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CHEERS — MSU incubates innovative student businesses at CEO

By BECKY GILLETTE

Jeffrey B. Rupp

Even though there are about 20,000 students at Mississippi State University, it is common for students to leave the area after graduating in search of greener pastures.

“They often leave the state,” said Jeffrey B. Rupp, MSU director of outreach in the College of Business. “So, there is a gap in the post-college age group from between 24-30. They tend to leave. We are trying to keep them here now and to do that have established MSU’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach, known as the CEO, in cooperation with the Greater Starkville Development Partnership  to provide space to migrate student businesses downtown.”

Rupp said benefits to the city are seeing new businesses pop up downtown, which creates jobs and economic growth while retaining more young people to live and work in Starkville.

“We started with the company called Glo that sells a plastic ice cube that lights up, glows different colors and flavors drinks,” Rupp said. “When the drink is empty, the ice cube puts out a signal that another drink is needed. This was featured on Facebook by a guy called the Tipsy bartender. After he featured them, their site in Starkville got 5 million hits. They were invited to host a party at the Academy Awards.”

Rupp said the owners of Glo were thinking of moving out of state to New Orleans, or Birmingham, but MSU President Mark Keenam encouraged them to stay by providing them with a beautiful, rent free corner office downtown. Since then the company has graduated from the CEO and expanded into a formerly empty building downtown.

“They have left the nest, but are staying in town,” Rupp said. “We want to continue to continue migrate student business downtown. We couldn’t do it ourselves, and the city couldn’t do it on its own, so we think it is an interesting town-gown relationship.”

After Glo moved out, they were replaced with CampusKnot, which was started by an aerospace engineering undergraduate with an MBA, Rahul Gopal. The company has an interactive educational social media platform for educators and students. CampusKnot currently has about a half-dozen employees, and reports that sales grew 600 percent year-over-year from 2016-2017.

Gopal said having the business incubator space lends legitimacy to the startup business.

“It’s nice to have space where people can stop by and we can host meetings,” he said.

The CEO has been open for almost two years now. Rupp said it is a unique center designed in part by the students who use it.

The Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach is almost all glass, and it participants are encouraged to write on the glass “idea walls” with neon colored markers.

“You can see it isn’t like anything else on campus,” he said. “It is virtually all glass. We have neon colored markers and participants are encouraged to write all over the glass idea walls. It is very futuristic. We had different architecture planned and the students though it was a little too traditional. They did their own CAD drawings and the dean decided to adopt the student recommendations.”

Rupp said they also designed areas to encourage synergy. For example, you might have an engineer sitting at a table working on something and right beside [him] someone in marketing. The engineer might have a great business idea and could benefit from working with marketing expert to help bring that to market.”

Rupp said the city has also been a tremendous partner.

“It is a really good relationship,” he said. “The office of the mayor has been a tremendous help. Another benefit from the city is that they give me office space and I have meetings down there and can mentor regular mom-and-pops, not student-related. It hard to get people on campus because of parking and other issues. I can go downtown and meet with anyone who has a business idea. That is a really nice benefit, as well.”

Mayor Lynn Spruill has referred to the collaboration the “perfect” town and gown partnership. His hope is that it will help create an explosion of business activity.

“Entrepreneurs become tenants who become long-term tenants and residents of the community and a major part of the fabric of our overall town,” Spruill said.

MSU students are launching about 80 new businesses a year. Rupp thinks the model works well in a college town, but could also be replicated in areas that don’t have a major university.

Scott Maynard, GSDP president and CEO, said as entrepreneurs have moved into the CEO downtown, it indicated there is a need for more space. The long-term goal is to expand. They know it is working and want to grow.

Rupp said faculty advisers are an essential piece of the puzzle. Faculty advisers from across disciplines coach students on everything from technology issues to finances. An executive-in-residence program makes senior business leaders throughout the region accessible to budding entrepreneurs seeking advice and encouragement.

Learn more about how MSU supports student entrepreneurship at http://www.weringtrue.msstate.edu/ecenter/index.html. The GSDP is online at www.starkville.org.

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