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USM polymer department luring more businesses to Hattiesburg area

The entrance to 'The Accelerator' at the University of Southern Mississippi

Some new products developed in Hattiesburg sound like science fiction: Plastic composite materials that are lighter and tougher that steel, a lotion that neutralizes chemical warfare agents, a rehydration solution that helps identify finger prints from the deceased, and a makeup that can protect soldier from burns from road side bombs.

But they’re all real.

The technology industry in and around the Hub City is continuing to grow as companies are drawn to the University of Southern Mississippi, one of the top three U.S. schools for research in polymer science.

Polymer science is a subfield of materials science that is concerned with polymers. Defined in layman’s terms by Dr. Robert Lochhead, director of the USM School of Polymers and High Performance Materials, a polymer is “a bunch of little molecules joined into a big molecule.” Much, but not all of the field, involves studying plastics.

More companies are following in the footsteps of Hybrid Plastics — a global pioneer in nanotech materials used for things like space-vehicle coatings and synthetic organic transplants — that made headlines in The New York Times and LA Times when it chose to relocate from California 2004 to be closer to USM.

COO Carl Hagstrom, who grew up in Garden Grove, Calif., said he and all the employees who relocated like Hattiesburg: “We like the people that we find here. They are hard-working. They don’t have a sense of entitlement.”

Hattiesburg reminds Hagstrom of his days growing up in Orange County during its high-tech boom: California was business-friendly then like Mississippi is now.

USM’s technology business incubator called The Accelerator has proved a good economic development recruiting tool. Officially known as the National Materials Science Innovation and Commercialization Accelerator, the 60,000 square-foot facility that opened in fall 2010, was a joint effort between the city, state, university and other entities.

Researchers use equipment from USM's Center for Composite Matrix Science and Engineering housed in The Accelerator.

The Accelerator uniquely focuses on product development and is now home to about 10 different companies and the Mississippi Polymer Institute.

The Accelerator’s director, Sunny Webb Corral, said companies are drawn to the facility because they want to work with USM to develop new materials.

New technology concepts can be invented, tested, manufactured and actually shipped from The Accelerator’s doors to customers. The incubator provides access to world-class equipment and amenities typically offered in corporations with large R&D budgets so companies can invest their resources in intellectual and human capital.

Sitting on 520 acres of the old USM golf course, the facility offers driving ranges, a shared grill and other amenities to promote a social atmosphere for scientists.

“One thing that’s very important from The Accelerator’s design standpoint is to increase collaboration between early stage technology companies. The reason that’s really important is these small companies need access to resources outside of their own domain. Right across the hallway, they could have the answer to that solution, if they meet their neighbor and are working with them on different projects. … There are a lot of people with the same expertise working in close proximity. And a lot challenges can be overcome and have been overcome here by doing that,” Corral said.

One company that has made The Accelerator its home is Bracco Diagnostics, which is headquartered in Princeton, N.J. Its RSDecon division produces a patented product called Reactive Skin Decontamination Lotion (RSDL®) that neutralizes chemical warfare agents and is already benefiting the U.S. military.

Researchers use equipment from USM's Center for Composite Matrix Science and Engineering housed in The Accelerator.

“They had heard about Southern Miss, so they came in to work with the faculty members and see: They’ve got this technology and this product — what else could they do with it? They were interested, but (the Area Development Partnership) and the Mississippi Development Authority and the city of Hattiesburg — we all wanted to show them this is the best of the best,” Corral said.

Another company, KDL Solutions, focuses on forensic science and homeland security. At The Accelerator, it developed a Rehydration Solution, which provides enhanced ridge detail for the fingerprinting of both living and deceased individuals. Corral said the solution has been used to solve cold cases from World War II.

Another successful company is SciGenesis, which developed a high performance camouflage makeup that can protect soldiers from roadside bombs. USM professor Dr. Paige Phillips is chief technologist for the company.

The laboratory for USM’s Center for Composite Matrix Science and Engineering at The Accelerator focuses on increasing composite materials durability, strength, and weight reduction. A good future application for this research is airplane engines, Lochhead said. There are “two or three sets of turbine blades that compress the air for the big [airplane] engines. The front ones are composites for lightness. The problem you’ve got is current composites fail catastrophically. They have little hair line cracks, and then unlike metals where you can detect fatigue failure, they suddenly fail” causing planes to crash. With more durable composites, blades would have to be replaced less frequently, saving money.

Researchers also benefit from the Mississippi Polymer Institute (MPI), USM’s industrial outreach arm, which is also housed at The Accelerator.

As explained by MPI director Dr. Bryan Brister, the institute’s “mission is to grow high-tech polymer and materials science businesses. While the campus focuses on fundamental research and longer-term research and development projects, at Mississippi Polymer Institute our work is on very applied challenges for businesses across the state.”

MPI focuses on contract research and development, polymers and materials testing, rapid prototyping and workforce development.

Unlike workforce development conducted by state community and junior colleges, MPI trains businesses on sophisticated management tools like six sigma (a methodology that teaches perfection in repetition) and lean manufacturing. “To put it in perspective, 100 percent of our client base is corporate clients. In the course of 2011, MPI served 91 different Mississippi-based companies across 26 of the state’s counties,” Brister said.

For example, MPI helped steel pipe manufacturer PSL North America use lean tools to help set its business up for maximum efficiency. After a change in market demand, the company’s Port Bienville plant, which was set up to make large volumes of a single product, needed to be able to create many different types of steel products in smaller batches. Lean principles were used to teach the company how to do that, Brister said.

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