Smaller Cities Vie To Be The Next Silicon Valley

By Mindy Fetterman


A tiny light bulb hooked up to a computer lights up, and Antonio Rojas-Rodriguez smiles.

“I did it! I did it!” he laughs. It is the first time the 20-year-old business student at the College of Charleston has written a software program.

Light on. Light off. It seems simple, but teaching students to write code is one way this grand old lady of iron latticework and history is trying to become an entrepreneurial haven.

Cities and states across the country are trying to promote entrepreneurship, especially in technology. With dreams of becoming the next Silicon Valley — or at least something like it — they are providing money and expertise to startups and clustering tech companies in millennial-friendly neighborhoods.

These aren’t the tech giants, like San Francisco (Silicon Valley), New York City (Silicon Alley) or Boston (Route 128). These places aren’t even ready to challenge Austin, Denver or Miami — at least not yet. They are small and midsize cities where centuries-old mills, foundries and factories have collapsed. Now they are trying to build 21st century economies — from the downtown up.

In Charleston, the Interdisciplinary Center for Applied Technology (ICAT) program at the College of Charleston is nurturing — and funding — the business dreams of students such as Rojas-Rodriguez. ICAT was created this year with a $250,000 grant from South Carolina’s Commerce Department, and has raised another $250,000 from private companies and individuals. Six of the eight student projects in the inaugural class have been incorporated as businesses.

“We don’t promise kids that they’ll be millionaires, or even successful entrepreneurs,” ICAT Director Christopher Starr said. “But we give them the whole experience. They’ll be ready if they want to do it. And we want them to do it here.”

Others in Charleston are pursuing similar strategies. The Harbor Entrepreneur Center, a nonprofit business-accelerator with four locations in the metro area, provides mentors, free or cheap office space and training for startups in any industry. The nonprofit takes a $5,000 cut if the startup reaches $100,000 in investment or $250,000 in revenue in its first two years.

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