It's All Academic
hat would happen if influential leaders in a state's university system were as serious about economic development as they were about securing grant money or seeing their football team play in a bowl game? There's nothing wrong with the latter two; both enhance a university's prestige or at least its bragging rights. But an interesting experiment is taking place in Mississippi involving the first proposition. And if the beakers don't break and the creek doesn't rise, then the payoff could be substantial: a three-way win for the universities, the local economy and the state's business community.
With the exception of Nissan's huge manufacturing project in Canton, announced in 2000, Mississippi has not been synonymous with above-the-fold economic development projects, though plenty of industry sectors call the state home. Plastics and polymers are well entrenched as industry clusters, and others are emerging. Communications and information technology (CIT) is perhaps the most advanced of these, thanks to the efforts of the Mississippi Technology Alliance (MTA), an agency charged with providing the resources and administrative support necessary for cluster establishment. Other industries targeted by MTA for cluster organization include chemicals, plastics and polymers; automotive; and wood products and furniture.
From offices in Jackson, the three-year-old MTA is helping commercialize a broad range of technology-based initiatives. "Our job would typically include putting an idea, a business with a need and an entrepreneur with a checkbook all at the same table and try to make a deal come out of that," says Andy Taggart, MTA's interim president and CEO. "The cluster-building is a key component of our overall mission, which is to bolster our economy through technology-generated jobs. That does not just mean hiring people to do computer-based work. It means recognizing that the growth of this economy is going to require people growing it themselves."
Economic Development 101Couple these efforts with the higher-education community's unique interest in economic development, and the business landscape in the Magnolia State will likely look very different in 10 years.
"When I came into this role in May 2002, I knew exactly what I needed to do," says Dr. Shelby Thames, president of the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), in Hattiesburg. USM offers bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees in economic development. "It has always been my contention that universities are the most dynamic economic development machines you can have and that for a state not to utilize that resource is very wasteful."
In addition to the traditional areas of teaching, research and service, Thames has added economic development to the university's very mission. That means creating an enviro nment in which idea commercialization is facilitated and encouraged to the betterment of all involved. Thames says he wants 10 millionaires to come out of Southern Miss by the time his presidency is complete, because wealth generation will benefit the entrepreneur, the local economy and the university.
Smoother SailingRecent passage of the Mississippi University Research Act (MURA) is central to that process. Prior to its passage, faculty members' and researchers' hands were tied where bringing ideas to market was concerned due to potential conflicts of interest. "I was a faculty member [at the time the law was passed], and if I had an idea I thought could be commercialized and wanted to exploit it, I could have lost my job or been fined," says Thames.
MURA changed all that. Now, approval from the university president and the board of trustees is required in order for the commercialization process to commence. The university retains the intellectual property, but companies can be set up to exploit the ideas and to generate economic development. "People involved in the process will bring that expertise back into the classroom, so the students will benefit, and most of the time they will be employed on a part-time basis," notes Thames. "When they leave the university as graduates, they likely will be hired. Instead of going out of state somewhere, they can stay here in Mississippi and build the economic infrastructure of this state."
Southern Diversified Products, a maker of environmentally friendly paints under the American Pride name, is one example of a successfully commercialized idea. In fact, Dr. Thames was the professor behind the initiative prior to being named president of USM.
Intellectual property royalties are one way the university benefits financially, but highly successful enterprises are likely to result in more generous alumni gifts, as well. Money coming back into the university system benefits the research, teaching and service components. "It's a way for us to help ourselves but also to help our students and faculty as well as the city, the county and the state--everybody wins," says Thames. "There are no disadvantages."
What's missing from the picture, however, is the attention of venture capital investors. "We are looking right now at how aggressive we need to be in marketing this concept," says Thames. "It's quite possible that we need to be more aggressive."
On another level, USM is working on a statewide level to foster economic development by participating in a program called Blueprint Mississippi, which was conceived by and is managed by the state's business community. The program combines education, business and economic development resources in order to chart a course to statewide prosperity. USM is heading up the economic development component. The legislature even earmarked $100,000 to support the university's participation in the program at a time when such monetary resources are scarce.
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