(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a multi-part series focused on SCRA, officially known as the South Carolina Research Authority. The state-chartered organization was established in 1983 to promote job creation in South Carolina’s innovation economy. SCRA’s impact on the state’s economy has averaged $688 million annually.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
For those involved in tech-based innovation in the south, there are several statewide organizations that are noted for their impact. One is the South Carolina Research Authority, better known by its short acronym – SCRA.
Created in 1983, the state-chartered organization is focused on fueling the Palmetto State’s innovation economy by accelerating technology-enabled growth in research, academia, industry and entrepreneurship. Perhaps the best-known program in the fourth area is SC Launch, which provides start-ups with mentoring, access to business experts, grants, and potential investments from SCRA’s affiliate, SC Launch, Inc.
We first became familiar with SCRA during our early days at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Ironically, one of my colleagues when I arrived at the lab in mid-2004 was Bob Quinn, a long-time employee of Battelle who was seconded to ORNL to serve as Director of Technology Commercialization. Later, he was based at SCRA as a representative of ORNL’s National Security Directorate before leaving ORNL in 2008 to run 360ip, another Battelle initiative.
Today, Quinn is Executive Director of SCRA, leading a fine-tuning of the organization, and we had the opportunity recently to have an extended interview with him to learn more about the organization’s programs and impact.
“My three years at SCRA representing ORNL gave me a bird’s eye view of the organization,” Quinn told us, noting that he told himself, “If an opportunity ever develops, this is the kind of organization I want to work for.”
Little did he know that the opportunity would emerge eight years later.
“In 2016, I got word that SCRA was looking to fill the Executive Director role,” Quinn said. As a resident of the Palmetto State, he saw the position as an opportunity to significantly impact South Carolina. “I gave myself a 10 percent chance of landing the position.”
Fortunately for Quinn, the prognostication proved to be wrong, and he assumed the leadership role in August 1, 2016. (Click here to read the news release announcing his appointment.)
For the new Executive Director, his first major task was to unwind something that had been established in 1998 as a way of providing financial sustainability for SCRA.
“When we were established in 1983, the state provided $500,000 in cash and 1,400 acres,” Quinn explained. “That was the only direct funding we received.”
To diversify its funding, SCRA created Advanced Technology International (ATI) to manage government contracts, primarily with the military. Ironically, it was that effort that connected Quinn and SCRA when he represented ORNL from 2005 to 2008. Eighteen years after creating ATI, SCRA’s Board of Trustees felt government contracting was distracting from SCRA’s mission to grow South Carolina’s technology sector and not allowing the organization to focus on supporting the state’s researchers and entrepreneurs. So, as noted in this article from the Charleston Post and Courier, SCRA decided to sell ATI.
“My first assignment after becoming Executive Director was to separate ATI and get SCRA back to its core mission,” Quinn said. That was accomplished when Analytic Services Inc. (ANSER) bought ATI in 2017 with an upfront payment and earn outs over the next three years.
“We’re using those funds to establish an annuity,” Quinn said. “That divestiture has allowed us to have a laser-like focus on our core mission . . . fueling South Carolina’s innovation economy.”
NEXT: What are SCRA’s priorities today? What kind of impact is the organization having on the Palmetto State?