May 4, 2016

Tech Sector Exploding in Charleston

Phil Noble  /  Bluffton Today

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. 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).

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.

Wikipedia lists a Silicon Something in 28 U.S. cities and regions and 61 globally. There are probably twice as many that haven't yet gotten onto the list. My favorite is 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: Charleston.

As in many communities, back in the late 1990s some smart folks figured out that this internet thing was going to be a big deal. 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 (see the 100 or so initiatives above), the Charleston Silicon Harbor and its related Silicon Corridor (there's that name again) were born.

The initiative grew to house two incubators (a third is in the works) as places for small companies to share space, costs and ideas. Since 2009, 76 startup companies have graduated from the incubators.

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 workforce in tech businesses than 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.

One could write a book (and someone should) about the 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, it raised $64.7 million at its IPO and now has more than 3,000 employees.

Benefitfocus was founded in 2000 to simplify enrollment for benefits at large companies. It raised $70.6 million from its IPO in 2013 and now has a 40-acre campus in Charleston housing 750 employees.

Automated Trading Desk 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 NASDAQ stock exchange and had 115 employees.

BoomTown is a real estate software company. Since opening in 2006, it 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 a $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 their technology, as do thousands of libraries. The company was started by Mitchell Davis, who previously cofounded BookSurge, which was sold to Amazon.

There are lots of reasons why this is happening. Two of the biggest reasons are that Charleston is a great place to live and attracts young, smart people who want to live here. 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 that 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.