Skip to main content

Columbia Business Monthly

Advancing Advances

Oct 02, 2017 10:41AM ● By Makayla Gay

John Jeter

From a manufacturer of high-voltage cables to a super-sophisticated startup whose physics-driven platform could revolutionize the transmission of data, the Midlands is brimming with brain-powered companies that advance advanced manufacturing.

“The trends in the Midlands are positive,” says research economist Joey Von Nessen. “Advanced manufacturing comprises about four percent to six percent of the Midlands’ economy. If we look overall, at aerospace, automotive, and tires, manufacturing continues to be the major driver for the state’s economy, including the Midlands.”

Von Nessen also happens to work at University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business, part of the cranial-industrial complex in the heart of Richland County, where a startup called MagAssemble rents lab and manufacturing space on campus.

Trying to explain what MagAssemble does is darn near impossible. The National Science Foundation, in its second grant to the company—$733,870, which was awarded in 2016 and runs to 2018—explains it this way: The company builds “optical components that are both smaller and lower cost in order to serve the fiber-optic sensor, telecommunications, and lens markets.”

The NSF also says, “Demand could reach eight figures for a single customer, thus transforming optics manufacturing across the entire spectrum of markets that use photonics: biomedical, energy, military, and consumer.”

MagAssemble formed in 2012 with its first NSF grant for $150,000. “At this point,” Chief Customer Officer Tyler Tatum says, “we’ve been lucky enough to not have to need traditional investor rounds. We probably will at some point.”

Thomas Crawford, founder and chief technology officer, is also a professor in USC’s SmartState Center for Experimental Nanoscale Physics, where MagAssemble’s five employees manufacture hyper-complicated gizmos that bend and twist light.

The company’s listed among 67 startups and corporate relocations in South Carolina’s SmartState Program, founded in 2002 to harness the research power of USC, Clemson University, and the Medical University of South Carolina. Those program centers and companies work in fields ranging from biomedicine to nuclear technology to even more—and increasingly advanced—smart stuff.

In SmartState’s 2015-’16 annual report, Von Nessen writes:

“As of 2016, the SmartState Program is responsible for helping to create and support approximately 12,483 jobs in South Carolina, which is associated with over $2.4 billion in economic activity and $669 million in labor income for South Carolinians that would not exist otherwise.”

While these numbers aren’t Midlands-specific, they do reflect the intensity of advanced manufacturing’s public-private collaboration and the sector’s 16 percent growth in the state since 2011.

That figure comes from the Central SC Alliance, which also reports that advanced manufacturing accounted for 11 percent of South Carolina’s total employment last year.

As for where all these highly trained workers come from, Crawford says, “We grow our own.” Lacking the futuristic facilities and battalions of brainiacs readily available in, say, Silicon Valley or Research Triangle Park, recruits are nonetheless available.

“So far, we’ve been growing our own from within the university. That provides a source of talent,” Crawford says. “Without 50 companies clustered here, it’s really hard to walk down the street and pick off the best, but that is something I think we will still develop. We’ve been able to make significant progress because of the university’s personnel and the strength of the university.”

Meanwhile, Prysmian Group, an Italian company with €7.5 billion in annual sales and nearly 20,000 employees worldwide, continues expanding in the Midlands—and the state. The manufacturer of next-gen cables for the telecom and energy markets, from the world’s tallest building to undersea cables, built its North American headquarters in Lexington in the 1980s.

In July, the company, which operates 88 plants in 50 countries, announced a $14 million expansion at its Abbeville facility. Among 41 other existing advanced manufacturers to boost their presence here in 2016, according to the state Department of Commerce, Prysmian and its investment will support sustainable-energy projects, specifically offshore wind farms.

“We were initially attracted to the area for its skilled workforce and ease of doing business,” says Hakan Ozmen, Prysmian North America’s CEO. “Over the years, the manufacturing industry has grown drastically throughout the state, creating a manufacturing ecosystem in the Columbia region that has led to the talented workforce we have today.”

Prysmian’s engineers come from the likes of Duke, Georgia Tech, Clemson, and USC, Ozmen says.

“We work to have good relations with our local workforce and provide advantages to remain fair, including wages above national minimums,” he says.

“The Midlands region not only offers prospective employees a wealth of employment opportunities, but also the unique South Carolina lifestyle that’s hard to match with proximity to the coast and the mountains. For those focused on career and who have family, South Carolina is very family-friendly.”

Clint Chandler, chairman of Midlands Technical College’s Engineering and Technologies Department, says the state’s working to improve its educational ecosystem.

“How advanced materials, advanced manufacturing fit into the local economy is that until about seven or eight years ago, when we really started trying to insert ourselves into the process, if a company needed somebody who was an expert in, say, electronic materials or sophisticated fiber technology, they typically got these people from some other place, they didn’t even look here. Which was a mistake.”

Nowadays, though, he says, “The problem we’ve got right now is that we have to put educational systems in place. We have to support those systems, and we have to anticipate these things so that we’ve got people out there who are qualified to do those jobs. We’ve been working on that for quite a while now.”

With an annual cohort of as many as 90 students in the engineering technologies program, Chandler says he’s seeing small, but steady growth, primarily because MTC’s working to get the word out about the promise of advanced manufacturing in the Midlands and beyond.

“We’re sort of fledgling,” he says. “We’re just now getting our bearings and getting our legs under us so that we can become a large and powerful industrial face in the state and in the country.”