CHOCTAW — The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians had to make room for more people than expected. Venture capitalists and CEOs of startup companies rubbed elbows. The academic roundtable discussion was inspired. And the Chief was delighted.
“The interesting thing is, no one said this was our first annual Mississippi Choctaw Technology Forum,” said Creda Stewart, tribal spokesperson. “Instead, we kept hearing people say they wanted spring and winter sessions.”
Business leaders from around the Southeast, including educators, economic developers, CEOs and venture capitalists, attended the two-day event co-sponsored by the Mississippi Technology Alliance April 15-16 at the Pearl River Resort just outside of Philadelphia.
“The forum was an excellent mechanism for getting together constituents that make economic development happen,” said Dr. Jim Evans, director of the Mississippi Polymer Institute at the University of Southern Mississippi. “It was very well attended. There was an awful lot of dialogue going on. It provided an excellent opportunity to work together for a synergetic result. (MTA CEO) Dr. (Angie) Dvorak was very effective in communicating the real critical need for the state of Mississippi to leverage and exploit its high technology development potential.”
Evans, also a team member for Southern Diversified Products, a Hattiesburg-based company that recently patented a unique polymer system for environmentally-friendly, non-toxic paint, said he was approached by “six or seven companies that expressed an interest in possible participation, all the way from partners in manufacturing companies to investors.”
Jackey Wall, CEO of Emagex in Corinth, a software company that recently developed a rich media application similar to Acrobat Reader that also handles audio and video, said, “We came away with good solid contacts. We were pleased with the prospects for venture capital. We’ve had a visit from one already.”
Matt Thornton, vice president of business development for MTA, said representatives from 10 investment groups from Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi were impressed with the company presentations and the Choctaw reservation.
“It was an added benefit that they all played golf at Dancing Rabbit Golf Club,” said Thornton. “That was a big success. Then they had a chance to network with CEOs of startup and emerging growth companies in Mississippi. On the second day, they heard presentations with five companies currently in negotiations with the Choctaws. I believe they were real impressed with the capacity in Mississippi.”
The presentations were very well received, Stewart said.
“People that participated said they had no idea the tribe was involved in so many opportunities,” she said. “This was the first time we showcased them and explained from the tribe’s perspective how it might come together.”
J. Kelley Williams Jr., a venture capitalist for Greenover Managers, LLC, and CornerCap, LLC, in Jackson, commented on the “good entrepreneurial activity, intellectual property, products and services scattered throughout the state that will create value in the marketplace.”
“It’s simply a matter of getting the right capital and management together to make sure that comes to fruition,” Williams said. “There were some good prospects.”
Forum organizers were concerned that when the deans of Mississippi universities and 75 of Choctaw Central High School’s brightest students gathered for a roundtable discussion, there might not be much interaction.
“That wasn’t a problem,” said Stewart. “The students had the best time. They were exposed to opportunities to follow their interests. Sometimes people stay in certain disciplines and don’t explore others, so this was very beneficial for them.”
Student interest varied, said Stewart.
“A couple of students were interested in engineering because of robotics experience and NASA and two young ladies were very involved in polymer science,” she said. “The students’ main grasp was, ‘This is real, there are places in Mississippi where I can access the training I need to reach my dreams’.”
John Hendrix, assistant director of economic development for the tribe, said the forum “exceeded everyone’s expectations, especially for the first time.”
“When we get together with MTA in the next couple of weeks, we’ll discuss the outcome of the forum and decide our next step,” he said. “I have no doubt we’ll do it again, but I don’t know yet how often.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at (800) 993-3392 or firstname.lastname@example.org</a.