The Chicago Bulls won six championships in the 1990s, but the brilliance of Michael Jordan more than any other player drove the team to greatness.

While it took an entire company of employees to create the iPad and iPhone, the vision of Steve Jobs pushed Apple to what it is today.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of top talent.

Zoran Filipi works with a student at CU-ICAR.

Zoran Filipi works with a student at CU-ICAR.

Leading organizations often have one brightly shining star that guides the rest. The brightest of those stars have a gravitational pull that unites groups like the sun holds together our solar system.

The rule applies to states just as easily as it does basketball teams and tech companies. South Carolina has some bright stars, but we could use more. The reason is simple.

Top talent enables economic development. Here’s how:

South Carolina is shifting to a “knowledge-based economy.” An increasing share of our state’s economic value is based on brains, rather than brawn.

Our economic might is no longer determined by how much cotton we pick or how much tobacco we harvest. It’s more important to make new discoveries and invent new products.

Hiring top professors for our universities is critical. Their projects are the ones most likely to produce the quality of research that can lead to new jobs. And top professors are the ones who can best prepare students for the increasingly complex demands of the 21st-century workplace.

The best part, though, is that high-tech means higher pay for all.

The jobs created by university research tend to pay well, even for students who don’t get four-year degrees. It all adds up to an improved quality of life for all South Carolinians.

Scott Mason teaches at a white board.

Scott Mason teaches at a white board.

While the state has some work to do, we’re off to a great start.

For example, consider our colleague, Dr. Marek Urban, who is the J.E. Sirrine Textile Foundation Endowed Chair in Advanced Polymer Fiber-Based Materials.

Urban’s research group at Clemson University is working on polymers that heal themselves like skin. The technology could lead to car paint that fixes its own scratches, military vehicles that patch their own bullet holes and hip replacements that could repair themselves.

Urban’s work is the kind of game-changing research that could create an entirely new industry based here in South Carolina.

Along the way, he’s creating a new generation of materials scientists and engineers with specialized knowledge. One of Urban’s doctoral students, Ying Yang, co-authored the group’s findings in a journal and on a poster that won an award from the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Urban is but one example of a star that is beginning to open South Carolina to a galaxy of economic opportunity. Several others are spread across Clemson University, the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina.

While the state’s top researchers are too numerous to mention, you’ll want to remember two names– Dr. Eric Johnson and Dr. Amy Landis.

Johnson is doing groundbreaking work in optics and photonics as the PalmettoNet Endowed Chair in Optoelectronics at Clemson. His research could fundamentally change how computers work, allowing them to run faster and use less energy.

Marek Urban and Ying Yang work in the lab.

Marek Urban and Ying Yang work in the lab.

By working in his lab, Johnson’s graduate students get experience making sophisticated devices on a relatively large scale and go on to work for the likes of Intel and the national labs.

Meanwhile, Landis was recently hired at Clemson as the Thomas F. Hash ‘69 SmartState Endowed Chair in Sustainable Development.

When she begins in July, Landis will coordinate the efforts of several Clemson researchers who are developing new sensors and other technology that collect massive amounts of data.

The information could then be used to route transportation, detect structural anomalies, operate electrical grids and enhance emergency response in natural disasters.

South Carolina’s knowledge-based economy could use more bright minds like Urban, Johnson and Landis.

But top talent doesn’t come free. Attracting and retaining the best takes investment.

While many programs are helping, probably the best example is the South Carolina SmartState Program. It’s what brought both of us to the state.

As part of the program, universities raise capital from private donors, businesses and other non-state sources to fund endowments that pay for specialized research professorships. The General Assembly provides dollar-for-dollar state funding through the South Carolina Education Lottery.

As “Good to Great” author Jim Collins says, “we need to “get the right people on the bus.” The good news no one has to do it alone.

By investing in top talent and working together as one South Carolina, our economy can be the bright shining star of the nation.


About the authors: Zoran Filipi is chair of the Department of Automotive Engineering and Timken Endowed Chair in Vehicle System Design. Scott Mason is Professor and Fluor Endowed Chair in Supply Chain Optimization and Logistics. Both are at Clemson University.