Columbia is known for many things: a vibrant arts district, world-class educational opportunities and a “famously hot” climate, to name a few. Among the growing list of things to be proud of is the city’s ability to create, nurture and develop successful technology-based startups. More than 30 such companies have been formed here in recent years, in fields that include health sciences, business applications, sustainable materials, and digital graphics and video.
With state and city leaders committed to growing Columbia’s knowledge economy, entrepreneurs can apply for funding, production, marketing and other supports from development partners such as SC Launch, EngenuitySC, the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator and other public/private partnerships. These high-tech, high impact companies generate jobs, wealth and positive buzz about Columbia’s growth and ever-increasing potential, for investors and innovators alike.
In this annual tech issue, we are pleased to profile four innovative Capital City startups.
Dirk Brown, Pandoodle
What can customized video do for branded properties? Pandoodle CEO Dirk Brown was hoping you would ask. A self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur, Brown and technologist David Ludwigsen believe customized entertainment media is the key to making money through online and mobile channels. Although originally based on opposite ends of the country — Silicon Valley and New York City — the co-founders met via the U.S. patent office and formed Pandoodle in 2009.
“The rationale is simple: to make money, consumers either need to pay for content, or they need to watch commercials,” says Brown. “Neither of these things was happening online. By customizing video, content producers can now make premium or derivative products that consumers will pay for, or enable hyper-targeted brand placement. This makes money.”
Pandoodle quickly grew to include five full-time and 10 part-time employees, based in L.A. and NYC. The company was based in Silicon Valley until 2011, and partnered early on with teams in Malaysia, India, China and the Philippines. Both founders and a third employee moved to Columbia last year, and have since hired a Columbia native in addition to employees still based in California and New York.
“I was heavily recruited by the Moore School of Business to lead entrepreneurial initiatives at USC as the Director of the Faber Entrepreneurship Center,” says Brown, who initially declined but ultimately accepted the offer. His position is a joint appointment with the Moore School, the College of Engineering and Computing and Innovista.
But back to the question: what does Pandoodle do?
“Pandoodle enables dynamically customized videos through proprietary technologies that allow for very fast, high-quality insertion of computer generated images, on the order of three thousand times faster than previously possible,” says Brown. Although there are a variety of market verticals in which customized video is valuable—everything from customized cartoons to hyper-targeted campaign videos—Pandoodle focuses on dynamically customized brand placement.
“If a 40-year old woman streams an online television show in NYC, she may see a van drive by with a local jeweler’s logo on the side. A 20-year old male streaming the same show in San Francisco might see the logo of a local nightclub on the same van, in the same video. A college student who shoots a video of his skateboarding stunt of jumping over a brick wall can now sell brand placement to a sports drink company before posting it on YouTube. Their logo can appear on the side of the wall in a very realistic way.”
Customers include some of the world’s most innovative and largest advertising agencies, software companies and entertainment companies, all interested in the dynamic brand placement Pandoodle provides. As for moving to the Palmetto State, Brown says a key advantage is the workforce’s dedication to achieving extremely aggressive results.
The company will close an investment round at the end of second quarter 2012, and most (if not all) new investors will be from South Carolina. “I received enthusiastic support not only for driving entrepreneurial initiatives here, but also for moving the company here,” says Brown.
“Pandoodle received a $200,000 convertible loan from SC Launch and is finishing due diligence with a number of private investor groups and individuals, including the Upstate Carolina Angel Network (UCAN) and Ariel Savannah Angel Partners. We’ve had a wonderful time working closely with a number of supporting organizations including IT-oLogy, EngenuitySC, New Carolina, Innoventure, the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator, the Next Center, SC Launch, Bang!, Innovista, the Spiro Institute and many others. We’ve actively embraced the entrepreneurial energy of South Carolina and haven’t looked back.”
Fabio Frey & Joey Thompson, Dinobrite Productions
As co-founders of Dinobrite Productions, Joey Thompson and Fabio Frey are young, easygoing, and eager to eventually produce music videos, their own television show and “those funny, nationally known spots that everyone talks about” (think Super Bowl commercials or those “Mayhem” ads for Allstate Insurance). But don’t let their youth deceive you. These recent USC graduates — with degrees in Media Arts and Entrepreneurship and Management, respectively — are the real deal.
