The deeply southern state of Mississippi is usually associated with down-home hospitality, front porches and its namesake river.
But it’s also home to NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center, a federal “city” of government offices that revolve around the nation’s largest rocket-engine test facility. The NASA base is so massive it has its own zip code (39529) and a feeding frenzy of entrepreneurs growing at its edges.
A cluster of "geospatial" businesses -- think the technology that makes services like Mapquest and Google Maps possible – has sprung up around the Stennis Space Center and is growing. The Small Business Administration has invested more than $1 million into this high-tech community, dubbed the Enterprise for Innovative Geospatial Solutions, to further stimulate job creation and innovation.
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“Geospatial technology is a pervasive and rapidly growing segment in everyday life,” says Craig Harvey, the president of the Magnolia Business Alliance, a local business development group that runs the 40-member EIGS cluster in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
The EIGS cluster, designated one of 10 SBA clusters through a 2010 pilot program, has been around since 1998. In the mid-90s, the federal and state governments teamed up to invest money into the region to develop businesses that use the innovative technology created by NASA. At the time, the Stennis Space Center, located on 13,800 acres and home to billions of dollars of rocket-engine testing equipment, was generating a tremendous amount of research and knowledge, but no business growth.
That has changed. In the past two years, with an influx of $1.2 million in initial SBA funding, the EIGS has created 101 jobs and saved 184, according to Harvey. The cluster has been directly involved in helping members secure $14 million worth of contracts over the past two years; it's also helped members learn about opportunities that resulted in another $47 million worth of business, he said.
EIGS has received another $385,000 grant from the SBA for its work with small businesses and has the option to take the grant for another four years after this year.
With the SBA funding, the EIGS has produced a series of seminars for small businesses in the region on topics ranging from how to comply with new legislation to how to prepare for a defense-contracting audit. Also, EIGS has arranged for business mentors to work one-on-one with small companies.
One small business the cluster has assisted is woman-owned weather modeling company WorldWind. EIGS is helping WorldWind obtain an export license so that the technology can be used abroad, for things like predicting wave height in surfing communities. In addition, WorldWind has had help from the cluster managing its finances and network with other businesses.
The cluster has also helped geospatial high school curriculum producer Digital Quest, a small firm headquartered in Ridgeland, Miss. The high school course includes topics like site suitability and 3D visualization. With help from EIGS, Digital Quest obtained certification from the Department of Labor for its course to be included in a four-semester industry certification program awarded by the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology, after which students are ready to be an entry-level geospatial technician.