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TechSC and its Plan to Help Grow the Tech Community in South Carolina

January 10, 2020

Episode 2 of BOOM! The Southeastern Commerce Podcast takes us to Columbia, South Carolina, where we join Preston Grisham (TechSC) and Adams and Reese attorneys Jack Pringle and Chris Kane for a discussion on South Carolina's statewide initiative aimed at driving technology growth and innovation. The trio discusses how virtually every company has become a technology company, given the amounts of data they store, as well as the inherent cybersecurity risks for all types of companies in today's interconnected world.

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Transcript and Show Notes

Christopher Kane: Hello, everyone. I’m Chris Kane with Adams and Reese in New Orleans. Welcome to this episode of Boom! The Southeastern Commerce Podcast, where we talk trade, economic development and business issues affecting the region. Today we’ll be focusing on South Carolina and having a conversation with Preston Grisham, Director of the newly formed TechSC, which is a statewide industry-based initiative uniting South Carolina’s technology community, and Jack Pringle, a partner of mine in South Carolina. Jack is part of our Privacy, Cybersecurity and Data Management Team here at Adams and Reese.

Preston, welcome. We are looking forward to hearing about what you’ve got going on with TechSC and some of the exciting trends and things to look forward to as it relates to the South Carolina technology and economic community that you’re working tirelessly on. Preston comes with years of experience in technology and specifically with public policy background and experience. We were talking just before the show, we’ve got a good mutual buddy of ours, Jonathan Day; Preston used to work with Congressman Wilson. I’m sure you still work very close with his office, and it’s fun to talk to friends of friends. So welcome to the program and I’d like to get started off if you could, just tell us a little bit about what you’ve got going on with TechSC and your role as the director for that organization.

Preston Grisham: Yeah, Chris, thank you. I’m excited to be here with you and Jack. Jack’s been instrumental in helping us build TechSC from the ground up here and get our cybersecurity efforts and technology companies involved throughout the state. So as you mentioned, we are a newly formed group. We started in April this past year. Had our official launch in August. And our mission really is to accelerate and grow innovation and technology throughout South Carolina, serving as a unified voice for our technology community. Really wanting to develop a strong 21st-century workforce for the companies here in the state supporting our entrepreneurs. As well as just connecting peers and decision-makers throughout the state. Really making sure that we centralize South Carolina as a global hub for innovation here. So we’re really excited about the momentum that we’ve seen over the last six to eight months and are looking to build on that in 2020.

Christopher Kane: Well, that’s exciting, and it seems like a very critical element that you’re adding into the culture and environment to try to motivate and mature this particular industry. And I would imagine with that there’s some current trends in the state of the South Carolina technology economy that obviously is going to benefit from it and supports what you’re doing. What do you see as some of the key trends right now that are emerging that you’re focusing on?

Preston Grisham: It’s segmented a little bit throughout the state. I mean, obviously South Carolina historically has been a very large manufacturing state. We currently have BMW and Boeing and Volvo, Mercedes. We also are a large tire manufacturer, and a lot of those industries have spurred different kinds of technologies that are dealing with manufacturing 4.0 and supply chain technology that we’ve seen out of there.

And then we also have a large defense sector, and we’ve seen a lot of cybersecurity technology that has come out of that as well. We’re seeing software products that are being created. So I mean, I think the biggest trend in South Carolina — which is similar to across the country — is in IT services and especially in custom software services. Folks that are creating products that are — you know, no longer are folks just buying the same thing off the shelf. But they are kind of getting these custom products that are unique to their business, that work for their particular industry. And we’ve got a lot of companies in South Carolina that are creating these custom software solutions. And it’s been awesome to see that growth throughout the entire state.

Jack Pringle: One thing I’d add to what Preston said is, and it’s a point that Preston made some time ago that really resonates and helped me understand what we’re seeing here, is that many of the types of industry sectors and companies that are very active in South Carolina, they don’t appear on their face to be technology companies. Because they are transportation companies, or they’re manufacturing companies, or they’re shipping companies.

