June 13, 2009

Flagship Sets Sail For Future

John P. McDermott  /  Post and Courier

The City of Charleston's newly opened Flagship building at 475-A East Bay St. has a sleek urban look. The Starbucks next door is a nice amenity. But what really sold researcher Gautam S. Ghatnekar was the proximity of his new office to the lab that his small biotechnology firm uses at the Medical University of South Carolina.

"I can hop in the car and be there in five minutes," said Ghatnekar, president and chief executive of MUSC spin-off FirstString Research, which is developing anti-scarring and tissue-healing therapies. Ghatnekar is among the first batch of entrepreneurs to move into in the City of Charleston's sleek and newly opened Flagship project, which is described as a "co-working business environment."

Over the course of eight weeks, the 5,400-square foot space at 475-A East Bay St. was transformed using sustainable construction techniques into a contemporary urban chic workplace that is made up of a series of small glass-encased office stations. It also offers on-site parking, high-speed Internet connections, conference rooms and common areas.

"The setting is very cool," said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. "Its a part of our commitment to help incubate and grow 'new economy' businesses," he added.

Flagship, which was announced in January and was ready for occupancy June 1, was the brainchild of Ernest Andrade, the city's business development director and head of the Charleston Digital Corridor, which works to promote and expand the local tech industry. Rents are $400 to $800 a month, and the space is managed by a nonprofit arm of the Digital Corridor. But not every business can get their feet in the door.

Andrade said he is specifically looking for promising young entrepreneurial startups in fields such as biotech and software that advance the Digital Corridor's economic-development goals. Flagship is not meant to be a long-term home, either, he said. Leases are generally expire after a year, though the terms can be extended in some circumstances. Businesses that make any progress within a reasonable period will not have their rental agreements renewed, he said.

Jeff Montgomery, a former Blackbaud Inc. employee who started software developer Palmetto Tech, said he moved into Flagship to be closer to other business owners who have similar interests, ideas and challenges. His previous office in West Ashley was located between a massage therapist and a real estate firm. "It's more expensive than what we were paying but it's well worth it," Montgomery said.

Another occupant announced Friday is Wave Sciences Corporation, a two-year-old firm that specializes in audio and video surveillance analysis, primarily for the government. J. Keith McElveen, president, said he considered sites in Atlanta and North Carolina but chose the Lowcountry partly because of its growing cluster of federal agencies and defense contractors. "There is an energy in Charleston similar to what I saw at Raleigh's Research Triangle Park several years back," said McElveen, who relocated from Hartsville. "There is a definite feeling that this place is going somewhere."

Andrade said his hope is that Flagship will create a "sense of loyalty" among the tiny firms that pass through and pay off down the road as they move out, expand and create jobs. He also said the center will provide a showcase of the region's technology talent for visiting venture capitalists.

"The city has stepped up its game," Andrade said.