Mississippi is not normally a state people immediately associate with high technology despite the state’s strong and growing national and international presence in telecommunications. But, if the non-profit Institute for Technology Development (ITD) has its way, the state will increasingly attract high-technology industries that have the potential to dramatically change the state’s economic status by providing high-paying jobs.
“There are a lot of people in the state of Mississippi who don’t realize we have a rapidly growing high-tech sector in the state other than telecommunications,” said Len Vernamonti, president and CEO of ITD. “The concept behind ITD is that we can change the economy of Mississippi through high-tech development. We have a real growing high-tech sector in the state, and we need to get the word out. There is a lot going on.”
ITD, which was established to help create technology-based economic development in the state, has worked since 1985 through its operation at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Stennis Space Center near Picayune to promote commercial applications from space program technology spinoffs such as remote sensing with satellite imagery.
ITD works by making partnerships with private companies or by assisting private companies in launching high-tech business operations in Mississippi. ITD can license technology, sell technology or create a company to promote commercial applications of the technology.
A partnership example is commercial remote sensing applications in agriculture. ITD is in the process of launching a partnership to commercialize remote sensing for agriculture using satellite pictures to assess the condition of crops. Vernamonti said their partners have spent $70 million for additional research, and now a separate company is being created that will be capitalized at $800 million.
“On something this big, we go out and get extra partners with the additional expertise we need, and the capital,” Vernamonti said. “In this case, because we thought this was so big, we created this partnership of companies to make it happen. We are in negotiations with the final one or two companies we need to finish this. The $800 million is what it will take to build and launch satellites, and fund initial operations.”
Vernamonti said remote sensing for agriculture shows promise for improving yields. In large fields, by the time a disease, weed, fertilizer or water problem has been found by a scout on the ground, it may be too late to prevent significant yield losses. With satellite imagery that uses the non-visible part of the light spectrum, problems can be found and corrected in the earliest stages.
“This will help farmers increase production and make more money,” Vernamonti said.
It is even possible for remote sensing data to be sent to special computerized farm equipment which can, for example, apply more fertilizer in an area of the field where it is needed.
ITD sets up its agreements so significant parts of the high-technology companies have to be based in Mississippi.
“That’s how we do things,” Vernamonti said. “We could probably have sold the technology for more if we had let them put it anywhere else. But we demand certain concessions for the state of Mississippi. We are willing to accept less for ITD to get more for the state, which is what we did in this case.”
The growth of high-technology jobs in Mississippi has the potential for keeping the best and brightest college graduates in the state.
“We have a lot of kids who graduate from college in Mississippi and don’t even look for a job here because they don’t know the opportunities are here,” Vernamonti said. “For example, there was a graduate from Mississippi State with an electrical engineering degree who thought there weren’t any jobs for him here, so he went to work as a waiter. We found him and hired him.”
Another example of high-tech industry in Mississippi is the former Hughes Aerospace torpedo factory in Forest. This factory produced the most sophisticated torpedoes ever designed for the U.S. government. Now that the government is no longer buying torpedoes, the plant has been purchased by Raytheon, which is now converting the factory to produce sophisticated electronic communications equipment used by the Department of Defense.
Vickers Inc. in Madison County also is involved in leading-edge technology. The company manufactures some of the most sophisticated hydraulic actuators and pumps used in the world. For example, Vickers is manufacturing hydraulic systems for the new F-22 Air Force fighter plane.
State economist Dr. Phil Pepper points out that even if every unemployed person in Mississippi was employed at the present average salary levels for the Southeastern region, Mississippi would still have the lowest per capita income in the U.S. Pepper advocates creating value-added jobs to meaningfully change the economy.
If we continue to develop the proper work force, Vernamonti foresees a future where Mississippi is known for its high-tech industry.
“Without the work force, not only will we not build, we might lose what we’ve got,” Vernamonti said. “Work force is the only issue that matters to anybody today. Other states have the same tax incentives and the same business climate. The biggest single issue, and in some instances the only issue, is the work force. They will come if you have the work force. They won’t if you don’t. Raytheon wouldn’t have come to Mississippi if they couldn’t have found the work force they needed. We have to get the public education system in order so we are turning out people who have the skills needed.”
For more information on ITD, Vernamonti can be reached at (601) 960-3600.