But increasingly, because we live in an ever-connected world, these companies and all companies have a very large technological component to what they do. They’re all storing lots of information. They’re all transmitting information with their vendors and with their customers and with their trusted providers. And so most companies, even if they don’t appear to be what we’ve all thought over the years to be technology companies, face these issues and have lots of challenges and need to have a resource like TechSC who can be a clearinghouse for information and understanding public policy issues and navigating the South Carolina procurement process and weighing in on public policy on so many different issues. Whether it’s 5G or small cell wireless deployment or a host of other issues, cybersecurity and privacy.

So there’s a lot to be done and a lot of — when you get into this, you discover that a lot of these companies are a lot more technology-based than you would have thought at first.

Preston Grisham: Jack, I think you nailed it. And one of the challenges that presents is, when we talk a lot about workforce development issues and the need for talent, you may not see a lot of large technology companies when you think about the companies that are out there. But at the same time, our largest tech company in the state of South Carolina is Blue Cross/Blue Shield. They’re an insurance company, but here in South Carolina, they have thousands of employees that work in cloud data centers and database management and networking. They provide assistance and services for 23 or 24 other state Blue Cross associations across the country and with TRICARE and with Medicare. And they’re a very, very large technology company here in South Carolina, and most people just kind of look at them as oh, they’re an insurance company.

So it is for us the industry promotion side and highlighting what the folks at companies like Blue Cross or Boeing or BMW are doing to contribute to the overall technology ecosystem in the state.

Christopher Kane: So let me ask you this, because as we see the technology continue to ramp up and the need for talent, particularly in order to service these companies, which is going to really fuel South Carolina’s growth in this market, are you engaged with and participating in conversations with your higher education partners? If so, how does that partnership look and how does it work?

Preston Grisham: Yeah, every day, as a matter of fact. We work very closely with our four-year institutions across the state, as well as our two-year technical college system. I’m also very plugged in, work closely with Apprenticeship Carolina, which is our state’s registered apprenticeship program, and it’s highly regarded. It’s one of the best registered apprenticeship programs in the country.

And so what we’re trying to do is utilize at every level, be it coming out of STEM education programs in K through 12, getting folks into associate degrees and then on to four-year colleges. And working closely with these educational institutions to identify the needs of the industry to say, hey, these are the actual programs and the skill sets that we’re needing today and making sure that schools are providing that exact training. As you can imagine, the speed of technology is changing so quickly, so the idea of things like Azure and AWS cloud systems and some of the React and Node-type programming languages are — just barely make it into curriculum now as those things are so new to the industry.

So we’re working very closely to identify those needs from our industry partners and working with the colleges and technical school systems as well to make sure that those are integrated into their curriculum. And also to make sure that we have apprenticeship programs and internship programs that allow these students to get the hands-on training and skills that they need to be able to get these jobs right out of school.

Christopher Kane: Let me turn a little bit to how you guys have kind of organized and formed yourselves. Our audience is focused on the Southeast United States, and while we all look at our own neighborhoods and cities and where we come from, collectively, our economy is really interdependent on the viability of the entire region. So, you know, from South Carolina to Tennessee to — all the way down to Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana. We’re trying to figure these things out, and it seems like you guys really have done a good job of getting an organization that’s focused on how we move in that direction. And I’d like you to share that with our audience on exactly how TechSC became organized and how it’s operating and structured.

Preston Grisham: Yeah, absolutely. So we are structured as a statewide initiative under the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness. And here in South Carolina, the council is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that organizes different industry clusters. So here in the state, we manage the South Carolina aerospace cluster, which is focused obviously on our aerospace industry. We own a South Carolina logistics cluster that works very closely with our supply chain and manufacturing. And TechSC is an initiative of that, and we are largely an industry-led organization.

So I mean, our primary partners are technology companies across the state and larger companies with big technology workforces. So if you think about the financial institutions, manufacturing companies, those folks that have IT workforces that need support.

So that’s how we’re organized. Throughout the Southeast, we have a number of technology councils and associations that we work closely with to share ideas and best practices, to kind of understand what they’re doing. So there’s a very robust group in North Carolina with NC Tech. In Georgia, they have a Technology Association of Georgia. And then throughout the Southeast, we see a number of local technology associations. I think Birmingham has a very good local technology association, and within Tennessee, you see Nashville and Chattanooga. And all of these groups work very closely together in terms of our region to help make sure that we’re able to attract talent and the skills, the folks and the companies that are from the rest of — you know, the West Coast, Oregon and Washington and California and such.

