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Harvesting high-tech ‘Garden’

USM's The Accelerator

>> Technology and business park carries promise of transforming knowledge to jobs for Mississippi

HATTIESBURG – Six-hundred acres that once made up the University Golf Course represent an ambitious plan to commercialize University of Southern Mississippi scientific and engineering research.

The goal: Jobs and paychecks for everyday Mississippians.

It all starts on the ground floor, said L. Bryan Brister, a PH.D. and director of the Mississippi Polymer Institute, both a tenant and driver of the planned innovation and commercialization park’s creation.

In economic development, about 88 percent of technology companies that are successful stay where they are created, Brister noted. “So what that tells you is that if you’re going to develop a high-tech economy, you’ve got to be on the ground floor.”

Great expectations have been in place for half a decade. Now it’s time to make them happen, say the academics, scientists and economic development professionals behind the project to turn the former golf course into a technology and business park that will be home to cutting-edge enterprises for decades to come.

Commercialization is the key. Products for the home, products for industry, products for outer space — the idea is to recruit daring visionaries “and help them cross the boundary of thought and make the leap into action,” proclaims promotional literature for The Garden, the shorthand name given to the new innovation and commercialization park.

A handful of recruits for “The Garden” have already been identified. They’re the start-up companies that occupy The Accelerator, a University of Southern Mississippi materials science innovation center that helps new companies commercialize their research.

As The Garden’s first tenant, The Accelerator leases about 10,000 square feet of furnished space, including laboratory areas. The 10 companies there now get access to state-of-the-art business services. Offerings include shared instrumentation, the world’s only National Formulation Science Laboratory, Mississippi Polymer Institute, a technology commercialization company, and USM researchers.

The idea is to cultivate innovative ideas from “mind to market,” The Accelerator says.

“In the purest sense,” Brister said, the progression will go something like this: “The start-up companies come out of the university. They come to The Accelerator. They get too big to stay so they build their own building in the park.”

The other pathway, he said, is to recruit companies that want to locate near the university.

The state-supported Polymer Institute is a key element in The Accelerator’s success and is expected in the years ahead to propel innovative commercial uses of polymer plastics, said USM’s Chad Driskell, executive assistant to the president for external affairs. “It’s really been a great success.”

The institute’s renown in the research and development of advanced composite components helped to lead General Electric to decide to invest $56 million to build a new 300,000-square-foot facility in nearby Ellisville that will employ 250 people within the next five years. The plant is expected to open in 2013.

The new facility will join an existing 300-employee Mississippi aviation factory — opened in Batesville in 2008—in manufacturing advanced composite components for aircraft engines and systems. GE Aviation expects to invest $150 million in the two locations by the end of the decade, the company says.

Not just aircraft makers have the Polymer Institute on their radar. Think shipbuilding, Brister said. “Imagine an entire ship structure made out of composites — not steel.

“That’s the kind of cutting-edge technology things happening right here,” he said, and explained the institute’s specialty in such a program would be the resins that bond the composite components.

What’s more, Brister sees “bio-based” feedstocks for producing materials such as “bio-plastics” as an opportunity-in-waiting for Mississippi.

“USM has led the way in this particular area of research since the late 1960s, and with a rich agricultural heritage, Mississippi could benefit economically from progress in this area,” Brister said in an email follow-up to a previous interview.

While The Garden’s roots may be in polymer applications, its commercial reach will extend well beyond that field, said Rick Duke, director of the USM-based Trent Lott National Center for Excellence in Economic Development & Entrepreneurship.

“I can certainly envision companies that are in the medical device business, telecommunications and other businesses,” said Duke, whose center will work with the Hattiesburg-based Area Development Partnership to recruit tenants to the park.

The two will target companies that have a desire to be close to knowledge, Duke said. “It’s knowledge that the university has. It’s knowledge in polymers; it’s knowledge in health, knowledge in science, knowledge in business…”

New Hattiesburg arrival Stion, a California-based solar panel maker, is an example of a good fit, Duke said.

Stion is building its new plant in Hattiesburg and expects to employ more than 1,000 new workers there within the next six years. “Even though they are not in The Garden, the university has a terrific partnership with Stion,” Duke added. “That’s the kind of relationship we’re looking for in companies interested in locating in The Garden.”

Garden grew out of tung tree

USM’s School of Polymers and High Performance Materials might not exist today had hurricane Camille in 1969 not destroyed Mississippi’s tung trees whose nuts produced an oil used in wood finishes and other products.

The demise of the state’s tung tree industry also killed off an area of study for USM professor Shelby Thames.

Just as Mr. McGuire advised Dustin Hoffman’s character in 1967’s “The Graduate,” Professor Thames settled on one word: “Plastics.”

It didn’t come as a large leap for Thames, since his work had been in naturally derived molecules. Brister said. “So that started the polymers department.”

Great expectations

Labeling a young ballplayer the “Next Mickey Mantle” often means it won’t be long until the dejected prospect is riding a Greyhound home.

But if you’re in the business of growing cutting-edge businesses, a sense of assured success can instill confidence that obstacles can be overcome. So unsurprisingly, Brister is predicting that some day The Garden’s successes will be mentioned in the same sentences with the world renown models on which the Hattiesburg park is based: Stanford University’s Research Park and Raleigh-Durham’s Research Triangle Park.

The Triangle Park, situated between Duke University and the University of North Carolina, took three decades for its bio-medical research to gain “critical mass,” Brister said.

While the challenges ahead for The Garden should not be underestimated, polymers, forensics and bio-chemical applications are all “tremendously fast-growing” fields that can bring successes early-on, Brister added.

“This is our first step. The good news is that there are some models that we can learn from. Hopefully, we won’t have the 30-year gestation period of Research Triangle Park. Hopefully, we’ll get there sooner.”

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About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.

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