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VIRTUAL REALITY VR is here, revolutionizing military training and healthcare delivery. Can Mississippi take the lead?


THE IDEA SHOP Mississippi State University’s new maker space in downtown Starkville offers creative tools to students, faculty and the public at large.

MISSISSIPPI INNOVATORS HALL OF FAME Hundreds gather to honor the state’s legends in technology and • 1 entrepreneurship.

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Discover New Realities


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Better Together

At Bradley, we combine legal experience and knowledge with a sophisticated understanding of the industries that drive Mississippi. Our attorneys find practical, strategic solutions specifically tailored to our clients’ business operations. We go above and beyond expectations to help our clients meet their goals.

For more information visit our website at or contact: Wendy Mullins,, 601.592.9937

Birmingham | Charlotte | Dallas | Houston | Huntsville | Jackson | Montgomery | Nashville | Tampa | Washington, D.C. No representation is made that the quality of the legal services to be performed is greater than the quality of legal services performed by other lawyers. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING. Contact: Margaret Oertling Cupples, Esq., 601.592.9914,, Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP, 188 E. Capitol Street, Suite 1000, Jackson, MS 39201. © 2019 4 • Innovate Mississippi

WELCOME I’m excited to share this year’s edition of Innovation Report, where we highlight the innovation activities from 2018 around Mississippi. In these pages you’ll get a glimpse of what’s going on in Mississippi’s budding, energetic entrepreneurial ecosystem. We can’t help but brag on the great startup companies that are the beating heart of Mississippi’s startup scene as it was a great year for startups and investors, with probably more deals funded than we have seen in a decade. Startups in Mississippi reflect the diversity of our state and range from food products to virtual reality and everything in between. We hope you enjoy some of their stories and are inspired to help join in the effort to build our innovation ecosystem. We’ve also seen digital education explode in 2018 with the graduation of Mississippi Coding Academies inaugural classes in Jackson and the Golden Triangle; another class of coders graduating from Basecamp Coding Academy; and the expansion of virtual reality training through Lobaki’s Virtual Reality Academies. Coders and Virtual Reality designers are already making their mark with Mississippi employers and helping to create an even better ecosystem for technology companies in Mississippi. On behalf of Innovate Mississippi’s staff and Board of Directors, I hope this issue of Innovation Report inspires you through the diversity and energy of Mississippi’s startups. I also hope it moves you to get involved, whether as a mentor, a sponsor, an investor, or an entrepreneur yourself. I know that with your help we can make the next year just as exciting for innovation and help make a better Mississippi.

Tony Jeff President & CEO, Innovate Mississippi • 5

Tony Jeff President & CEO

Ellie Turner Creative Director

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Todd Stauffer Content Director

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Janet Parker Managing Editor

Entrepreneurial 14 Development 17

A company dedicated to bringing virtual and augmented reality to Mississippi.

121 North State Street Third Floor, Suite 500 Jackson, MS 39201 601-960-3610 INNOVATE.MS Connect with us @innovatems

On the cover: Deuntay Williams, VR/AR developer at Lobaki, Inc.The cover was created using graphics from and photography by Delreco Harris.

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Lobaki Inc.

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Glo Flowers To The Grave 24 StayCool Caps 25 Bac Yeast 26 NoTime2Cook 27 EasyKale 29 MegaPatch 30 Mississippi Seed Fund Awards

Innovation 38 Ecosystem 40 The Idea Shop

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70 Startup Weekend

Mississippi State University offers the Starkville community a space for makers of all kinds to work on their craft.

45 The Bean Path 47 Angel Funds 49 Mississippi Coding Academies 51 Mentor Network 53 Entrepreneur in Residence 54 Hacking the Future 57 C Spire Movement 61 Gulf Coast Pitch 62 Delta I-Fund 63 Small Business Innovation Research 65 1 Million Cups Jackson


Practice makes perfect and this weekend gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to work together on the product and the pitch.

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Mississippi Innovators Hall of Fame Accelerate Conference Discovery Luncheon Company & Investor Spotlight • 7


If you want to build Mississippi’s next great business, it helps to make big decisions over a great meal. Maybe that’s part of why we’ve been able to build Mississippi’s only Fortune 1000 company. But a firm commitment to our values sure helps, too.