Thompson says their different backgrounds and areas of study provide a dynamic yin yang that has yielded great success. “During college at USC, we worked on a comedy skit show with some friends. When two of our videos were featured on Comedy Central, we realized we could make a living doing this,” says Thompson. “Potential clients are sometimes nervous because we’re young, but our stuff has been shown to tens of millions of people at this point [through YouTube and national outlets including The Huffington Post, MSNBC.com and Today.com]. We’ve been pretty hard-core since high school, and have over 12 years of experience between us.”
“We’ve worked on everything from huge campaigns, to short documentary films to silly local things. We still like to do comedy in our free time, but we’re very serious about producing epic videos that get people talking and excited about what they watch. We want to show people that there’s incredible talent right here in Columbia, and really want to establish ourselves as the creative video force in South Carolina.”
Coming up on its one-year anniversary, Dinobrite Productions is well on its way to doing just that. Months after graduation, the University contacted Thompson and Frey to help launch Carolina’s Promise, a $1 billion fundraising campaign expected to run through 2015. The two traveled to Texas to tape a session with USC alum and Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, and to Lake City to film with Darla Moore at Moore Farms, her private botanical garden. They have since produced promotional videos for Ignite (EngenuitySC’s annual knowledge economy conference), Nelson Mullins Law Firm and other local clients.
Since its inception, Dinobrite has received support as part of the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator, a joint University-city venture that offers free or low cost office space, business planning, mentorship and more for eligible startups.
Dinobrite uses “super high quality” Canon video cameras, Adobe editing software, and contracts with local and regional subcontractors for lighting, 3-D graphics and other production services. “We try to keep costs individualized for each project,” says Thompson. “How many people we hire depends on the size of the project, and on the client’s budget. We try to make every project look as good as possible. Our goal is to produce innovative videos that can compete with national or international producers for quality and style.”
Dinobrite’s 2012 demo reel includes appearances by Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, USC President Dr. Harris Pastides and Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers, sweeping aerial footage of Columbia, and beautiful shots of the Upstate and Lowcountry as well. Thompson and Frey encourage potential clients to view the demo reel on their website, join their Facebook page for timely news and updates, and search YouTube for the Carolina’s Promise and Ignite videos in particular. Also of interest is Special*, a touching short documentary about Thompson’s sister Mary Carolyn, a young adult with epilepsy and cerebral palsy.
“We’ve realized that a lot of businesses have a need for our talent in telling stories,” says Frey. “We produce videos that convey important information without being stale and boring. If you want a stand-out video that’s interesting, creative, beautiful, touching — if you want to make your brand stronger, come to us.”
Todd Lewis, Palmetto Computer Labs
The term “Information Technology” (IT) first appeared in Harvard Business Review in 1958; since then, the world of IT continues to change at an ever-rapid pace. Founded in 2008, Palmetto Computer Labs (PCL) helps clients put the latest open source technology to good use. Known as Open Source Specialists, PCL offers technical training and support for several emerging technologies including Linux, Apache, Drupal, MySQL and others.
Managing Partner Todd Lewis explains. “PCL was founded after doing a lot of research on open source software (OSS) worldwide. In 2008, OSS was much more widely used in other countries where budgets were a concern. I reasoned that if and when economic conditions in other countries became the norm here in the U.S., companies and governments would have to find cheaper technology alternatives. Open source is now becoming more popular here because it can be less expensive than traditional proprietary solutions."
“Any business that uses a computer uses software, and it can be terribly expensive,” says Lewis. “Many businesses and government organizations are now adopting OSS and saving big dollars. In many cases, open source solutions are just plain better because of the inherent distributed development model. It’s more of a collaborative approach that leverages the expertise of many instead of a few. We strongly believe OSS will continue to gain market share for two reasons: it works, and it brings down the cost of traditional IT implementations.”
With two partners and eight employees, PCL offers education, support and IT consulting and development. The company also operates the Open IT Lab, located in the IT-oLogy building downtown (Lewis says IT-oLogy has been a strong partner and supporter since the beginning). The Lab’s goal is to raise open source awareness, provide educational opportunities, and conduct research and development. “It’s one of only a handful of labs like it in the country — others include Oregon State University, Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon,” says Lewis.
“The lab features many computing platforms including a PC, a Macintosh, a Linux laptop and netbook, a One Laptop Per Child, and open hardware such as the Thing-a-Matic, a 3D printer and the arduino, an open source circuit board. The lab is a hub of open source activity, and regularly hosts meet-ups and tours for everyone from students to IT professionals at large companies.” PCL also hosts the Palmetto Open Source Software Conference, or POSSCON.
