The geospatial technology industry in Mississippi is one of five clusters the State of Mississippi has selected to focus upon as the best opportunities for bringing economic growth to the state. And Mississippi is one of only four locations in the country where this technology is being developed in a major way.
“We are one of the major players both inside the U.S. and internationally in the geospatial technology business,” said Greg Hinkebein, president and CEO of the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology (MsET), which is based at Stennis Space Center. “The structure is now in place in the State of Mississippi supported by MsET. The Enterprise for Innovative Geospatial Solutions (EIGS) does not exist anywhere else in the United States. Even the major players in the business comment on the fact that only Mississippi has a focused program for growth of companies in the geospatial industry.”
The MsET works with approximately 40 companies to provide business support for the geospatial industry cluster. The focus is to develop research ideas into specific business enterprises. Of the 40 companies, 22 are housed in the technology transfer building at Stennis. The four major research universities in Mississippi are also represented in the building, along with two non-profit organizations, MsET and the Institute for Technology Development.
All of those organizations working together prompted the Mississippi Legislature in the 2004 session to designate the cluster at Stennis as a Geospatial Center of Excellence. Hinkebein said what that does for the industry cluster is develop a base of operations so the growth of the industry statewide can have assistance provided by all of the expertise available.
“That is the important thing for this stage of development of the geospatial industry,” he said. “We also get a lot of help from the Mississippi Technology Alliance, which provides statewide support for growth of these clusters, as well as some indices of how well we are doing. All that together gives us the means of providing structured growth for the industry. It gives us the means of creating new companies from spinoffs of existing companies or university research. Since MsET operations include an incubator, we have the business support necessary to grow those businesses.”
Ground was broken this past May on a new public-private effort, the Stennis Technology Park, which will be located on a 900-acre parcel of land near the Stennis International Airport close to Interstate 10 and Highway 603. Hinkebein said the new technology park would provide a place for companies to expand when they outgrow the incubator facilities at the Stennis Space Center site.
The technology park is a cooperative venture between the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission, the Stennis Space Center primarily through MsET, the Mississippi Development Authority and a private developer, Rodney Pilot, from Mobile, Ala. Hinkebein said currently significant progress is being made at the park putting in roads and building foundations.
One of the fastest-growing geospatial companies at Stennis is 3001 Inc. Hinkebein said the company is doing just about every business application of geospatial technology possible.
Nancy McGee, operations manager for 3001 Inc. at Stennis, said being part of a cluster of geospatial businesses has been very valuable.
“We have had opportunities to team together with some of the other incubator companies located out here,” McGee said. “We provide a variety of different mapping services, primarily digital mapping services. The company does mapping, charting, hydrographic surveys, airborne data acquisition and global information system (GIS) data creation.”
McGee said there is a huge need for the kinds of services of services offered by her company.
“Just since 9/11, with the need for enhanced security there is more of an awareness of special data requirements in addition to the ever-changing surface of the earth,” she said.
The services can be used for everything from homeland security issues to evaluating the impact from natural disasters such as flooding and hurricanes. The company also does cadastral surveys of state and local urban growth that can be used for planning and zoning, including transportation planning.
“As our earth continues to change, cities, counties and the state and federal governments need information in order to make decisions,” McGee said. “There is also a significant need for industries to have this information. Another use is for recreational enthusiasts. A lot of mapping services provide information for recreational enthusiasts such as hunters and boaters to map out where they want to go.”
Potential for growth
McGee said the potential for growth in the geospatial industry is huge. Her company has grown to about 45 employees in the first year.
“There is no end for the potential for kind of data we can produce,” she said. “Since we are producing digital data, it can be used in variety of different modes. The information can be stored to be re-accessed depending on the end user requirements.”
In 1998 NASA, the State of Mississippi and Mississippi’s research universities formed the Mississippi Space Commerce Initiative (MSCI), a five-year initiative with the intention of positioning Mississippi as a national leader in geospatial technology research, product development and information sales. The EIGS was established in 2003 at the University of Mississippi in Oxford to provide similar, but enhanced support previously provided by MSCI. EIGS is building on MSCI’s success by providing its industry cluster partners access to remote sensing research as well as business and marketing support.
“Since the establishment of the cluster, the member companies have contributed to the Mississippi economy and brought higher paying jobs to Mississippi,” said Dr. Robin C. Buchannon, associate director for centers and institutes at Ole Miss. “The private industry member companies employ more than 550 people with an annual average salary of $50,000 — $15,000 above the average pay for the fastest-growing job in Mississippi, a computer support specialist.”
Over the past year, EIGS member companies have invested $28.9 million in business operations in Mississippi. This total investment over the past five years has been $119 million.
“The State of Mississippi’s investment during this same period was $8.7 million representing a 13-to-one return on its investment in building this high-tech industry in Mississippi,” Buchannon said. “The cluster, a diverse group of companies, researchers and programs, contributes to the solid foundation that is the basis for Mississippi’s leadership position in geospatial technology. Along with the cutting edge geospatial research being conducted at Mississippi’s universities, the company members of EIGS are forging new ground for this emerging technology sector.”
