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Innovation center: Former telecom exec leads search for ideas in need of nurture

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

John Kenny at the Georgetown Innovation Center is looking for people who want to turn their ideas into businesses.

The non-profit at 901 Front St. has resources available from Clemson University, Coastal Carolina University and Horry-Georgetown Technical College to do everything from market research and product testing to providing financial and legal advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. The Georgetown office is a satellite of a similar center in Conway and one of five in the state.

“We are interested in anyone with an idea for a business,” Kenny said, “to see if their idea is legitimate and likely to become profitable or is it a hobby. A lot of businesses have begun with one or two people in a garage and grown to very large companies.”

Kenny said the Georgetown Innovation Center charges no fees and has no interest in owning or running a business. His first client needed substantial market research to determine if there is somebody already in the market providing the same service better or cheaper. One needed a business plan. Another needed advice about protecting intellectual property.

“We are in a position to say we have the expertise or have someone available,” Kenny said. Someone had discovered a chemical to remove bitterness from wine. Kenny sent the formula to Clemson labs for testing. Another wanted an opinion on an application to review educational materials. “This is a wonderful opportunity to build or expand a business. We need to look at more than tourism and retail. We need to look at our natural resources, look at timber and farming. One thing I learned in the last 15 years in D.C. working with technology is that people are coming up with solutions in every industry that changes the economics.”

Kenny is a retired Washington, D.C., lawyer who moved to Georgetown four years ago with his wife to care for her aging mother. He worked for a congressman on the telecommunications subcommittee and became general counsel for the Cable TV Association. He was hired in the 1970s as the first general counsel for Southern Pacific Communications, which became Sprint Telephone. “I did an awful lot in my career in telecommunications and technology,” Kenny said. He said he got interested in the strategic side of business before leaving Washington.

He volunteered to be president of the non-profit Washington, D.C., Technology Council and wanted a similar thing for Georgetown but with a broader appeal to include manufacturing. There’s a synergy between the Georgetown Innovation Council and StartUp SC at the Litchfield Exchange, Kenny said, but they are different operations. “Their emphasis is almost entirely on technology, ideally Internet-based,” he said. “They tend to be a competitive environment, almost like ‘Shark Tank.’ Theirs is around that sort of model.”

Kenny wants to nurture ideas and get them to grow. “Georgetown has wonderful potential,” he said. “With the fire and the flood and the closing of the mill, having this presence here in town with the resources behind it is just terrific.”

Brian Tucker, Georgetown County’s economic development director, said the innovation center and StartUp SC can feed off each other. “Any resources that can be put behind individuals with ideas to help nurture jobs, I think that’s a great thing,” Tucker said. “We are looking to build on that.”

Kenny is drawn to ideas that help people but had to learn about the peculiarities of Georgetown. When he heard about the American Marine Institute’s branch he told his wife he wanted to get involved in helping those boys. “You have to be kidding me,” she said. “The family business is Tara Hall.” She had grown up as best friends with the wife of Jim Dumm, director of Tara Hall Home for Boys. Kenny became chairman of the board at Tara Hall.

Kenny said the facilities on Front Street are available for Coastal Carolina’s Osher Lifelong Learning programs and small business organizations. It has a conference room for board meetings and presentations, and next door’s classrooms are available too. “My hope is we’ll have bodies in here and get visibility,” he said.

Other business news: StarupSC: Tech incubator turns ideas into reality

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