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Sponsors Advantage Business Systems AT&T Bank of Franklin BankPlus BC3 Technologies BKD Bradley Bruce Deer, Entrepreneur in Residence Butler Snow C Spire Coalesce Co-working Space Comcast Community Bank CoreLogic/FNC Co.Starters Deborah Bailey EasyKale Brands Edge Theory Entergy Ergon First Commercial Bank Fuse.Cloud Gail Pittman, Inc. Global Training Institute Hancock Whitney Bank Hapax Creative Insight Park Jackies International Jackson Preparatory School Jackson State University Jan & Lawrence Farrington JFP Digital Jones Walker LEC, Inc. Lobaki Madison County Business League & Foundation Madison County Economic Development Authority Mahaffey’s Quality Printing Mantle City Club + Incubator Maris, West & Baker Advertising Marriott Jackson Matthew McLaughlin, PLLC Mike Forster Mississippi Development Authority Mississippi Economic Council Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce Mississippi State University Foundation Mississippi State University, Center for Entrepreneurship & Outreach MIST Cluster, University of Southern Mississippi mTrade Multicraft Ventures Nuno-Erin

Oxford Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation Pileum Port of Gulfport Regions Renaissance Community Loan Fund Sanderson Farms SmartzWeb Staplecotn Stegall Imagery Sun & Co. Sunray Corporation Systems Companies The Beanpath The Entrepreneur Center @ MDA The Maxbit The Small Town Creative Think Webstore Triton TRU-SPOT Technologies Trustmark Bank University of Mississippi University of Mississippi Foundation University of Mississippi Medical Center, Center for Telehealth University of Mississippi, Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship University of Mississippi, Office of Technology Innovation VSS Westin Jackson

Thanks to the support of our many partners, Innovate Mississippi is making a solid and meaningful impact on Mississippi’s workforce and economy. Want to join our mission and be part of the innovation transformation? Contact Janet Parker at or 601-960-3611. • 9

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1350 66 Total companies accelerated

Companies accelerated in 2018

8.1:1 Return on state dollars

Connecting startups with investors


(not including former manufacturing division)

Focusing on early-stage innovation and technology businesses


Jobs created by Innovate Mississippi Entrepreneurial Companies



State cost per job

Focusing on innovation development within industry


$3.2M $176M Private investment raised in 2018

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p Entrepreneurial Development Mississippi is brimming with entrepreneurs, developing the products and starting the businesses that will one day employ the state’s residents and impact all our lives — from streaming platforms for high school sports and road repair to a bright new way to enjoy any beverage. • 15

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Illustration designed by Freepik

Virtual and augmented reality is the way of the future, and thanks to Vince Jordan of Lobaki Inc., Mississippi is at the epicenter of a tidal wave of growth this technology will bring, impacting industries such as healthcare, military readiness and corporate training. • 17


ince Jordan believes his company, Lobaki Inc., may be one of the first companies ever formed, literally, in virtual reality. Jordan was physically in Boulder, Colo., and his son, Josiah, was in New Zealand. Wearing headsets and holding controllers, they met on a virtual beach in cyberspace, where they signed their paperwork to form the corporation. Oh … and they were both pandas. “We wrote things on whiteboards floating on the beach, and we passed resolutions; we took snapshots, completed formal documents on the computer we needed for the company,” Jordan recounts, smiling. Jordan started the company in summer 2016 because, after a career of nearly 50 years in technology, he was finally seeing a viable market forming in the hardware and software that creates virtual reality, or VR, and augmented reality, or AR. “In March of 2016, the CV1 (virtual reality headset) and the Oculus Rift came out; we got both of them,” Jordan said. “When I put those on and got a look, I said, ‘It’s here. We can use this technology.’” Jordan has been watching VR and AR technology for decades, keeping close tabs since the 1980s, when his uncle, who worked at NASA, gave him a first-hand look at early AR technology at the agency’s Houston facility. “It was ridiculous. Frame rates were off, field of vision was 30 degrees. Unusable. But I thought, ‘This is going to be amazing some day,’” he said. Lobaki Inc.’s goal as a for-profit corporation is to build the virtual-reality worlds that clients need for promising applications in health care, physical and mental therapy, and corporate, military and first-responder training—and that’s just for starters. Early customers in health care, for instance, use VR headsets with young patients who are getting vaccine shots, Jordan says. When the child can put on a headset and fight a dragon, suddenly the sting of a needle fits into gameplay and doesn’t hurt as bad. Jordan sees all sorts of benefits in using virtual reality for meditation, world travel, education and exploration. But training is a big one. He mentions frequently that virtual

