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Why Mississippi is emerging as the next destination for innovators

With a burgeoning tech sector and commitment to helping startups get off the ground, the Magnolia State is letting companies know it’s open for business

Why Mississippi is emerging as the next destination for innovators
This year, Starkville-based Glo signed a licensing deal with Sesame Street to market its successful line of children’s sensory toys, Glo Pals.

When one thinks of burgeoning hubs for technology, certain cities grab the headlines. Fintech and crypto companies are swarming to Miami. Pittsburgh, with its proximity to top engineering schools, has seen significant investment from heavyweights Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. And, of course, there’s Austin, a city so overrun with techies that some of them are reportedly moving back to Silicon Valley.

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But there’s an under-the-radar location that is bursting with startups and companies looking to expand their operations: Mississippi. With a supportive government, the requisite tax incentives and a unique level of cooperation between the four major universities—Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Jackson State, and Southern Mississippi—the Magnolia State is open for business.

Joe Donovan, the director of the Office for Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Mississippi Development Authority, says the state’s nonprofit angel network, Innovate Mississippi, has made a concerted effort to attract and fund startups, doling out more than $17 million to nearly 40 companies in the past three years. A state that was primarily known for agriculture and heavy manufacturing now has much more to offer. “We’re telling the world that Mississippi is a technology state,” he says. “We’re utilizing federal and state resources to support emerging technology companies, so I’m telling them to come here; we want them here. The five-to-ten–person company that nobody in Silicon Valley or Austin cares about because they’re too small is more than welcome here—we get 15 to 20 of those, and there’s a unicorn in there somewhere.”

“TOGETHER AS ONE”

Mississippi has unique resources that foster the growth of startups in various industries—including a significant presence by the U.S. Department of Defense, marine or “blue technology” businesses along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Stennis Space Center, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which just moved its data operation to the coastal city of Gulfport, bringing in more than 100 highly educated employees. The Mississippi Delta is a leader in agriculture tech development, and the four research universities have successful entrepreneurial-development programs that are spinning out many new startups and creating incentives to keep companies in Mississippi.

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The cooperation between the private and public sector is the key to Mississippi’s present and future. In an era of cutthroat competition, Mississippi has assembled a “together as one” mentality that Donovan claims is the only such consortium in the country. “We’re moving past some of that territorial mentality and embracing collaboration,” Donovan says. “I think it was the realization that, if we’re ever going to make significant progress in building that tech base, we’re going to have to make a paradigm shift in how we do business.

Despite the pandemic, 2020 was a strong year for Mississippi in several areas. The state added more than 5,000 new jobs and an extra $1 billion in private investment—a 45% gain over 2019—through new and existing business growth, which included many advanced manufacturers and high-tech aerospace companies.

NURTURING HOMEGROWN TALENT

With all signs pointing to Mississippi becoming a major player in the technology world, one issue remains: attracting more talent. The MDA was instrumental in rewriting the curriculum at 15 community colleges in the state to focus more on technology. They’re also making a concerted effort to keep an educated workforce in-state after graduation from the research universities, as well as luring back expats who left in their 20s but are now ready to settle down, raise families, and live closer to relatives. “In my opinion, no state is better suited to connect the right federal, state, local, and private-sector resources,” says Julie Jordan, the vice president of research and economic development at Mississippi State and chairwoman of the Mississippi Research Consortium. “When there is a challenge that needs to be addressed, anybody you talk to will either know the right person or know how to find the right person.”

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For a startup such as the Starkville-based Glo—a company that primarily makes small plastic toys that light up when dropped in liquid and are used to aid in children’s sensory development—it’s the people of Mississippi that make all the difference. The company has gone from two to 27 employees since launching in 2015, with plans to add another 15 in the coming months. The founders, Anna Barker and Hagan Walker, have made it a priority to stay in Mississippi. “People here want to help. And across generations, there is a mutual acceptance of working together for the greater good of the state,” Walker says. He and Barker started Glo while they were students at Mississippi State University—named one of the Best Maker Schools by Newsweek—and since coming up with the concept, Glo has sold more than 3 million products to customers in more than 36 countries. Barker adds, “We were fortunate to have been exposed to so many entrepreneurial opportunities while studying at Mississippi State. And when you combine that with the resources that the state as a whole has to offer, there are some great reasons to consider Mississippi.”

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