Long known for agriculture and manufacturing, Mississippi is quickly establishing itself as a diverse and dynamic business climate with an emphasis on technology. Boasting a skilled workforce and unique relationship between the public and private sectors, the state has encouraged and fostered innovative startups and high-tech transplants that do everything from testing 3D-printed rockets to plastic cubes that illuminate drinks. “We’re looking to aggressively recruit both talent and companies outside of Mississippi as well as aggressively nurturing our current companies and pipeline of university students,” says Joe Donovan, director of the Office for Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA). Donovan’s elevator pitch? “Come here, stay here, work here. We want you here, we love you, and we’re going to provide you with the tools to be successful.”
Here are six organizations and startups that are putting the Magnolia State on the high-tech map.
INCUBATORS & EDUCATORS
The welcoming business environment found in Mississippi is driven by the high level of cooperation between the public sector, educational institutions, and private investors. Innovate Mississippi (IM) is a robust incubator for startups in Mississippi that has helped more than 1,500 companies raise more than $181 million in private investment since 2001. The organization focuses on high-growth, scalable, innovation-based companies with innovative products, processes, materials, and business models, engaging with founders as early as possible, even at the “idea” stage. The companies then take part in a rigorous individualized “coach and connect” program with mentors. One such success story is Laundry South Systems & Repair, a provider of commercial laundry equipment based in Pearl, which recently appeared on Inc. magazine’s list of the 5,000 fastest growing privately owned companies in America. “Our entrepreneurial development team walks them through a detailed venture development process to identify strengths and areas of development,” says Tony Jeff, IM’s president and CEO. “We then match them with members of our expansive mentor network to work one-on-one in areas they need to develop. In Mississippi, there are limitless opportunities for growth.”
Mississippi Research Consortium (MRC)
In the high-stakes competitive world of academia, it’s rare that universities collaborate as closely as they do in Mississippi (just don’t talk SEC football). Established in 1986 by visionary leaders from each of the state’s major institutions—Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Jackson State, and Southern Mississippi—the MRC coordinates respective economic development efforts, which gives state agencies like MDA a single point of contact to work with. “We encourage offices to collaborate and share opportunities as they explore markets for the exciting intellectual property being developed on our campuses,” says Julie Jordan, vice president of research and economic development at Mississippi State and chairwoman of the Mississippi Research Consortium. “If we’re asked to help find a solution for a problem in the private sector, we all know which institutions are best suited to address specific needs.”
The MRC also supports startups on each of the campuses, working to increase the number of “gown to town” workers that choose to remain in-state after graduation. “We know university-based research is a strong driver of economic activity and helps create innovation-based ecosystems that are appealing to private sector partners,” Jordan says. “If we’re asked to help find a solution for a problem in the private sector, we collaborate and respond quickly to meet the need.”
Based in Vicksburg, ERDCWERX empowers small businesses, entrepreneurs, and academia to identify new partnerships for innovation and commercialization with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC). According to ERDCWERX Director Paul Sumrall, the ERDC is part of a strong federal government presence in Mississippi that has resulted in some of the most densely populated regions of engineering talent in the country. “It creates a unique business opportunity for those who can contribute to their applied engineering projects or commercialize their patented technologies,” Sumrall says. And that only scratches the surface of the potential of ERDC’s work in the state. The ERDC manages five major Department of Defense Supercomputer Resource Centers and hosts one of the centers at its Vicksburg site. Adds Sumrall: “Mississippi has great potential to play a leading role in the rapidly evolving data and information technology industry.”
Glo is a prime example of the support given to startups by the universities. Glo cofounder Hagan Walker received a $15,000 grant from the Mississippi State entrepreneurship program in 2016 to bring a class project—cubes that illuminate when put into water—to market. Glo Cubes were a hit in local bars and restaurants, but an unexpected use of the product occurred in 2019 when a woman took one of them home from a local restaurant and put it in the bath for her autistic son, who was calmed by the light. The team ended up creating an entirely new brand focused on children’s sensory toys, Glo Pals, and earlier this year, signed a licensing deal with Sesame Street. Last year, Glo grossed $3 million—90% of which was generated by Glo Pals.
Walker, who is also the company’s CEO, is a firm believer in the community fostered by working in Mississippi. Glo recently renovated a 1930s movie theater for their new headquarters, helping to revitalize downtown Starkville. “We made a conscious decision to stay in Mississippi, and the fun part of that is you get to try things that wouldn’t be available elsewhere,” he says. “Having headquarters in a movie theater likely isn’t a viable option in Nashville or New Orleans. In Mississippi, people want to help each other, and across generations, there is a mutual acceptance of working together for the greater good of the state.”
In 2018, when California-based space technology company Relativity needed to find a second facility, they had to move like a rocket. They found it at the Stennis Space Center in southwest Mississippi. Since NASA already had a long history with the state and at Stennis, Relativity was able to acquire existing test stands that provided a literal foundation upon which the company could build their own. The team at Stennis also provided infrastructure that the company could readily tap into, which dramatically reduced the time to spool up operations with new hardware.
The Mississippi operation began with one person and now counts 45 employees mainly working on the world’s first 3D-printed rocket, Terran 1. Relativity just announced a new project, Terran R, which will be the first 3D-printed fully reusable rocket, and Stennis has the space (as it were) to help scale the company. Relativity’s Clay Walker, Stennis site director of vehicle development, credits Mississippi with providing a highly educated workforce beyond the four major universities. “Mississippi’s community colleges provide excellent training for our workforce, with associates degrees in instrumentation and controls,” he says. “Many of our current technicians have graduated from these programs, so we knew that the experience pool in this region was top notch, and we could build our team without having to start from scratch.”
With ocean temperatures on the rise and water levels increasing due to climate change, the Mississippi Gulf Coast has become a critical outpost for maritime research. Dubbed the “Blue Economy,” it brings together skilled oceanographers from the University of Southern Mississippi as well as the public/private organization, Gulf Blue, which pools the knowledge of research scientists, federal agencies, industry partners, and entrepreneurs to further develop the region into a global leader in blue technology.
One of the companies integral to the Blue Economy is Ocean Aero, a developer of an autonomous vehicle known as TRITON that both sails and submerges for long-range ocean observation and data-collection missions. The company is in the process of moving its entire operation from San Diego to Gulfport and will eventually bring 45 new jobs to their new headquarters. “The power of the Mississippi Blue Economy is in working together to do things faster and better than any one of us could do alone,” says Ocean Aero CEO Kevin Decker. “We’ve identified a highly experienced, innovative, and nimble workforce of skilled labor and tenured professionals, both in the tech world and beyond. Especially in our maritime industry, we’ve learned that the workforce and attitudes of the talent in Mississippi is a hidden gem that we’re excited to become a part of.”