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Polymers and Plastics

USM's School of Polymers and High Performance Materials is ranked in the top 10 such schools nationally and boasts 6 professors who were recruited directly from private industry. The school is central to the region's strength as a polymers and plastics cluster; well over 400 companies related to polymers are based in Mississippi. The Mississippi Polymers Institute serves as a liaison between university expertise and private industry. "Principally, we want to see existing businesses grow and be more successful and pay more taxes, because we'll get our share of that," says Thames. "Secondarily, we want to recruit new businesses to our state. But the best way to expand an industry is to maintain and grow existing industry."
        A newcomer to the area is Hybrid Plastics, which in July 2003 announced an alliance with USM whereby the two entities agree to collaborate in the research, development and commercialization of certain polymers and derivative nanocomposites. In this case, Mississippi's gain is California's loss. Hybrid had been based in Fountain Valley, Calif., and was one of the state's rising high-tech stars.
        The parties also plan to establish a Nanotechnology Center of Excellence at Southern Miss, which will focus on the application of adoption of nanotechnology by industry and government. Areas likely to see nanotechnology application include agricultural products, cosmetics, electronics polymers, coatings, paints and composites.
        Hybrid Plastics, with the support of USM, the City of Hattiesburg, Forrest County and the Mississippi Development Authority, plans to construct a 26,000-sq.-ft. (2,400-sq.-m.) manufacturing facility to produce nanostructured materials.
        Dr. Angeline Dvorak is charged with implementing much of the economic development agenda in place at USM. As vice president of research as well as economic development, Dvorak says she holds the dragon at both ends. "Sometimes your fingers get burned, and sometimes you can't quite hold on, but it emphasizes our commitment to a research-to-market model," she says. "We participate at each point of the R&D continuum – from basic conception all the way to the marketplace."
        Making economic development as high a priority as it is at USM is "quite unique," says Dvorak, "and within academia it's very radical. To be involved in economic development at this level is to be engaged in creating wealth and jobs and improving quality of life. That is a core part of why we exist."
        Among the economic development assets Dvorak points to is USM's Center for Workplace Performance and Learning, which provides work force development resources. The Dept. of Labor has named the center a model program. "Having been in economic development myself, I know how important that is to companies taking a look at the area," says Dvorak. The head of the center, associate professor Dr. Cyndi Gaudet, has created a competency model designed to help gauge the availability of skills associated with industries and specific jobs.
        "It can also be used in a community to retool an existing work force in one industry and help them to make the transition into another industry, because you're looking at competencies, not job titles," explains Dvorak. "That is a critical piece that will help us in economic development."
        Aside from the academic side of economic development, Dvorak's team helps facilitate MURA-company spinouts, among other efforts. "Secondarily, we work with industry all across the country to receive their donated intellectual property, and we are in the process of spinning out some companies from that." Additionally, Dvorak's group serves as a research arm to companies that have been recruited to the area or expanding companies on new product development and existing product enhancement.
        "Sometimes, we are a research contractor, where an industry has a particular research need that we can address," adds Dvorak. "Part of our goal in creating the innovation and commercialization park [where Hybrid Plastics is building its facility] is that we know there are companies where if they could reach into a university and use it as an R&D arm, that hits their bottom line immediately." The park is being designed as a research and technology park with easy access to the USM campus.
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