18 • Innovate Mississippi

reality is realistic enough that even something like an industrial accident or a dangerous military training exercise— where you could get shot, fall, lose a limb or otherwise meet a grim fate—can actually “happen” to you in virtual reality. Going through the virtually painful experience won’t hurt or maim you, but “you’ll remember it,” he says. One of the challenges? Training enough people who know how to create the VR worlds. “This industry is so early. We are with AR and VR where we were with web technology in 1993 or smartphones in 2000,” Jordan said. “VR is at the bottom of the curve going up, but it’s making huge inroads in industry training and health-care training. Walmart this year will train one million employees using VR; UPS trains new employees using VR; Bell Helicopter is using VR for new design; Boeing uses AR for their wiring in airplanes. There’s not near enough talent available to do everything that industry, health care and the gaming world want to do in AR and VR.” Because of the lack of talent and the potential for an explosion in new opportunities in virtual reality over the next few years, Jordan took on another challenge with another organization—the Lobaki Foundation. His nonprofit arm is training students—from teenagers to young adults to mid-career adults and a few retirees—to create virtual worlds. He actually got into the training initiative via a circuitous route—he calls it “divine manipulation.” A friend of his who was consulting for the Clarksdale, Miss., public school district, knew of work that Jordan had done with an after-school computer club in Boulder. He worked with bright students who weren’t college bound but who took quickly to the technology. Jordan ended up hiring five of them to work at the company he was running at the time. Invited to Clarksdale by his consultant friend, Jordan eventually became a contractor working with the city to put on a VR demonstration during the Juke Joint Festival in April 2017, training five students as VR curators, where they excelled. He returned in summer 2017 to create the Lobaki VR Academy, training seven students as VR creators, some of whom now work with him in Jackson. Jordan says that creating VR isn’t exactly “coding”—it’s

Entrepreneurial Development • 19

Illustration designed by Freepik

20 • Innovate Mississippi

more of a creative process that includes set design, character creation and storytelling. It can appeal to a wide range of potential VR and AR creators, including young creatives or mid-career adults. The Lobaki Foundation, with a curriculum it developed in conjunction with the McClain Foundation at the University of Mississippi, will open or help open more than a dozen VR academies around the state in 2019, as well as at major universities (the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University and Jackson State University, for example). He’s also working with the Navajo tribe in Utah and talking to people in Tennessee, North Carolina, Illinois, Oklahoma—and many more. “We’re sharing this vision with (Mississippi Development Authority), MDHS, Innovate Mississippi and others. The universities are going ‘yes, why not?’,” Jordan said. “Creating in this technology is very little about coding and more about crafting—the tools are good, they’re elaborate. It’s more like making movies than writing a program. This appeals to artists and musicians and all kinds of folks who just want to create—we have an opportunity to create an extensive workforce.” In late 2018, both sides of Lobaki— the foundation and corporation—moved its headquarters to Jackson. With support from the Mississippi Department of Human Services, Lobaki Foundation has set up a Jackson-based VR Academy in the MDHS building on State Street. It’s part of MDHS’s Families First initiative, which has a goal of creating career opportunities for Mississippi’s underserved families. Lobaki Inc.’s production facility moved into the Landmark Building in downtown Jackson in late 2018, along with the Extended Reality Laboratory, which is a collection of VR hardware and software that Jordan believes is the most comprehensive in the country. The lab is attracting attention from around the world; in November 2018, for instance, a group affiliated with Air University and Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., came to explore the different ways VR could be used in training and simulation exercises. Jordan says that the lab has already put Jackson on the map as a major city in the United States for the very new fields of VR and AR; he’s heard numerous times that labs in Austin and Seattle don’t compare to Lobaki’s in Jackson.

Photos by Delreco Harris

And he’s hoping that caché can translate into recognition for the city and state, the creation of an economic cluster based on the VR/AR industry—meaning jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for Mississippians. Jordan, who still has his Colorado mobile number, didn’t expect to be in Jackson, Miss., running a for-profit company and a nonprofit foundation. He’s currently the executive director of the Lobaki Foundation, and he is putting together a group of executives to manage the organization, which has the potential to grow quickly as they “train the trainers” and continue developing the curriculum and setting up academies around the state. Lobaki Inc. will be run by Jordan’s son Josiah, who is currently CTO, and Amber Coeur, who is COO. Jordan also makes a point of mentioning his other son Vinny, plus Jason, Deuntay and ShayAnn—Lobaki’s early VR developers and the “real success story” of their quick journey from Clarksdale to prominence, Jordan says. While he says his role right now is to “create work for other people,” Jordan says some of the real rewards of AR are the potential they have in physical and mental health. If he could pick one thing to work on, it would be some research that Mississippi State University is doing to see if VR can help children with autism; he says, anecdotally, he saw an autistic individual this past summer who was incredibly reserved and shy in real life, but who, when he discovered the Star Trek Enterprise VR game, walked boldly up to the Captain’s Chair and took command of the ship, successfully running missions by communicating with other people in the game. Jordan, with long grey hair flowing from under his signature driving cap, is a high-energy evangelist for the technology, recounting stories of kids with ADD calming down in VR; soccer players with concussions using VR for important eye exercises; distraction therapy for cancer and sickle cell patients; and using VR to make stationary cycling exciting and rewarding. And it’s all just getting started. “In my email signature, I quote Arthur C. Clarke, who famously said that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ I’ve gotten excited about technology before, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. p

