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Control room for operating Pelagic Research Services remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV).

MIST Cluster brings marine technology business and government partners together

Joe Graben

By BECKY GILLETTE

Businesses and governments involved in developing and implementing applied technologies for a marine or coastal environment face some similar challenges, one being the highly corrosive nature of saltwater. The Marine Industries Science & Technology (MIST) Cluster is a regional group formed to provide opportunities for people in maritime-related industries from the Florida Panhandle to coastal Louisiana to work together in the development and implementation of applied technologies for operating in, working around, and monitoring the marine and coastal environments.

MIST Cluster Program Manager Joe Graben, who is also director of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Business and Innovation Assistance Center, said the MIST Cluster represents small and large businesses with associated partners within that clusters which include federal and state agencies and academic institutions.

Elizabeth Valenti

“We have a number of small businesses we principally serve in the program in our region,” Graben said. “They are developing sensors, coatings, software and hardware with primarily marine applications above, in or near the water. As most people are quite familiar with, sea water is not a friendly substance. It causes corrosion. It is a rough environment. These companies are working on innovations that will have to survive in this type of environment.”

Graben said they have companies developing innovations for federal agencies such as the Navy, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There are also companies working on innovations for large industries such as Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, and offshore oil and gas operations. Other participants include those involved in coastal restoration and recovery projects. The Cluster also includes partners involved in commercial and recreational fishing, defense and aqua-mariculture.

One company that has worked with MIST is WorldWinds. Elizabeth Valenti, president\owner, said the MIST Cluster has been super helpful to her company.

“We started out at Stennis in 2000, and they were invaluable helping us get set up, giving us office space and what we needed to get going,” Valenti said. “Then, in 2001, they helped us identify a Small Business Innovative Research Grant. We bid on and won a project to help model hurricane storm surges. To this day, we are still in the storm surge business selling that commercially.”

Valenti said that in 2010 Graben notified her of a NOAA solicitation out of Washington, D.C. which the company won to provide weather products for the television broadcast market. 

“We have weather stations across the world showing our weather products generated here,” said Valenti, who has offices in Slidell, La., and at Stennis. “I credit that to Joe because we wouldn’t have known of that opportunity otherwise. That is the kind of thing they do. We are very small. There are only four of us. I don’t have time to monitor the Requests for Proposals every day. But Joe does, and he is good about matching opportunities to different MIST companies. He calls and says, “I think this would be cool for you. I think you should look into it’.”

Another MIST employee, Laurie Jugan, who is lead technical consultant, helped recently by connecting Valenti with another MIST company. The two companies are partnering together to bid on a NOAA project.

MIST also holds events and workshops where people learn what is going on within federal agencies in terms of developing procurement opportunities, and training in how to bid on those opportunities.

“We help small businesses learn how to win those kinds of grants with federal agencies and prime contractors,” Graben said. “They can learn how to do business with federal and state governments. We help identify resource providers for them. For example, a company might be developing a new innovation for the Navy, but need testing for their innovation. That testing might be done at university facilities with faculty members to help fill out the expertise needed to for the company’s work project.”

Graben said the purpose of the MIST Cluster is to is try to diversify the coastal economy, bringing in higher-paying tech jobs, and also improving the way existing industries on the Coast operate so they are more environmentally friendly, efficient and sustainable. The Cluster is also involved with its partners in supporting work-force development efforts.

“Through our program, we can help universities understand the work-force training needs of small businesses and industry here in the region,” he said. “And we can help those small businesses and industry understand where they can find their workers, people who can be trained for the educational requirements that they need.”

The program, which has been in existence since 2014, has a firm track record in helping small businesses secure funding for applied research and development–quite often working with new technology applications. It can take 10 to 15 years by the time a new technology gets developed until it is a accepted and used in market.

“People are familiar with their smart phones,” Graben said. “Most of that technology in that phone began ten to 15 years before it was commercialized. It took quite a while from when the technology was developed until it was used to create the phone they use today. We are planting a lot of seeds right now. We won’t know the fruits of all that for another five to 10 years.”

Almost each quarter the MIST Cluster holds small-business consortium events. One will be coming up Sept. 11. It will be posted on the MIST Cluster website (https://www.mistcluster.org/) under events. 

Graben said the symposiums are a good opportunity for technology innovators to come together with industry end-users to understand each other’s capabilities and needs and collaborate to foster expanded business and address shared issues.

The MIST Cluster is supported by a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Regional Innovation Cluster contract, the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology, Inc., and the University of Southern Mississippi.

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