By STEVEN NALLEY
Mississippi State University announced Tuesday that its College of Business has received a $650,000 grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, which it will use to leverage a previously announced $1,065,000 EDA grant to aid rural economic development in 61 Mississippi counties, including Oktibbeha County.
The Obama Administration announced the $1,065,000 EDA grant Aug. 1 as part of a $9 million Rural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge. Mississippi State University received more funding from the RJIAC program than any of 12 other recipients.
Clay Walden, director of MSU’s Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems Extension Office in Canton, is MSU’s principal leader for the grant. The EDA is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Delta Regional Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission for the RJIAC grants, Walden said, and a key reason MSU has the largest grant is because it is the only recipient with funds from all four collaborators.
“Mississippi is in ... a unique position in that we have counties both in the Delta and the Appalachian region,” Walden said. “This required lots of specialties to get this grant. It’s a very broad-brush grant, because there are a lot of different disciplines that need to be brought together.”
Walden said MSU agencies collaborating on the RJIAC grant-funded project include CAVS, MSU’s Southern Rural Development Center, the National Strategic Planning and Analysis Research Center, the Franklin Furniture Institute, the Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer and the Department of Agricultural Economics. The project’s focus is increasing entrepreneurship in minority and underrepresented groups, Walden said, and MSU’s goal is creation and retention of more than 500 jobs, with an economic impact exceeding $30 million. Walden said MSU will also be working with the Mississippi Development Authority to identify the most promising companies to assist.
The RJIAC grant is new for this year, Walden said, but the EDA grant for the College of Business is not. Jeffrey Rupp, director of outreach for MSU’s College of Business, said this second $650,000 EDA grant marks a five-year renewal of funds for the college’s University Center, a resource for entrepreneurs in rural areas.
The requirements for the University Center grant changed this year, Rupp said, requiring the center to build a greater focus on entrepreneurship and green energy into its application. MSU was one of the few recipients to have this grant renewed, he said, and while the University Center grant and the RJIAC grant are not directly connected, the projects they will fund fit together naturally.
“This grant allows us to have our own program, but we certainly want to be a piece of the puzzle,” Rupp said.
The University Center plans to partner with a Jackson non-profit called Venture Incubator, which brings entrepreneurial training to people in rural areas, Rupp said. By using local, successful business leaders in each community as mentors for entrepreneurs in each area, the University Center and Venture Incubator will help entrepreneurs build support systems, Rupp said in a press release.
“It also gives our students and faculty the chance to make a difference by carrying out the service mission of a land-grant institution,” Rupp said in the release. “We do this primarily by providing businesses around the state with research teams of MBA graduate students to help them with marketing, new products, logistics, and other pertinent issues.”
Rupp said Venture Incubator is based on a program the University Center started a few years ago called Fast Trac, sponsored by the Kaufman Foundation. In the past year, working with Venture Incubator, MSU and Venture Incubator have already built successful programs in Grenada and Kosciusko, he said, and he hopes to build more each semester with the renewed grant.
Walden said Fast Trac is key to entrepreneur development, one of the four goals for the RJIAC -funded program. The other three goals are growing companies, strengthening communities and expanding clusters.
“The whole idea of industrial clusters or business clusters was developed by Michael Porter years ago,” Walden said. “It’s a way for companies who are in the same business to leverage resources for a region, resources like the workforce and the communities. They end up being stronger by working together than they would in isolation. This is a very strong economic development strategy that’s been used around the country.”
Melvin Ray, associate vice president for economic development at MSU, said the grant reflects MSU’s focus on linking research capabilities with economic development outreach efforts.
“This is an example of how the faculty and staff at MSU are working every day to increase the quality of life for Mississippians and grow local economies,” Ray said. “We generate about 15 student startup companies a year (and about) five faculty startups a year. In addition to that, we have units who are working with small businesses in existing industries across the state every day. We average about 300 completed projects with industry each year. It’s taking the expertise of the university out there to communities to work with entrepreneurs and small businesses to create jobs.”