By TED CARTER
Ask where business ideas go to grow at Mississippi State University and you will be directed TO a small office in the School of Business’ McCool Hall.
At the moment, 100 or so ideas for products and services are in development at the small space that houses the university’s Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. That’s about to change with the center’s move into a newly built, 2,000 square-foot home in the same building.
The Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation got its official start in 2009 and has served as the development and testing ground for ideas students and others have for start-up businesses. The best of these later earn a place in the university’s Research Park incubator, a 12,000-square-foot building opened in 2012 whose tenants include both students and innovators from outside the university.
The incubator has 14 tenants and has generated sales of about $3 million in its three years of life, according to Eric Hill, center director.
Meanwhile, the center’s new home in McCool Hall is completed but awaiting furnishing, Hill said. “The first order of furniture came in this week.”
The setting will change but not the primary mission of fostering start-ups from inception to market. “We do three functions,” Hill said. “We connect students with other students and outside mentors for their start-up businesses. The second is education. The third is the start-up” itself.
The Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, or CEI, is typically the first touch-point Hill and his staff have with students who want to develop their ideas for products, including computer applications, and services.
“They come in with their ideas or we find them in classes,” perhaps as a result of group projects that come to the attention of the center and its staff, Hill said.
For instance, students with their own projects or group projects may hear something like: “That project you are working on… we could make it real right now,” Hill said.
When that final step in development comes, he said, “We are actually trying to get them into the market to sell their product.”
The center caters to more than start-ups, however. For example, a young company may have sold its products twice “and what we’ll hope to do is help sell six more,” Hill said.
The new space will have eight work stations, along with a “situation room” as well as collaboration cameras that can connect students with other development teams across the country, Hill said. Video editing machines and a pair of Macs are also among the offerings, he added.
The spaces are allocated through an application process that designates three start-ups for each station.
Though housed in the College of Business, the center has attracted students from nine of the university’s colleges representing 39 different majors, according to Hill.
With the center’s February opening, “Our capacity should go up substantially,” he said.
The center also has space for “executives in residence” filled by business leaders from around the state who will offer mentoring to students and others who use the center. “The start-ups can book time with them,” Hill said. “That is an exciting program we are looking to launch.”
George Bryan, former CEO of Sara Lee Foods, will be among the first executives in residence, according to Jeffrey Rupp, a former mayor of Columbus who is in his fifth year as the center’s outreach director.
Rupp’s job is to connect the center and other business development activities with economic development professionals and movers-and- shakers around the state.
He also solicits outside support to help send student innovators to competitions around the country. “I’m part of the College of Business but my grant is to leverage all university resources,” said Rupp. “It can be engineering; it can be fashion merchandising.”
As a land grant university, Mississippi State takes “all of these wonderful resources” and puts them toward helping to develop products and businesses that generate dollars within the state, Rupp said.
He added that soon his department, the Division of Research, will be helping with the development of Yellow Creek Port, a state-owned port near the confluence of the Tennessee River and Tombigbee Waterway in Iuka.
For Rupp and Hill, the opening of the center represents an invitation for the university’s entire student body to turn their ideas into something tangible. “The whole idea of the space is when they come up with an idea they have a place to call home,” Hill said.
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