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Thad Cochran Research Technology and Economic Development Park sign. (photo by Russ Houston / © Mississippi State University)

MSU research & technology non-profit out to elevate innovation in Starkville’s downtown

JULIE JORDAN

By TED CARTER

The move of tech data company Babel Street Inc. onto the third floor of Starkville’s Cadence Bank building marks the official start of a Mississippi State University non-profit corporation’s efforts to energize downtown technological innovation.

Cadence, a regional bank formerly headquartered in Starkville, will remain in the first two floors of the 33,000 square-foot downtown landmark at 301 W. Main Street for another couple years. The Atlanta-based Cadence is constructing a new building on Russell Street behind Comfort Suites, said Dr. Julie Jordan, interim vice president for research and economic development.

“We’re not rushing them out,” Jordan said. “They’re still our best tenant.”

Plans are under way for revamping the space after Cadence vacates. The space could go to new creative enterprises or to current tenants of the 272-acre Thad Cochran Research, Technology and Economic Development Park. just north of campus.

Jordan estimates the revamp will cost the MSU Research and Technology Corp. — a non-profit entity established to promote, develop and administer enterprises arising from scientific o technological innovation — about $2 million.

A non-disclosure agreement with Cadence prevents Jordan from disclosing the amount the non-profit entity paid for the three-story building. However, the Oktibbeha County Property Appraiser’s Office assessed the nearly 40-year-old building’s value at slightly less than $2.4 million for 2019.

With the building purchase, the university says it can move ahead with Phase II of the Research and Technology Park, providing additional space for expanding companies wanting to remain in this market and also attracting startup businesses.

The MSU non-profit’s Entrepreneur Center and Idea Shop have leased space downtown. Jordan said she sees the addition of the former Cadence building, anchored by international data analysis company Babel Street, significantly strengthening a downtown spirit of innovation. 

The newly purchased building, she said, will be an innovation hub and will bring new entrepreneurial energy downtown.

“Starkville is vibrant,” said Jordan, who has been in her interim post for a couple of months and been with MSU for 13 years.

“At night, the streets are just as full as in the day time,” she said of activity at bars, restaurants and retail stores.

For tenants, the Technology and Research Center wants “companies that can have real synergies with the university,” and it especially wants enterprises that “host our students as interns or hire our graduate students.”

MSU Research and Technology Corp. oversees and manages the technology park property and its downtown holdings much like a commercial real estate company would, according to Jordan.

Lease rates to tenants must be sufficient to cover property expenses and operating costs, she said.

“It’s all self-run,” she said, and noted money also comes to the center through grants and private-sector contributions.

No university money is used, she said, though in some instances, the university has sold property to the non-profit entity and is leasing it back.

The park has about 40 acres available for lease. Jordan said the park expects to grow its building count to help draw “new and attractive companies in the region.”

The center has latitude to invest in ventures doing business in the park but has not yet done so. “It’s something we have looked at and are considering,” Jordan said.

All of Mississippi’s main universities – MSU, Ole Miss and University of Southern Mississippi University – are working to leverage the knowledge of faculty and innovative mind set of students. “Universities as a whole have a lot of native energies in their student bodies,” Jordan said, and added faculty has been a key to success in the endeavors.

At Mississippi State, a board reviews the ideas and expertise of candidates for tenancy in the Research and Technology Park. “We’re looking for companies that can create synergies with the university,” Jordan said.

“For example,” she added, “C Spire has a data center in the research park.”

This arrangement gives tenants access to a vital C Spire data loop that terminates in the park. “This creates high-speed data-sharing capacities,” Jordan said.

With a tap-in to the data loop, “C Spire will co-locate your server right in the building,” she added.

Then there’s Orion, the MVP of the Research and Technology Park’s High Performance Computing Center. 

No wonder.

Orion is the fourth-fastest super computer system of all U.S. universities, according to Jordan.

“It’s a great addition to our computing capabilities,” she said. “It is being used 24/7 by our researchers.”

It’s also gets a lot of use from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The park landed the high-speed computer in 1990 after winning a grant in a National Science Foundation competition. “That is why we actually created the park,” Jordan said.

The super computer operation has paid its own way since 2001, according to the High Performance Computing Collaboratory at Mississippi State, a coalition of seven independent research centers/institutes created to support computational science and engineering using high-performance computing.

“We have always been in the top 150” of ranking for super-fast computers, Jordan said. “We got above the 100-mark 10 years ago.”

Today, Orion fluctuates as fifth or sixth fastest, Jordan said.

What about those empty 40 acres?

“I see us expanding and building new research institutes and finding new and attractive companies” to bring in, she said.

And downtown Starkville?

That involves continuing to develop the partnership with the city, Jordan said.

The other task, she said, “Is to find more ways to move our research and innovation downtown.”

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About Ted Carter