Range of sizes, applications
The size of cluster companies range from one-person operations to a company with over 100 employees. There are start-ups and well-established companies. Some companies are headquartered in Mississippi while others are branch operations of larger national corporations. Four of the members are woman-owned businesses.
Buchannon said the cluster continues to grow from an original seven charter members in 1998.
“This growth has resulted in new capabilities, services and products offered by the companies,” she said. “While there is a wide range of applications and products, the unifying factor is the use of geospatial data and technologies to provide new and useful solutions to a variety of customers including: farmers, foresters, fishermen, city and county officials, transportation planners, disaster management organizations, weather services, emergency first-responders, homeland security experts, educators, airports, the military, public health officials and real estate developers.
“Geospatial technology is no longer restricted to the world of high-tech firms. In fact, some of the industries that benefit the most are the ones you may least expect. For example, commercial farming. Without remote sensing, many farmers have to rely on guesswork, misapplying seeding rates and wasting expensive chemicals. Remote sensing eliminates the guesswork, which means more crops in less space, higher profits and less environmental impact.”
Buchannon said other examples of everyday solutions (with the companies involved in parentheses) include:
• Law enforcement authorities are using remote-controlled planes to conduct information gathering and surveillance to combat drug activity. The planes can be used to look for marijuana fields, gather video surveillance and get to otherwise inaccessible areas. The planes can also be used to inspect hazardous situations, disasters and aid in searches for missing persons. The small size and low noise output of the aircraft allows it to fly over a sight and obtain data without being detected. (Air-O-Space International)
• First responders are mitigating floods, fires, hazardous material spills and airborne biochemical agents with real-time lifesaving information. (NVision Solutions, Radiance Technologies)
• Communities are training how to use critical geographic information in preparation and implementation of homeland security planning. (DigitalQuest)
• The military is detecting targets better. (Planning Systems Incorporated)
• Corporations are tracking assets such as shipping containers and monitoring environmental data such as pipeline temperature and pressure. (AeroTec)
• Engineers lay out roads in hours rather than days. (Waggoner Engineering, MapSAT)
• Farmers farm by the foot, not by the acre. (InTime, GPS, Mid-South Ag Data, AIM, EMC, MSU Extension Service)
• Ships sailing anywhere in the world access up-to-the-minute weather information with pinpoint accuracy. (World Winds, 3001)
• Foresters are more effectively managing clear cutting, thinning and weather damage. (Forest One)
Partnerships coming together
Geospatial companies are located throughout Mississippi with a core concentration operating on the Mississippi Gulf Coast at Stennis Space Center and in Hancock, Harrison and Pearl River counties. A concentration of agriculturally-focused companies operate in the Delta and other companies are established in the Jackson metro-area, Corinth, Hattiesburg, Oxford, Picayune, Starkville, Columbia and Weir.
Buchannon said though there is a variety in size, scope and products, ultimately what ties these companies together is the goal of working to research, develop and market new geospatial technology products from a Mississippi operation.
“While it is important not to overlook the establishment of these diverse companies in Mississippi, what is really exciting is that they are starting to operate as a traditional cluster might,” Buchannon said. “Partnerships abound, particularly in the Stennis group, which routinely proposes for large nationally-based projects and programs as a group.
They are active in joint marketing and development projects and are active at all levels of government. The structure of the industry cluster provides these unique partnering opportunities among the members. Companies with complimentary products team to respond to customer needs in new and innovative ways by working together to fill gaps in each other’s business schemes and capabilities.”
She adds that Mississippi has a unique opportunity to capitalize on the emergence of this global industry. The statistics below provide a snapshot of the potential of the geospatial technology industry:
• According to the Department of Labor, the geospatial market worldwide, which is currently a $5- billion market, will grow to $30 billion by next year.
• Geospatial technology is among the top three fastest-growing career fields in the U.S.
• A 15% growth rate in new jobs is projected over the next decade.
• Geospatial technologies have a broad range of applications in many industry areas including homeland security, natural resources (agriculture, fisheries, forestry, wildlife and water), urban planning and emergency management.
• The Department of Labor identified geographic information technology as “one of the three most important emerging and evolving fields, along with nanotechnology and biotechnology.”
“By fostering new and innovative ways to stimulate the continued growth of Mississippi’s geospatial businesses, the state is positioned to capitalize on the long-term benefits from this projected growth,” Buchannon said. “This rapid and continued growth within this industry represents a rare and unique opportunity for Mississippi. While markets are still being defined and created, Mississippi has a seven-year head start on the development of companies that can respond to these evolving markets and lead the nation in this industry. Through its partnerships with a number of public and private entities, EIGS is in a strong position to champion the continued entrepreneurial activities necessary for Mississippi’s geospatial industry to thrive and capture a significant portion of the emerging market.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.