Jack Pringle: Yeah, and to follow up on what Preston said about some of the way TechSC is organized, there are several different sort of areas, whether you call them working groups or areas of focus. And we’ve already talked a little bit about workforce development and the STEM education, the science, technology and math education to move that forward. A couple of the areas that we touched on just briefly, but that we’re finding that there’s a real ready market for education and resources and growth and learning is, not surprisingly, cybersecurity and data privacy.

One of the things that Preston’s done a great job with already is to put together events where industry representatives who work for forensic companies or cybersecurity companies or managed service companies, will get on a panel and talk to a group about what they’re seeing, the threat landscape, the way organizations are building and improving their security programs. And we’re finding that there’s a real demand for good solid resources and the ability to learn more, the ability to share information, to share threat information and best practices so that those organizations can continue to evolve as the threat landscape evolves.

And likewise another real benefit I believe that’s going to prove from TechSC is on the public policy front, given that there are numerous federal and state initiatives and proposed legislation, even at the local level, that are taking place. And oftentimes technology companies, especially those who are small and sort of in start-up mode and are just focusing everything on just trying to get a service or product to market, have not had the bandwidth if you will to focus on, well, what would really benefit us on a tax incentives level? Or what kinds of things might affect our ability to do business in municipalities and counties and at the state level?

And so TechSC is going to focus a lot of efforts on educating its members on what those issues are and to provide the ability for its member companies to interface with public policymakers at the local and state and even federal levels, to articulate their concerns, to talk about the challenges they face when they’re trying to do business and trying to grow and trying to navigate various laws. So that’s going to be a really important resource for all of these member companies and those who get involved with TechSC.

Christopher Kane: Well, it sounds like really the way that South Carolina has focused on technology and emerging technology, has been to intersect where the government policy component meets the private sector. If I understand correctly, you’ve explained that it is a 501(c)(3). I assume it’s funded through the government or some sort of government component. Is there any private funding that’s part of the organization? Or is it just by virtue of the knowledge and expertise that they bring to the table?

Preston Grisham: No, the majority of our funding comes through our industry partners. So it will be the companies that are working with our organization, is how we are funded.

Christopher Kane: Which is consistent with the national trend really of true public/private partnership models coming into play to try to stand up and support where there needs to be this sort of activity, this sort of commitment. And it sounds like you guys really are figuring it out very well. I think you mentioned you’ve been the director now, Preston, for six months or so?

Preston Grisham: Yeah, exactly. I came over full-time and started working on this about April 1st of this past year.

Christopher Kane: I’m sure it’s been a whirlwind for you. What would you say some of the biggest achievements that you have seen so far in the 2019 year that you’re proud of for the organization?

Preston Grisham: You know, it’s really just growing the awareness and the understanding for the need of an organization like this. As we’ve traveled, I think, you know, we talk about the last six or seven months, I think I’ve done about 30,000 miles within the borders of South Carolina, all over the state, meeting with companies and talking with individuals and academic partners, explaining a little bit about what we’re trying to accomplish with TechSC. And we’ve just had an overwhelming response from businesses and other agencies that say, this is something that we need to do. This is a focus that the state — we need to be making on our — you know, overall statewide economy.

And as Jack alluded to, I think one of the other things that we’ve really done is bring some additional awareness through several different sectors around data security and the need for increased funding and awareness around data privacy within organizations. I think we’re all aware that the weakest link of any cybersecurity, it can be suppliers or other folks outside of organizations. And for us to be able to go in and spend some time and educate small to medium size businesses on the importance of hardening their systems and increased data security, has been probably one of the most rewarding things we’ve seen so far. And that’s a program that we really want to ramp up in 2020 and take across South Carolina, partnering with other organizations, statewide associations, as well as local Chambers of Commerce and regional economic development alliances, just to make sure that companies around the state understand that need, to put resources and to turn their attention to data security.

