Innovation and Commercialization in Hattiesburg

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Published: June 28,2004

HATTIESBURG — Business and university leaders here have a bold plan and exciting vision for a high-tech park that has put the state of California on notice. The Innovation and Commercialization Park is being developed on 500 acres owned by the University of Southern Mississippi (USM). That’s a place where ideas flowing from university research meet the marketplace. The driving force is the university’s Polymer Science Institute, recognized as one of the top 10 in the country.

“Here you can take an idea and drive it through commercialization to a product you can buy in a store,” said Dr. Angie Dvorak, USM’s vice president of research and economic development. “Great ideas are wonderful but someone has to write a check.”

The Area Development Partnership’s Web site features an excerpt from a Los Angeles Times article that says, “Budget-battered California can’t afford to match Hattiesburg’s offer to help finance manufacturing plants and laboratories for high-tech businesses that move into an ‘innovation and commercialization park’ going up on 500 empty acres.”

The piece cites the university’s increasingly important basic research being conducted at the School of Polymer Science as another drawing card for Hattiesburg. California must match that if it hopes to keep small high-tech companies from moving to Mississippi.

“This project is a top priority for our university,” said USM president Shelby Thames. “Our growth in economic development efforts and research funding has been tremendous. The creation of the park allows us to put that growth to work in the marketplace.”

Dvorak added, “We’re uniquely qualified to do this and the major thrust will by the polymer industry. We want the park to be diverse with a mix of tenants to create synergy for economic opportunities.”

She sees herself as the principal investigator among the six partners working to develop the park. The planning phase was kicked off in 2002 with a $1 million grant from the federal government. The grant was repeated last year, a master plan was completed in March 2004 and work is beginning on infrastructure improvements.

Located off Classic Drive, near U.S. 49 and Interstate 59, the site includes USM’s former golf course, Lake Sehoy and pine thickets. According to Phil Halstead, executive director of the Area Development Partnership (ADP), 50% of the property will be kept in near pristine condition to create a state-of-the-art research park in the context of environmental preservation.

“We realized one of our best assets is that the site has tremendous natural beauty and we want to take advantage of that,” Dvorak said. “We took the high road with a high ratio of undeveloped to developed acres. Everyone is supportive of that and I think it will help market the park.”

She said the university will construct the first major building in the park and it will be a multi-use facility. Companies that locate there will have access to the university’s 106,000-square-foot polymer science and engineering research center and can share $25 million worth of equipment.

“We’re committed to research here, and it’s all about leveraging what we have,” Dvorak said. “The university has hundreds of business partners around the world.”

Halstead says research universities have been opening parks of this kind for the past 20 years as a vehicle for intellectual properties to meet bricks and mortar. Models cited are Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, Boston’s Route 128 and California’s Silicon Valley. The idea is to stimulate the state’s transformation with a technology-based strategy. He feels this park will start that transformation.

“The concept of working in unison will make it successful,” he said. “Polymer and other research areas at the university will be commercialized through either partnering with major companies or starting companies of our own.”

Although tenants for the park are being recruited and groundbreaking for the first one could take place by the end of the year, he and Dvorak point out that filling the park with qualified tenants could be a 20-year project.

“It’s important for people to keep in mind that this is a long-term proposition that does not happen over night,” she said. “It will be 10 to 20 years before we can say it’s successful.”

The kinds of companies that might locate in the new park include Fortune 500 companies, leading-edge high technology production and start-up companies past the incubator stage. That could be in the fields of information technology, medical devices, semi-conductor chips, plastics, coatings, sealants, adhesives and chemicals. While this type park does not compete with industrial parks, Dvorak said small quantities of high value products could be produced there. For the most part, however, companies will use the park to commercialize research ideas with manufacturing at other sites.

The workforce will include scientists, engineers, mathematicians, statisticians, marketers and management support staff with the potential for high- wage jobs.

“These employees will have discretionary income and will generate wealth in the area,” Halstead said.

Former Hattiesburg ADP executive director Gray Swoope, who is now deputy director for the Mississippi Development Authority, says the new park will be another resource for the state to use for growing the number of technical businesses and will benefit the whole state.

“We have to change our way of thinking and figure out what our overall strategy will be to help companies like this,” he said. “This park will provide the environment for competitive high-tech jobs.”

He also listed the E-Commerce Center at Jackson State University and the Research and Development Park at Mississippi State University as locations with these goals.

“There is a lot of teamwork going into this park,” Dvorak said. “I see myself as the orchestra leader and I’m honored to be involved with it.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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