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Innovate provides startup support

By becky Gillette I contributor



Mississippi’s efforts to create a positive climate for new startup companies and in advanced manufacturing earned it two top five in the nation rankings this past year. Mississippi was ranked fifth in the nation for the most business startup activity in 2012, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. And in November 2013, Expansion Solutions magazine gave the state a “Top Five Award of Excellence” in advanced manufacturing.

Innovate Mississippi, formerly the Mississippi Technology Alliance, has been working for years to help entrepreneurs hone their business plans, obtain financing and launch successfully into the marketplace. The most recent effort along those lines was the Oxford Startup Weekend held Feb. 7-9 on the campus of the University of Mississippi at the Innovation Hub at Insight Park.

The Oxford Startup Weekend was the fifth Startup Weekend event Innovate Mississippi has coordinated since 2012.

“We worked closely with university staff and Oxford economic developer Jon Maynard to bring Startup Weekend to Oxford for the first time,” said Tasha R. Bibb, entrepreneurial development manager, Innovate Mississippi. “The motto of Startup Weekend is, ‘No talk, all action.’

“The first night, 20 entrepreneurs pitched their business ideas, and of those, 10 were chosen to develop into companies. They included a dating app that would pair users based on similar tastes in music; an app that would compare auto deals so users could make better informed decisions; and a website that would connect users to up-and-coming music artists. Groups were formed and those 10 ideas were then further developed.”

Business experts from the community served as speakers, mentors and judges, and provided professional advice to the teams and helped fine tune the final pitches made to the judges Sunday evening.

The two runners-up were Safety Check, a software package that finds gaps in security systems, and ScooterSquad, a business that would deploy scooter rental stations within a community. The grand prize winner was Social Sherlock, a game that reconnects Facebook friends via a guessing game to spark conversation. Winners receive free legal, accounting and marketing assistance and office space.

“We were very happy with the turnout for the event,” Bibb said. “We had 50 entrepreneurs participate in the competition, plus members of the community who attended and showed their support.”

Mississippi has had an economic development focus geared towards advanced manufacturing for many years in an effort to draw industries to the state that create higher-paying jobs that could improve the state’s low rankings in per capita income. It is clear those efforts are paying off, said John J. “Jay” Tice IV, Ph.D., vice-president, Innovate Mississippi and director of InnovateMEP Mississippi (formerly the Manufacturing Extension Partnership of Mississippi).

“Mississippi is becoming an advanced manufacturing juggernaut in the transportation sector: Automotive — Nissan, and Toyota and their respective advanced manufacturing Mississippi suppliers; shipbuilding — Huntington Ingalls and its advanced manufacturing Mississippi suppliers; and aviation — G.E. Aviation and Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation,” Tice said.

The top five award in advanced manufacturing says Mississippi is doing a lot of the right things, said Jay Moon, president and CEO OF Mississippi Manufacturers Association.

Jay Tice

Jay Tice

“We have to keep doing the right things,” Moon said. “You can’t get an award like this and sit back and say, ‘We are there.’ It is a continuously evolving process to stay competitive in a global marketplace. Advanced manufacturing is our future, not just in Mississippi, but the country as a whole.”

Advanced manufacturing requires higher skills from employees including the ability to work with computers, and quickly develop new prototype products. The key to that is workforce training. Moon gives a lot of credit to the governor and legislative leaders who several years ago authorized special funding for workforce enhancement training. About $15 to $20 million per year is allocated to community colleges to do workforce training.

“State leaders all recognize how important workforce development training is, and support continued resources for the programs,” Moon said.

Moon, who is chair of the Mississippi Workforce Investment Board responsible for coordinating all workforce development programs in the state, said the state’s 15 community colleges do an outstanding job providing training, working with the business community to make sure the training is exactly what the community needs.

“That is a strong point we have in our favor in the continuous development of our skills not only for kids just out of high school, but returning veterans, people who are changing jobs, and graduates with college degrees who haven’t been able to get a job and want to go back to community college to get some skills-based training,” Moon said. “The need for workforce training is every day, every week and every month. We are fortunate to have the resources and the great service providers like the community colleges that are doing that.”

Moon said another positive is that as of July 1, a 1.5 percent sales tax on energy used in the manufacturing process is being eliminated. The legislature passed a law dropping the tax after learning that Mississippi was one of the few states in the country to charge such a tax.

The future looks bright for advanced manufacturing and other types of manufacturing in the U.S. because more domestic oil and gas reserves are being developed with fracking and horizontal drilling technologies. Moon said reducing the costs of energy has made the U.S. an increasingly attractive market for both domestic and international investment.

“That is why we are seeing companies coming back to the U.S. from China,” Moon said. “About a third of the energy consumed in this country is consumed by manufacturers. Low energy prices are very important to manufacturing and are good not just for existing manufacturing, but for the ability to attract new manufacturing into the U.S.”



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