Christopher Kane: And Jack, if you could, I think this would be a good time for us to talk briefly about what you’re doing. You’re at the forefront with our privacy, cybersecurity and data management team. This was a need that didn’t really surface or wasn’t a known need perhaps until more recently in the last number of — last few years. Can you explain for the audience a little bit about what we’re seeing and what we’re dealing with, particularly the security attacks we’re seeing and the increased need to address these on the front end and how we’re involved?

Jack Pringle: Well, sure. There’s been a need for it ever since businesses began using computers to communicate and store and transmit information. But it has become increasingly more important and increasingly more potentially costly and dangerous now that we’re doing so much more business online and electronically. And because we now have a network that extended from years and years ago, were just big rooms of mainframe computers that then became desktop computers, that then became desktop computers that were connected to servers. That then became laptops and desktops that were connected to internets and connect networks that can send megabytes and terabytes of data around the world in one click. Which then extended to all of these devices we’re holding in our hands at all times that have more computing power than those mainframes that accomplished the moon landing.

And what that means is, there are more — while there are great benefits to be had from all of those things, there are also that many more risks to information and to computer systems and more, as we say, attack vectors, the way for information to be lost or compromised or systems to be compromised. So what we do in the cybersecurity and privacy realm is to try to help companies and individuals learn how to manage and protect information properly. To use and identify and adopt the right people, processes and appropriate technology to protect information and to know that there are many threats to financial transactions, fraud and business email compromise and ransomware, which is a particular problem for governmental entities.

As you well know right now in New Orleans, it has been seen in any number of other municipalities. To educate and to help policymakers and businesses and others recognize what these threats are and that even though we’ve got very — almost bewildering technology that changes a lot, that there are a lot of very concrete practical things that organizations can do to improve their security posture and become more prepared for events. It’s better to be prepared to respond to an event rather than to try to react to one without a plan.

And so that involves a lot of different things, but as Preston mentioned, a lot of it is getting in front of people and talking to them practically about the risks they face and the kind of actions that they can take right now to improve their organization’s security profiles.

Christopher Kane: That’s interesting and it’s crazy to think about how quickly the practice is emerging and as you mentioned, the need’s been there for so long. You mentioned the moon and it reminds me, the smartphones we have in our hands today are something like 100,000 times more powerful in processing ability than the computer that was on the Apollo that landed on the moon. And having an eight-year-old or nine-year-old daughter, I can’t imagine the technology that is going to be at their disposal later in life. We talk about autonomous vehicles, all the way to drones and how we’re seeing delivery and logistics changing. I’d like to hear from you guys, you’re in the forefront of this market, this industry and where it’s trending to. What do you see some of the more real, the things that are going to happen sooner rather than later from a technology trend perspective that would be of interest?

Preston Grisham: I think we are finally on that cusp of really seeing autonomous vehicles grow. Something we’ve all talked about for 15, 20 years has been self-driving cars are coming. But I think over the last couple of years we’ve really seen that technology escalate and ramp up really quickly. But there is going to be some tremendous policy issues that start coming around that. So there’s going to be a lot of challenges as some of these technology areas like that start to grow and become more prominent. I mean, we’re seeing it now with privacy issues, as we’ve got cell phones and cameras and microphones and things in everyone’s pocket all the time.

I think another area that’s really fascinating for us to watch is just, as we’ve kind of skipped over a lot of virtual reality, but seeing what the future is for augmented reality within — in the healthcare industry, within manufacturing, within education. You can now communicate with people. They can see what you’re seeing. And manufacturing, you can put overlays over products, as people are trying to work on systems. You can be talking and video chatting with someone, with a manufacturer halfway across the world. You can see what you’re doing and then put up an overlay that says, you need to fix this screw right here.

So I think augmented reality is going to be another big area where we see some tremendous technology advances. And if I had my one pipe dream, I’m still waiting for flying cars. I think this is the one where we all just want to see. But it’s fascinating too, we’ve seen a tremendous change. And I still believe in a way that some of the autonomous vehicles that we’re testing are getting kind of leapfrogged down the road with some of these flying vehicles. Put me down for this. It was going to be my pipe dream for 10 years. But taking the technology that’s been used in some of these quadcopters, those things. We’re seeing Uber and we’re seeing some other companies utilizing that same type of stable quadcopter idea and building that up into taxis and other systems that are actually being used right now in Dubai and some of these areas where it’s being tested out.

