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FEATURE ‌ The Genius Next Door

Hunting for a good idea in S.C.

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The unveiling of new construction up the road in Google Creek indicates that the techie crowd is kicking its allergy to the South, and for good reason. South Carolina is home to a myriad of gifted, technology-minded entrepreneurs at the forefront of groundbreaking research and business ideas. Who knew?

Last spring marked the first New Ideas for a New Carolina Campaign, a contest that gives S.C. residents the chance to win $3,000, the attention of investors, and a scholarship to the FastTrac program for small business owners. The winners in six categories included athletefocus.com (an online community for athletes that has reached nearly a million hits in a year), Pillow Right Now (specially-made pillows for open-heart surgery patients to hold to their chest when they cough), and AlphaPour (a hydrogen fuel cell research company based in Columbia.)

Here in Charleston, MUSC's Dr. Sebastiano Gattoni-Celli won the Life Sciences award for his ideas about testing drugs for cancer and Alzheimer's disease on lab mice. "Winning crystalized the idea of setting up a real company," says Gattoni-Celli. "This area of the country is not very familiar with biotech industries. They are knowledge-based and very capital intensive, and the returns may not come for 5 to 10 years."

Success in a biotech company is measured in milestones — if a drug shrinks the lesions on the brain of a mouse, that's a milestone, and the company becomes more valuable. Venture capitalists and people with a vested interest in the research then invest, trusting that the company will produce a product that gains FDA approval, eventually providing a return.

Gattoni-Celli is a finalist in the New Ideas contest again this year, this time with a plan to study overproduction of particular proteins in mice for new treatments of Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS). The 2007 competition, cosponsored by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's ThinkTEC, FastTracSC, SC Launch!, InnoVenture, BB&T, and SC's Council on Competitiveness, has expanded to 12 categories.

Covering everything from environmental sustainability to tourism, they've already received applications from 27 counties throughout the state. There's a new category for college students, as well as a wild card, with the winner chosen by online voters. From newcarolina.org, entries in that category include:

·  Beer StockXchange Bar: Bar whose inventory would be hooked up to the cash register's computer. Every five minutes the price of different beers would fluctuate depending on the quantity sold. Business owners could manipulate the market to push inventory. Plasma screens would project the prices on the wall, and patrons could purchase their selection via a "touch screen interface." Day trading just got swilly.

·  Capsule Hotel: Based on a successful business in Japan, this idea banks on a market of college students who want to take naps between classes but can't make it home. Combined with a nearby garage for cars, people could rent a capsule by the hour and catch some zzzs. Sounds like a tanning salon without the tan.

·  Interactive Street Advertising: Webcams would establish the presence of a passerby, and ads would then be projected onto the sidewalk, interacting with people to draw attention to products or sales. (Outside a pet store, a little dog could chase you as you walk past.) GPS Bluetooth phones would also allow people to receive a coupon or discount at the store. This could be the bane of husbands everywhere.

·  JetWing: This device would allow a crashing airplane to "drop" its fuel tanks before impact to eliminate lessen the potential of a fiery explosion.

·  17 South Seafood: This is a "vertically integrated" buyer, distributor, wholesaler and retailer of local South Carolina seafood. Circumventing the conventional, largely unsustainable seafood industry channels, it would source local products directly from fishermen, shrimpers, and aqua-culturists for sale to consumers, restaurants, and 17 South retail stores. Because local fish taste better.

·  Bark After Dark: This member-based, indoor, and climate-controlled dog-walking facility would essentially be a dog park for petowners who can't get there during the day. No word on how to train your dog that it's okay to poop inside again.

·  Aquatic Muscle: A swimming body suit with five interchangeable levels of buoyancy, designed for children, to teach them how to swim at their own pace. Counseling is also offered in case other children see little Tommy wearing this.

Online voting took place between April 25-30 (linked from the City Paper blog), and the winner will be announced on Mon., May 7, at the ThinkTEC Innovation Summit in Charleston, a conference dedicated to increasing Charleston's "knowledge economy."

"Some of last year's winners had these ideas for years," says Kira Perdue, PR representative for the contest. "They talked about it at backyard barbecues and cocktail parties, and when the contest came up, said 'What the heck, I'll give it a try.' Then they suddenly got the attention of investors."

"I always have great ideas," says Josh Staples, a 3D animator for NOAA and the brains responsible for the Beer StockXchange and Interactive Street Advertising. "This contest finally gave me the initiative to throw them out into the wind and see if they take flight."

S.C.'s reputation among techies may never rival Silicon Valley's, but competitions like New Ideas for a New Carolina show off a vibrant pool of homegrown entrepreneurial creativity. And if the Beer StockXchange wins, happy hour in Charleston may get a little bit longer.

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