Entrepreneurial Development • 21

Glo O

riginally, the idea that became Glo Cubes was going to be aimed at products for kids—toys that glow when placed in liquid, making tasks like getting in the bathtub or taking medicine more palatable to youngsters. Vibe LLC took the glowing-ice-cubes approach, however, because there was less regulatory red tape, and it seemed like a shorter route to much-needed revenue. It worked; as 2018 came to an end, Vibe had its best year ever, opening up another 1,800 square feet of packaging space and moving inventory into a warehouse across town from their main offices in Starkville. Glo Cubes, which glow when they’re in liquid and stop when the liquid is gone—which means it’s time to refill the drink—remain popular with bars and restaurants. Along with the cubes, Vibe also sells “Glo Bombs,” created in partnership with Da Bomb Bath Fizzers out of Minneapolis, that release fizzy essential oils while lighting up a relaxing bathtub. Along with those successful products, Vibe came full circle in 2018 to their original idea and launched Glo Pals— toys that glow when placed in liquid. “We knew that we always wanted to go that way, but it was so much more certification stuff you have to do to get into the children’s market,” said CEO Hagan Walker. “So we’ve now gone through consumer product safety commission testing. We didn’t have the means to do that when we started.” Walker credits his partner, Anna Barker, who came on board in late 2017, with reinvigorating their efforts at children’s products. The results are impressive. “If you look back at the beginning of 2018, our first order for Glo Pals was 10,000 units. The October 2018 order was 750,000 units,” Walker said. “It’s cool to see that.” In the company’s first few weeks of ecommerce sales at, it moved more than 20,000 Glo Pals. A 22 • Entrepreneurial Development

deal with Cracker Barrel will make the toys available in the chain’s retail lobbies starting in spring 2019. “I think the Glo Pals side is going to be the one that starts to carry the company in a certain way, especially because we can do so much more,” Walker said. “Each character has a personality, so you develop things about them.” He believes that Glo Cubes will continue to be a popular wholesale item, where the company sells the cubes directly to bars, restaurants and entertainment venues, but he envisions more of a retail presence for Glo Pals, including both online and via traditional retail partners. The company also began 2018 in new offices, which they had initially planned as a co-creator space with other companies. Their own growth has forced them to scale that plan back and help some of their tenants relocate, as the company has now grown to full capacity at least twice as quickly as Walker expected. He says that Vibe has dipped into the Mississippi Seed Fund award it received from Innovate Mississippi, mostly to manage cash flow for the company’s bigger orders and sales. With payments coming in 30 to 60 days after the orders go out, Walker says having access to the seed fund “has helped out tremendously.” Otherwise, he says that they haven’t needed any additional funding in the past year, as they’ve been able to plow their revenues back into the company. And while the company continues to grow, he believes Mississippi will remain its home. “We love it here. I owe a lot to Mississippi State and to the community of Starkville,” Walker said. “People are always willing to help. We had people up here yesterday from the (MSU Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach) to help us pack. It’s awesome to be here in Starkville and have those resources, plus a good university and people like Innovate Mississippi to help with the funding.”p