So I think those are some of the things that we’ll see over the next couple of years. But also just the idea of quantum computing and supercomputing. We’re seeing folks that can now run really, really big, enormous datasets and looking at some of the machine learning concepts that we can look at and predict and model things that we’d never been able to see before, that I think will drastically change. We can take billions of data points and pull together to make predictions. I think that’s going to be another thing that’s going to really revolutionize kind of the world we live in.

Jack Pringle: You’re absolutely right. I’d second that and I’d add to it the coming 5G, the next wireless standard that will enable essentially broadband technologies to extend to that many more devices. And the way that intersects with what you may have heard of is the Internet of Things, which is essentially the ability for so many more devices, including a lot of your customary household appliances that might have Internet connectivity built into them and the ability to store and transmit data.

And all of the attendant benefits, but also the security challenges that go along with it. I think it’s not an original idea, but the best description of this I heard was from Professors Brynjolfsson and McAfee at MIT who says — say that as a result of all of this confluence of computing power and computer storage and broadband technologies and a couple of other technologies, we’re on the second half of the chessboard. Which is just a metaphor for the kind of exponential growth that comes when all of those things kind of come together. And we will see a lot of those things that Preston described.

But what that means is, a lot of challenges for public policymakers and this ongoing need for all of us and especially the decision-makers and our lawmakers to have our laws and public policy keep pace with these changes. And these are real big challenges, but I’m excited that TechSC and the other organizations around here are ready to help South Carolina businesses and those across the Southeast meet those challenges and continue to grow and thrive and get the benefits while managing the risks and the potential downsides.

Christopher Kane: Well, thanks guys. This has been great. And so as virtual cocktails and people literally only talk through iPhones and text messages, which sometimes feels like that’s all we do, one tradition we’re starting on our podcast is to talk about a little bit of local cocktails with each of our guests. And I’d like to ask you guys, I’ll share my own favorite South Carolina place too, but where’s your favorite place to grab a drink in South Carolina?

Preston Grisham: I’m a Charleston boy, born and raised down there. So I’d say for me it’s being able to be next to the water. So anywhere along Shem Creek down in Charleston, be it Tavern and Table or Red’s, Saltwater Cowboys, one of those places is where you’ll pretty much find me any Friday afternoon with a drink, I’m sitting on the water.

Christopher Kane: And that’s the answer of a good lobbyist right there because you want to make sure when you walk into any of those places, you mentioned them. I like it. That’s well done. What about you Jack?

Jack Pringle: Well, when I’m in Charleston, I spent a couple of summers there, and if you go back long enough you’ll see that the Pringles actually came to the United States in Charleston. But I’m still kind of partial to the Blind Tiger from some years ago. And then around Columbia, I don’t want to steal your thunder of which one you like, Chris, so I won’t mention that one, which has some New Orleans connections. But I often find myself around here at the Publick House here in Columbia, which is another good traditional spot. But I’m not terribly partial, as long as I’ve got good company. I’ll go a lot of places.

Christopher Kane: Well, that’s fair enough. You didn’t steal my thunder, but it wouldn’t surprise many that my favorite spot is Bourbon on Main Street, and it’s not just because Chef Bradley knows how to make some good Cajun/Creole plates. But it’s because they have over 400 whiskeys and bourbons to try from, and it’s a neat little spot and I enjoy it.

Well look, guys, I want to thank you each for giving your time, talking about TechSC today. Real quickly want to mention, to get more information about TechSC, you can go to www.SCcompetes.org, and there’ll be a link to click on to learn more about TechSC and some of the upcoming events, including the TechSC Technology Outlook 2020. So again, Preston and Jack, thank you so much for your time today and really exciting stuff going on. And very impressed with the way that South Carolina has looked at this opportunity and a risk associated with it, in order to grow the economy and help attract talented folks and make sure that the private sector is at the table as these public policy discussions and decisions are being made.

So thank you each. Our next episode you can learn about when we post it on social media for our topic. And again, want to thank each of you for being here today, and we’ll see you next time.