Started in 2008 with 125 attendees, this annual conference has become one of the largest in the Southeast, putting Columbia on the map as a leader in the IT community. In 2011, more than 500 people from 24 states attended. The 2012 conference was held March 28-29 and featured Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and one of the most well known people in the history of technology and Silicon Valley. “To get him to speak on the east coast is a huge deal, and it says a lot about the conference that he agreed to do it,” says Lewis. “POSSCON has truly changed the way Columbia and South Carolina are viewed by the national technology industry. People simply cannot believe a cutting-edge event like this started and is based in Columbia and the state of South Carolina. The conference helps bolster the brand of the city and the region, which goes a long way to encourage other technology companies to locate here as well. It’s a catalyst that brings a lot of positive attention to the region.”
“Open source technology is on the move, and we’re at the forefront of leading the charge,” says Lewis. “It’s an exciting time to be involved in the business, and we consider ourselves lucky to be where we are. Blazing a new trail hasn’t been easy and has required a ridiculous amount of work, but we love doing what we do.”
Philippe Herndon, Caroline Guitar Co.
Innovator. Entrepreneur. Brand strategist. Rock star. As founder and CEO of Caroline Guitar Company, Philippe Herndon is all of these and more, including a performer at TEDxColumbiaSC in January. His small but wildly successful company designs and manufactures guitar effect pedals, each one “Dreamed, Designed and Created in Columbia, South Carolina.”
A member of the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator since its inception in 2010, Caroline Guitar Company sells its locally branded pedals through more than 30 retailers in five countries. “I graduated from the Moore School of Business in 2009 with an IMBA in Marketing and Operations,” says Herndon. “The week I was supposed to graduate, I lost a promising job offer and my Dad had emergency heart surgery. The recession was in full force. It was the perfect storm for starting my own business, which I did after spending six months and more than 2,300 hours applying for jobs. I thought, ‘If no one hires me, I’ll hire myself.’ Turns out it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Caroline Guitar Company currently offers three standard effect pedals: the Wave Cannon, the Olympia and the Icarus. The Cannonball is a limited custom order pedal, each one painted by a noteworthy artist. After a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign last summer, production is now underway on the new Olympia Fuzz pedal. With Herndon at the helm, a handful of part-time musicians wire and number each pedal by hand. Parts including printed circuit boards are sourced from several local and regional businesses, which Herndon says is more cost-effective than outsourcing in the long run.
He credits the Incubator, the Center for Manufacturing and Technology, the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, and the mentorship of Dr. Richard Robinson from the Moore School and local businessman and Midlands Technical College VP Tom Ledbetter with nurturing his company’s continued success.
“An effect pedal is a sound processing device, and handcrafting them is kind of like the microbrew industry — everyone has a different recipe. Although modern technology is certainly involved in design, manufacturing and distribution, our sound is all analog, which is so much better than digital for creating these kinds of sound. In terms of design, we’re like a 1970s pedal company that got marooned—everything else changed with the times, but somebody forgot to tell us. Our first product, the Wave Cannon, was named one of the Top Ten pedals of the year in 2011 by Guitar World magazine. It’s based on and inspired by our favorite op-amp fuzzes and distortions from the ‘70s and ’80s.”
Herndon also draws inspiration for the longevity and durability of his products from his Dad’s 1962 camera. “Dad was a Vietnam photo journalist, and used the same Nikon F-Series in Vietnam as he used at my college graduation in the late ’90s. I’m trying to build these products for lifetime usage, just like that camera was.”
Caroline Guitar Company brands each pedal as not only made in the U.S.A. and made in S.C. Carolina, but also made in Columbia. Builders sign and number each pedal they create, adding a personal touch with a quirky line drawing or “pithy quote.” Columbia is clearly identified as the birthplace of pedals now used in Boston, New York, Melbourne, Toronto and Tokyo.
“Being proud to call South Carolina home, much less Columbia, is still a hurdle that can be tough to navigate,” says Herndon. “More often than not, we make national news for all the wrong reasons. There’s a local sense of insecurity and a small collection of people who still believe that if something is made here, it couldn’t possibly be among the best there is. At least in the world of guitar effect pedals, we’re working to prove them wrong every day.”