody works, provided the work gets done. I don't want this to be a place where people feel like they have to show up, I want it to be collaborative.

What do you look for in people that you hire?

We're looking for people who understand what our core mission is. If we are hiring people for our digital teams, we want to hear their story. Most people understand our mission and the need for connection on college campuses; but those who can give examples of their struggles with things like finding events or student deals or they feel disconnected, it's easy to work with them because they've experienced the problems that we're trying to solve.

What is the purpose of those digital teams you're mentioning?

The digital teams are looking on the member campus' for app content: what's happening on campus, they also visit local businesses asking about student discounts and providing advertising opportunities. They also help get students on the app. So they're looking for downloads and content.

How many of those would you say you have on each campus?

It depends on the campus. On some, we have three, and on campuses that we've just partnered with, it's just one - but they're looking to hire a team.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Find out what your "why?" is, like why are you doing this, and if that "why?" will carry you through the hard times. When I hear of students who aren't happy where they are, they're not meeting people or they're not finding out information that would be helpful to them, it's upsetting. An example is, at the University of Michigan, the campus has free bagels every Wednesday morning, yet there are students walking around that same campus, hungry and unable to buy food. The fact that they just don't know about it, that's troubling.

It's the little, one-step, day-to-day interactions that make the greatest impact; you may find a new couch, or a new coffee shop, or meet your best friend. I think that once you have made one step in connecting with your campus, then there's another, and another. It's all of the loose ends of college life in one space.

What keeps you inspired?

Trying new things on the member campuses and hearing stories about how students benefited from them. At Adrian College, this month, we're hosting a "Whiteout Day" and handing out white Abuzz shirts, and we're also hosting a scavenger hunt on campus, and hearing about students' excitement is really encouraging.

Outside of work, what keeps you busy?

I travel a lot - I've got a lot of family in Boston and in Charleston, and I love to travel. Also, I've just done these two events called "29029," where you climb a mountain. I just did it in Vermont and in Utah, but you've got 36 hours to climb the equivalent height of Mt. Everest. I really enjoy the intensity and having something to mark on my calendar

Fave App? Abuzz

Fave Book? A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer

Fave Podcast? How I Built This.

Fave coffee shop? Harken Cafe

Charleston’s Tech Economy Powers Ahead In 2021

In its Annual Wage & Job Growth Survey, the Charleston Digital Corridor is pleased to announce that the average per-capita wage at companies participating in the 2021 survey is $101,710 - a considerable increase from the previous year average of $91,183. This number is more than twice the State of South Carolina's average wage of $46,230 and Charleston Region average wage of $50,810 according to the latest (May 2020) data available from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Key workforce and workspace insights from the 2021 survey:

  • 100% of companies reported adding jobs in 2021
  • 100% expect to continue hiring into 2022
  • 94% of respondents reported moving to a hybrid work model
  • 94% of respondents have downsized their office or expect to do so in 2022
  • Several companies benefitted from capital infusions in 2021 to fund growth and acquisition

"While the acceleration of a hybrid work model is resulting in a spike of migration of tech talent into our region, many of the recent transplants continue working for companies located elsewhere," said Charleston Digital Corridor Director, Ernest Andrade. "With a high level of business assistance for startup and early-stage tech companies, we expect some of these experienced professionals to start their own ventures or take on roles at local tech companies and contribute to the growth of Charleston's tech community."

The completion of the 92,000 square foot Charleston Tech Center, currently home to fifty-one tech and tech-related companies, has played a key role in supporting the growth of Charleston's tech community. The location in Downtown Charleston, flexible term and lease options along with the building's location in the federally designated Opportunity Zone, has proven attractive to tech companies and investors alike.

"The business resources, amenities and flexibility offered to my company at the Flagship @ the Charleston Tech Center as we grow is exactly what we needed," said Sikes Dorsey, Cloud on Tap, Founder and CEO.

The Charleston Digital Corridor has been conducting an annual wage survey since 2004. Previous results can be see HERE.

Upcoming Classes & Events

NEXT CDCu
January 20, 2022, 5:30PM - 7:30PM

Charleston Javascript Meetup

Organized by Tom Wilson

Happy New Year! Charleston JS is excited to kick off the new year with a presentation about Deno, the TS/JS server runtime, that is bringing the server to the edge. If you are part of the Javascript community you have heard of NodeJS! A few years ago, the original core developers of NodeJS started a new project called Deno.

CDCu
January 26, 2022, 5:30PM - 7:30PM

Charleston Data Science Meetup

Organized by Dave Ingram

Join us for a new year, new location and a revamped monthly schedule for Charleston Data Science! In 2022, we're scheduled once per month at the new Charleston Tech Center in the Charleston Digital Corridor Flagship (2nd floor).

CDCu
January 27, 2022, 4PM - 6PM

A Conversation with Jonathan Yantis

Presented by Jonathan Yantis

Pursuing a startup company can be a rewarding experience. However, it is not without its share of challenges and may not be for everyone. In the CDCu Entrepreneur Series, aspiring entrepreneurs and business owners will benefit from a candid conversation...

CDCu
February 10, 2022, 5:30PM - 7:30PM

Charleston VR / AR Meetup

Organized by Dave Ingram

Into the Metaverse

In 2021, "The Metaverse" entered every day discussion. Oculus Quest had record sales, with the Oculus app hitting #1 on the apple app store. Countless new VR and AR experiences were created. VR has changed how many people play, and even...

CDCu
February 17, 2022, 12PM - 1:30PM

Charleston Blockchain Meetup

Organized by Tom Wilson

Our speaker, Les Aker will present: a) A little background and how I got where I am in the blockchain metaverse, b) where things are now in blockchain implementation, and c)
where I think things are headed and why. Followed by a group discussion.

STATS