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University research parks provide rich environment for startups

The new Global Competitiveness Report that links the U.S. having the best economy in the world to a higher education system that promotes research and innovation underscores the lessons already learned on that count in Mississippi.

One major example of that is the Nissan plant in Canton. Part of what attracted the Japanese lawmaker to the state was the research capabilities at Mississippi State University (MSU). Part of the state’s incentive package for Nissan was establishment of the Center for Advanced Vehicle Systems (CAVS).

CAVS now works not just for Nissan but other automotive industries and other types of private companies. The research arm of CAVS is located at the 220-acre Thad Cochran Research, Technology, and Economic Development Park, which is located adjacent to the MSU campus.

“CAVS represents the best in university research, with a strong basic science component to the research conducted there, coupled with a well-funded outreach component to take the new innovations and put them in the marketplace,” said Kirk Schultz, vice president of research and economic development at MSU. “I believe we will see more models like this with a blend of basic research and outreach in universities in the next 20 years.”

Dr. Marc McGee, interim executive director or the park, said there are currently 1,500 people employed at the park.

‘Tremendous collaborative effort’

“The park has certainly been of economic development importance to us,” McGee said. “Because the university does have some of its research facilities over there, there is tremendous collaborative effort between faculty and students going back and forth to the research park. Our goal is to continue to recruit industry into the park that would benefit from the infrastructure and the university’s research capabilities.”

Current tenants at the park include Sitel, which employs approximately 600 in an inbound call center, TVA, Cypress Semiconductor, Semisouth Laboratories, and II-VI Inc. Another tenant is Clear Orbit Solutions, a computer software company that improves supply chain speed, visibility and automating internal processes, enabling manufactures and distributors to smoothly orchestrate the movement of goods through extended supply networks. Clear Orbit located in Starkville to be close to MSU to recruit graduates who want to stay in Mississippi.

“They have been very pleased with the talent they have been able to recruit from the university,” McGee said. “Then we have four university research facilities based at the park. So, you have a variety of folks. We like the mixture. We would like to see more private-based industry in the park because the collaboration between private industry and the university is very valuable.”

Currently the park is planning a phase two project, a 50-acre expansion.

‘Innovation and commercialization’

Mississippi’s two other largest universities also have parks in development. Dr. Shelby Thames, retired president of the Southern Miss, said while the park planned hasn’t been named yet, it isn’t a “research and development” park. It is an “innovation and commercialization park.” The purpose of the facility to be located on 521 acres of land that were previously a Southern Miss golf course is to take new ideas to commercial applications.

“That would not necessarily happen in a research and development park,” Thames said. “That is what the function of our park is all about. The intent is to provide a place where profitable businesses can be spawned and grow up to a point they feel mature enough to move out into a typical industrial park. And in doing so, we will be creating wealth for our community, and providing jobs for graduates with high intellect and skill who will remain in our area and will make significant monetary contributions to our area’s economy. We need to do that over and over and over again. And soon we will be a Mecca for small businesses. We have a start on building the base for our high technology industries, and we have a park which that will sustain that. That is going to change the face of Hattiesburg in a very positive way.”

Approximately $12 to $15 million has been spent thus far on the infrastructure including significant improvements to the access road Classic Drive and construction of peripheral roads into the park. One road leads to the first building at the park, the $24-million National Center for Formulation Science. Thames said products require some degree of formulation to be marketable.

“Some other ingredients must be added to the primary products, maybe two, three or four, and then it is processed to make a usable product,” Thames said. “That is what we are going to study in the formulation science arena. It is a very important part of product development, and we haven’t had the capability to do that. There will also be vacant office space people can lease if they have an entrepreneurial idea they want to exploit. If they need help, they need to be around other people with knowledge. That particular facility will be where they need to come.”

The park won’t be for manufacturing, but will serve as an incubator for start-up companies. The intention is for a number of companies to begin operations at the park, and ultimately move their manufacturing to the industrial park.

“Hybrid Plastics is a great example,” Thames said. “They came to Southern Miss to set up in a laboratory, working hand-in-hand with our scientists. As they grew and progressed, they acquired funds to build at the Hattiesburg Industrial Park. We helped them while they were small with a lab and space to work at Southern Miss until they got large enough to out on their own.

“They came all the way from Southern California because Southern California didn’t have the skills they needed, and we did. They need to have people who understand high tech which means highly educated. Most of their employees have been hired from Mississippi. I understand the average salary at Hybrid Plastics is $90,000. That is quite different from the average salary for Mississippi.”

The building under construction is approximately a year away from completion.

The University of Mississippi (UM) Research Park is also under development on land located near the campus in Oxford. Funding has been received for the first phase of the park that will be located south of Mississippi 6 near Coliseum Drive, said Robin Buchannon, UM director of sponsored program administration. Phase I includes constructing a bridge across the highway to provide direct access to the park, establishing the infrastructure and constructing the first building by 2010. A cultural study, master plan and environmental assessment are already underway.

Dr. Robert Sydney “Syd” Spain has been hired as the new executive director for the UM Research Park.

“I’m anticipating we will have a professional firm on board by the spring of 2008 to design a bridge and the infrastructure for the park, and then we will move ahead quickly with hiring an architectural firm to design the first building,” Spain said. “We don’t know at this point in time what the extent of that will be, such as the size of the facility. We are at a preliminary stage of development, and it will take a few years to have the bridge completed over Highway 6.”

Spain said the research park is going to provide job opportunities to qualified technical administrators, managers and researchers to stay in or return to the Ole Miss region.

“It will provide high-paying jobs in comparison with most other industry or manufacturing-related jobs in the area,” Spain said. “The real benefits are in both the availability of jobs for these individuals as well as the research that will have a positive impact on this area and the region.”

The research park will capitalize on four clusters of research expertise at the University of Mississippi — healthcare, information management, defense/security and remote sensing technologies.

“The benefit is that is where our strengths lie in the university,” said Spain, who has experience in both construction and research. “We would like to grow those areas where we already have significant resources and capabilities. On the other hand, we will be happy to have tenants in the park who have a research relationship with the university that is not specific to those four areas of focus. I’m excited about the opportunities the park will provide to the region, as well as to the university.”

Prior to coming to the job at Ole Miss June 4, Spain served as executive director of the Research and Technology Foundation at Auburn University.

“Dr. Spain has worked in the military, state government, private and academic settings, and brings with him the managerial and leadership skills necessary to undertake and supervise the development of the Research Park,” said Alice Clark, vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs.

Clark said that Spain will oversee planning and initiation of the park with his duties including, but not limited to, site-planning, assessing financial options, reviewing legal documents, reviewing construction plans, inspecting original construction and participating closely in the park’s marketing efforts.

Clark said the park’s mission is to drive technology transfer and economic development by accelerating the creation and growth of new commercial enterprises and attracting technology-based businesses and government research laboratories seeking to locate in an environment rich in collaborative research and innovation.

Ole Miss officials have discussed building a research park for more than a decade, and its development is crucial to the university’s mission as the state’s flagship university, said Chancellor Robert Khayat.

“Meaningful research is integral to the life of a comprehensive university,” Khayat said. “This research park will enable the University of Mississippi to strengthen and enlarge our role in the economic development of Mississippi by providing basic research needed for business and industry.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.

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