On a beautiful November day, hundreds of movers and shakers gathered at the sleek and fancy Westin hotel in downtown Jackson to plot how Mississippi can transform itself into an entrepreneurial engine, creating high tech, new age companies and jobs for decades to come.
The buzz word was “entrepreneurial ecosystem.” The organization behind the event was the non-profit Innovate Mississippi which describes its mission “to drive innovation and technology-based economic development for the State of Mississippi.”
Innovate Mississippi has, over the last 20 years, helped develop over 1,500 new companies and connected them with over $181 million in seed and venture capital, resulting in new high-paying jobs being created within our state. The company provides coaching and connection to resources for entrepreneurs thanks to the generous support of our public and private sponsors.
The chairman and co-founder is William Rayburn of Oxford. Rayburn is a former Ole Miss professor who was a co-founder of FNC and the company’s CEO for many years, helping that company realize a $475 million sale to CoreLogic in 2016. He is currently growing a second company, MTrade, which also involves applying technology to the home mortgage industry.
Addressing the crowd of 500 or so, Rayburn said, “Innovate Mississippi is a public-private partnership between our universities and private industry, taking your creative ideas as entrepreneurs and turning those ideas into companies that create jobs. This will increase our collective qualities of life.”
Innovate Mississippi has established regional seed funds to provide capital and funding sources for new products and ideas.
“This is to give the entrepreneur the essential elements to turn those ideas into companies to employ people,” Rayburn said.
Joe Donovan, director of the Office of Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Mississippi Development Authority, said, “We’ve really made a lot of progress as a state driving the knowledge-based economy.” He then introduced the keynote speaker, J. F. Gauthier, a serial entrepreneur who has founded three successful businesses (and two that failed.)
Currently Gauthier is founder of Startup Genome, which Donovan described as “the very best at entrepreneurial ecosystem development worldwide,” having studied and advised for over 100 countries worldwide.
Gauthier is a charismatic speaker. He told about growing up in the hinterlands of northern Quebec where the entire economy centered around a big paper mill and the largest aluminum plant in the world.
These big companies attracted the brightest minds in the workforce and this sustained their value, but eventually the world changed and the region was left struggling to reinvent its economy because it had no culture of entrepreneurship and job creation.
Gauthier eventually landed a job in a startup company and was hooked. He has worked in the startup world ever since.
“On our last company, we created the first big research on what makes a startup succeed. What are the success factors? We decided to keep this research and start helping regions like you to replicate the model”
The Kitchener-Waterloo region of Ontario, about the size of the Jackson metro area, has been an amazing success story. Its economy was devastated by the 1981,1990 and 2001 recessions. But in recent years, the region has generated 1,000 startups and 25,000 good paying jobs, 10 percent of the area’s total employment.
Waterloo has 900 startups per million people compared to an average city like Phoenix which has 250 startups per million people.
Gauthier estimates that the 25,000 jobs from the startups have, in turn, multiplied into 100,000 overall new jobs for the entire region.
One thing Gauthier believes should be avoided like the plague: Direct government grants to startups. This is a disaster and undermines the private seed capital industry. Government should not provide the capital but should instead help create a nurturing environment for entrepreneurs and investors to come together.
A key success factor has been “local connectedness.” This means a close-knit community of talent, founders, funders and support programs from government and universities.
Jackson’s “local connectedness” was on full display at the Westin. Dozens of organizations had display booths touting services designed to help young startup companies, from robotics, to accounting to legal services. Innovate Mississippi had two days of seminars on how to start up a new company. There were sessions connecting seed capital funders with entrepreneurs.
It was all very impressive and made me optimistic for the future.
Times are changing, and the old big corporate, big company model is being challenged by a more dynamic ecosystem of entrepreneurship and ad hoc collaboration. Certainly, the instant access to knowledge and resources through the Internet is a big factor in this equation.
The Internet itself is driving the very technology by which it was created. It’s a positive cycle that bodes well for the future.
We must create a culture that encourages risk taking and entrepreneurship. When entrepreneurs fail, it should not be a disgrace, but rather a positive sign of effort and energy. In the startup world, failure is part and parcel of the whole process.
Without entrepreneurs, progress grinds to a halt. Jackson desperately needs entrepreneurs and a culture and ecosystem that allows them to thrive.
Let’s hope Mississippi can get on this train. The dynamic leadership of Innovate Mississippi indicates we have the leadership to make this happen.