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Hub City makes top 10 for small market innovation

Hattiesburg — A national study detailing the connection between innovation and entrepreneurship as drivers of local economic development lists Hattiesburg 10th in the country for small markets.

The Innovation-Entrepreneurship NEXUS, A National Assessment of Entrepreneurship and Regional Economic Growth and Development, ranked 394 cities in the country.
John McDowell, spokesman for the SBA Office of Advocacy, said the report shows communities need not only innovative ideas, but entrepreneurs to commercialize them.

“The report makes it clears that it is the skills and risk taking of entrepreneurs that really helps drive local economies,” McDowell said. “In order to turn forward thinking and new ideas into jobs, you need entrepreneurial skills. How do you go about doing that and what works for Mississippi might be different from what happens in New York or Colorado. Obviously, each state is in a different situation.”

Facilitating tech transfer

ince Hattiesburg was the only city in the state to receive a top 10 ranking in the study, the report seems to validate the work by the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) to translate intellectual capital at the university into spin-off economic developments. Ken Malone, chair of the USM Economic and Workforce Development Department, was hired about three years ago to facilitate technology transfer from the university to the private sector.

Malone said the NEXUS report confirms what they already knew: universities with top research capabilities can be a significant stimulus to the economy.

“What this report is saying is if you want to be a leader in economic development, one of the things you must have is a research extensive university,” Malone said.
“We’re one of 100 universities worldwide ranked as a Carnegie One Research Extensive University. Carnegie ranks all universities globally based on a variety of factors, and this is the highest, most prestigious category. What that ranking says it that we are global leaders in high-tech research. That isn’t to say that having a research extensive university is the only thing you must have to turn innovative ideas into economic development. But it is one of the things you must have.”

Fostering growth

Malone said other important factors include being located in a high pro-growth community. He said in Hattiesburg the Area Development Partnership (ADP) is very active in facilitating economic growth. That and the pro business attitude of local elected officials make the Hattiesburg community an attractive place for growth.

“You combine the university with that atmosphere and you get a boom in what this study calls innovative entrepreneurship,” Malone said. “The point is you can have a good pro-growth community and great research extensive university. But if the two don’t come together through a strong technology transfer effort, it doesn’t matter. That is why our focus is on connecting the community with the university.”

Although high-tech companies are a very favorable addition to any community, Malone said all types of entrepreneurship are important.

“That is what the [Gov. Haley] Barbour administration and Momentum Mississippi is all about,” Malone said. “It doesn’t have to be high tech. Any type of mom-and-pop shop can help drive a community’s success.”

The study looked at data that is a couple of years old now, and Hattiesburg has seen growth since then in new firm startups such as Hybrid Plastics, which relocated its headquarters from Southern California to Hattiesburg about a year ago.

Malone predicts growth of high-tech firms that produce jobs that pay better than average will continue to increase in the Pine Belt area in the future. Master planning has been completed for the Innovation and Commercialization Park, a high-tech complex that will be located on the 500-acre site of the former Van Hook Golf Course. Currently infrastructure such as roads, electricity, sewer and water lines are being installed.

A clear focus

Malone agrees with the report that says it can be more challenging to provide innovative entrepreneurship in smaller regions such as Hattiesburg.

“The key for us is to focus on a few specific technology areas as opposed to trying to be all things,” Malone said. “We have focused on our strengths in our nationally recognized polymer program, and in GIS (geographic information systems).”

And while large regions may have certain advantages, there is also a trend away from large cities into “micropolitans.”

“There’s no doubt that micropolitans or the exurbs have been the highest growth areas in the U.S. in recent years,” Malone said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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