The 21st century has set the speed for technological advancements, weaseling its way into every aspect of modern society. We are in a millennium in which technology is vital to life and ignoring it is no longer a viable option. Our lives are glued to a screen of glass as we fiddle with our phones trying to manage our busy schedules. We don’t even have time to get the inevitable crack on our iPhone before the next one comes out. Everything is moving at a faster and faster pace and Charleston has finally caught up. No longer is the Holy City stuck in the 17th century. Although there are still horse drawn carriages fumbling down cobblestone streets, old, historic Charleston is now racing ahead of 21st century technology.
Recently dubbed Silicon Harbor, the East Coast equivalent of San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, Charleston is on the rise as a thriving tech and innovation hub – and current College of Charleston students are taking advantage of all its resources.
Senior computer science major Sarah Mackey jumped on the tech train early and is now reaping the benefits. She has a job awaiting her in New York City, but that is not much of a surprise considering the success she has achieved through the computer science department.
Mackey co-founded Women in Computing (WIC) her freshman year. WIC focuses on bringing together women from the computer science department while working with local schools to get more girls interested in computer science from a young age.
Now in its fourth year, the club has grown from six members to almost thirty. When asked about the surge of growth, Mackey said, “Part of it is the expansion of the computer science department. There are just more women and people in general. My freshman year, there used to be less than 10 percent of women in the department. Now, we have over 25 percent.”
Either Rainbow Row is losing its luster or the view from Harbor Walk is just too good, but high- tech opportunities in Charleston are becoming a magnet for the computer science department. “Being in Charleston has helped promote [computer science] a lot,” Mackey said. “There are people who come into college who know they want to be a computer science major, and then there are people who come in and don’t know what they want to do. Having all of this around us probably helps influence them because they see it on a daily basis.”
Even though Mackey may be heading north to New York, she still comments on how desirable of a place Charleston is for tech. Though not as large as the big tech empires of Seattle or New York City, Mackey refers to Charleston as “a little tech hub that is on the rise.” The location and interest has allowed WIC to bring in live speakers and has given them more because of the accessibility of local contacts and resources – resources that ICAT, a new program at the College, has flourished from.
If there is one person who knows how to recognize and capitalize on a growing and essential industry, Dr. Chris Starr is the guy. Starr paved the stepping stones that led to the Interdisciplinary Center for Applied Technology (ICAT), now one of the College’s most prestigious and innovative programs.
In Fall 2006, the computer science department was barely hanging on with a mere 68 students. Starr quickly founded the Software and Innovations Lab – an experiment to see if teams of computer science students could solve problems with technology for external clients to earn money that would in turn support the lab. The lab provided a platform for students to get involved in research and projects that were commercializable. It was a huge success as more students flocked to the department, but Starr wanted to keep moving forward and continue to better the program. provided a platform for better the program. He realized that just having computer science students on a team was not enough.
“The ICAT accelerator idea came as an epiphany when we realized that a team should contain a creative person from the liberal arts, a business student and a technical student – generally from computer science,” Starr said. “The business student helps to figure out what problem to solve when there potentially are customers, the computer science student would execute those ideas – that is, write the software – and the liberal arts students would help to market and do graphic design.” A unique, mentor- based, and all-inclusive program, ICAT got off the ground running in spring 2015 and has already measured success.
Barely seven months after ICAT’s first cohort ended, student-run companies have begun to blossom. Of the eight teams from spring 2015, six of those incorporated and of those six, two are still viable businesses, “one being valued at $300,000,” Starr adds. Led by alum Ben Hintz ‘15, Yawper, an app for real time buzz on local nightlife, has launched in 10 cities and has 12 employees. “And the other team we have rocking,” Starr smiles, “is JYVE” — an app for local musicians led by senior Brandon Brooks, set for winter release this year.
The fact that these companies have gained almost instant success probably explains why Starr is experiencing the bittersweet predicament of turning mentors away. Mentors from Boeing, Blue Acorn and tech startups in town have been lining up to advise ICAT students. With two mentors per team, there are not enough available spots for the accumulating interest, but Starr lets everyone participate by inviting professionals to give special talks and grooming them for future mentoring.
“We want to be the mechanism which crosses the university-community boundary. We bridge that gap,” he said. Now in the third cohort, the fall of 2015 ICAT class has 21 students and seven teams, and Starr is enthusiastic to see a similar level of excitement and and success from both the students and the Charleston community.
Entrepreneurial applications, proficiency in technology and suited-for-real-life creative problem solving all give college students an edge to a powerful resume – something Starr recognizes. He has watched ICAT students find success at companies including Pandora, Google and Facebook – just to name a few.
But Starr is quick to comment that passion is what drives the ICAT students, not money. He stresses the importance of providing students with the tools, time and resources to let them explore, build and create their passions.
“[ICAT] carves out a piece of their day to be serious about what they’re doing. Otherwise, they would be trying to squeeze this in on Saturday mornings, and that just isn’t enough time to start a company,” he said. And with the support and accomplishments that ICAT has shown over the past year, it will continue to be a once in a lifetime student experience that attracts and cultivates the College’s most innovative, ambitious and creative minds.
*This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Yard