Mississippi State University will expand its ability to help young entrepreneurs launch businesses and, leaders hope, keep them in Mississippi, thanks to $100,000 grant to create a new makerspace in downtown Starkville.
The university announced the $100,000 United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development Grant on Monday at an event that featured both of Mississippi’s U.S. senators in the College of Businesses’ Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach.
Eric Hill, MSU’s director of entrepreneurship said the new makerspace, which the E-Center has been pursuing for three to four years, is expected to open by the end of September. It will be open to students, faculty and area residents. The makerspace will be located at East Main Street, between Aspen Bay and Moe’s Original BBQ.
Hill said the grant will allow the makerspace to boast an array of tools, such as 3D printers, laser cutters and metal cutting equipment, to help entrepreneurs design their products.
“This grant will be used toward a makerspace downtown that will allow early-stage companies to prototype, so that work doesn’t go overseas,” he said. “They can prototype it here, build their initial device and hopefully use it in their business downtown.”
Hill said the new makerspace should fit in a little earlier into the process of launching a new business than what the E-Center currently provides.
“Until a product is ready to put in front of people, you need somewhere to experiment and work the bugs out,” Hill said. “That’s what this allows them to do. The (E-Center) has this great infrastructure to get a company started, but until they have the product pieces worked out, you can’t really do that. We’re hoping this gives them a place to do that before they get in front of customers.”
Sharon Oswald, dean of MSU’s College of Business, said the maker facility will feature some retail space at the front to allow entrepreneurs to test the market for their products.
“What we want to see is these students grow businesses,” Oswald said. “What will make us the happiest is if they come up with an idea, it grows into a business, they move into a business space in Starkville or somewhere in the state of Mississippi. That’s what we want to see — that’s the whole idea behind it.”
USDA Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett said the grant fits in with the Rural Development program’s mission to create wealth. It is an investment in an “innovative” program that should be replicated in other places, she added.
“Here in Starkville, we see an innovative example of how we can help young business leaders launch opportunities that will not only create wealth in Mississippi but will encourage them to stay in this state and create talent,” Hazlett said. “Assistance like the grant investment we announced (Monday) really is helping be a partner to these local leaders in opportunities like the E-Center.”
Fighting brain drain
One of the biggest hopes for the makerspace, and similar E-Center efforts, is combating “brain drain” — the flight of educated workers from Mississippi to other parts of the country.
Sen. Roger Wicker lauded the E-Center on-campus as a state-of-the-art facility and said he hopes more efforts like it can help stem the tide of trained, educated workers leaving the state.
“This is exactly what we need to reverse the brain drain,” he said. “We train some of the most talented minds. We give them a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and they head off to Charlotte or Atlanta or New York City. We need more operations like this to make Mississippi attractive to the talent that we are already educating.”
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith agreed.
“If you can get these young entrepreneurs that find the tools they need to be successful and get them grounded in Mississippi, I think the chances of them staying would be much greater because they’re finding the things they need to be successful,” she said.
Jeffrey Rupp, director of outreach for the College of Business, said the makerspace could even help in anchoring Starkville’s downtown with new businesses. Business growth has drifted toward the university, he said, but the makerspace could help create more successful startups like Glo, a drink light maker that has an office on Lampkin Street, to help push growth downtown.
“Thanks to Eric Hill, we have developed an incredibly successful program on campus,” Rupp said. “But we are a land grant institution. It’s not enough to be successful on campus. We need to push this out into communities. What better place than our own community in Starkville?
“We hope that this is just the next step, but not the last step,” he later added. “We hope to grow this.”
Brian Kelley, incoming president of the Main Street Board and the owner of the building where the makerspace is being built, said he’s excited for the energy that he expects MSU students will bring to the downtown business scene.
“We’re excited to have them here,” he said. “It’s going to be fun.”
Jennifer Prather, interim CEO of The Partnership, said she also believes the space will strengthen downtown by helping young business leaders grow new businesses.
“The presence of young entrepreneurs in our space is vital to keeping our downtown vibrant and keeping it alive not only during the day but at night as well,” Prather said.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.