Alyssa Coleman works as the customer development specialist at Van Robotics. The company’s customer development team consists of only teachers. (Photos by Chris Newman/Carolina News and Reporter)

Columbia is not home to Fortune 500 companies such as Apple and Tesla.

It’s finding its new wave of businesses through homegrown tech startups.

GrowCo, a company that mentors and supports tech startups in Columbia, allows innovators to collaborate in a shared space.

Columbia is already growing such jobs, said GrowCo’s executive director Caroline Crowder. But she wants to make the city a hotspot for entrepreneurs.

GrowCo signed three new groups since moving into the newly opened Boyd Innovation Center in Fall 2022. The company is now helping those groups build businesses from scratch, Crowder said.

“These cohorts will generate 40 new founders in Columbia,” she said.

Van Robotics, a Columbia-based startup, uses part of the Boyd Center as an office space. The company creates small, AI-enabled robot tutors called ABii to help teachers engage more closely with their students.

“We’re in about 35% of S.C. schools, 38 states and eight countries, going on nine,” CEO Laura Boccanfuso said.

The Boyd Center helps with the challenges of starting a company, Boccanfuso said.

GrowCo holds two meetings weekly, Tech Beans and Lunch and Learn, so the center’s entrepreneurs can meet and discuss plans and ideas among each other.

Health Evolve is another startup created in the Boyd Center. Now our on its own, it promotes healthcare equity.

The company’s newest product is called Lauren, a patient-driven app that produces a patient’s care profile based on their health risk and health equity. The app targets pregnant women.

Health Evolve CEO Kim Smith uses her obsession with helping people to drive her business in the right direction.

Along with working in the medical administration field, Smith volunteered for 11 years after the loss of her daughter due to a pregnancy hypertensive disorder. 

“A large portion of my life has been dedicated to serving and volunteering,” Smith said.

But she felt like wasn’t able to help make the changes she sought and wanted to do more, faster.

“As a medical executive, I was kind of responsible for growing this medical corporate machine,” she said.

She left her job out of frustration and decided to start a new tech company that has room for growth.

She has gotten this far with her company because of passion, Smith said. But she recognizes the aid she received from the innovation center.

“The center allowed me to get information and help from other innovators from diverse backgrounds and history,” Smith said.

The space allowed her to collaborate with other tech startups.

“Even if you don’t have the knowledge, you can always find people there to help you,” Smith said.

GrowCo wants Columbia to be the heart of the tech community in South Carolina.

“This isn’t an incubator” where businesses stay forever, Crowder said. “We want these startups out there on their own, eventually.”

Located in on Saluda Avenue in Five Points, the Boyd Innovation Center opened its doors to new entrepreneurs in Fall 2022.

Laura Boccanfuso sets up weekly meetings with her company in the Boyd Center. Other startups use the space, but Van Robotics is the only one using the space daily.

New entrepreneurs take advantage of the open space inside the office. Silent booths are used for phone calls and meetings.

Van Robotics’ products are used by teachers across the world. The ABii robot tutor sells for $1,500 on the company’s website.