Flowers To The Grave

Photo by Freepik


risten Allen loves cemeteries. She’s a self-proclaimed “flower snob.” She went to mortuary school. She loves history. But most of all, she loves love. When her father-in-law, who tends to his wife’s gravesite, mentioned what a shame it was that no one delivers flowers to cemeteries, a lightbulb went off in her head. She decided she should be the one to provide the unexpected service. But at first, her husband Ben wasn’t having it. “He said, ‘Absolutely not. You cannot be up and down the road putting flowers on people’s graves, and you won’t make any money,’” Allen recounts. When she did her own research, she confirmed what her father-in-law had noticed: Nobody else was doing it. She credits her husband with the idea of using Uber or Lyft drivers to make the deliveries. With her as the florist and the transportation figured out, she called on a good friend, Justin Johnson, who has experience in business and web design, to share her “secret.” “I was scared to tell anybody,” admits the stay-at-home mother of two girls. “I never thought I was smart enough to have an idea that someone would actually do.” Within minutes of describing her idea, Johnson told her to stop talking and gave her an Innovate Mississippi business card. His instructions were to call the organization, and then call him back. A week later, she met with the team at Innovate, who liked her idea, and she and Johnson decided to become partners. In October 2017, Allen entered the Mississippi New Venture Challenge pitch competition at the urging of Tasha Bibb of Innovate Mississippi. Although she felt like a fish out of water and completely unprepared, an odd thing happened for Allen: She won her category, including a $3,000 prize, and presented on the second day to the full crowd at the Conference on Technology Innovation. In August 2018, less than a year after coming up with the idea, meeting with Innovate Misssippi and winning its Mississippi New Venture Challenge, Allen and Johnson had their website up and a plan for fulfillment, so they posted an ad on Facebook and Instagram for the soft launch of The business is already turning a profit. It certainly

doesn’t hurt that there’s very little overhead: Allen buys the floral supplies, makes the arrangements herself (she is an experienced florist) and hires drivers to make the deliveries. If it’s a local order, she likes to make the deliveries herself. For $64.99, customers can purchase a custom arrangement, and have it delivered practically anywhere at no additional cost. The site also offers a subscription service that delivers to the gravesite at least four times during the year. The customer can either select specific dates, or have a fresh arrangement delivered at the beginning of each season. Once the arrangement is placed on the site, the customer receives a confirmation photo of the flowers on the gravesite. It’s a simple business model, but it hasn’t been an easy road. Allen has had to learn to “be her own cheerleader,” she says, but the emails and text messages from customers saying how much they appreciate the service have been the greatest successes, aptly putting her fears to rest. Allen says Innovate Mississippi has been instrumental in giving her the tools and advice she needs to run a business, something she encourages other aspiring entrepreneurs to take advantage of, especially since the resources are free. Through the organization, she has also benefited from exposure, free publicity and networking opportunities with potential investors, some of whom are interested in partnering with the venture once the results of the soft launch are in. Allen considers Mississippi the ideal location for her business. The Yazoo City native who now lives in the Metro Jackson area believes that when Southerners think of death, they think of honoring their loved ones’ lives through beauty—as in flowers. “There’s something about being in a cemetery that’s so peaceful and beautiful, something about keeping your loved ones alive in that tradition,” Allen said. If it looks like things are moving slowly, that’s because they are, and it’s by design. Allen is making every effort to protect her company. “We’re not where we want to be, but we’re at peace,” she says. “I want to take the time to put the love and care into it. I want to baby it, to cradle it.” p Entrepreneurial Development • 23

StayCool Caps W

hen Earl Washington set out to create the StayCool Cap, a special hat designed to prevent people from overheating while at work or play, he didn’t have many of the challenges most new inventors face: He had the funding, someone to build a prototype, knowledge of patents and even a customer base. That’s because he has run his own successful small business for 42 years. Still, like others, the 73-year-old admits to procrastinating. “I wish I had pursued it earlier. The idea had been there a long time. I think with any idea you have, you should look at it thoroughly and vet the market and see what the results will be. About two percent of new inventions really make it, and we really feel we are at that range,” Washington said. One thing that’s proven effective, both with his longtime business U.S. Coating Specialties & Supplies LLC, which installs decorative liquid-pour concrete and equipment, and his new venture, is garnering the support of people in positions of power and influence. At Washington’s request, Governor Phil Bryant sent a team out to review the cap, liked it and wrote a letter of support that’s included in StayCool’s marketing materials. The cooling device features four key components: a baseball cap, pouch, miniature fan and USB-cable power bank that guarantees 14 hours of cordless operation. StayCool Caps can be purchased at or on Because he values the opinions of industry leaders, the company’s marketing materials also feature a letter of support from a major insurance provider, Wellington Partners, that specializes in workers’ compensation claims. That endorsement was key, Washington explains. “Wellington has clients that are exposed to heat, and we know for a fact that if you can reduce the heat to make them more comfortable as they work, you keep the workers’ comp claims down,” he said. “When workers’ comp claims go down, the premiums go down. And production goes up.” Washington, a native of Yazoo County who lives and runs his businesses out of Jackson, is no accidental success. In 24 • Entrepreneurial Development

addition to a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Jackson State University, he has earned business certificates from Dartmouth University and Harvard University, and dozens of local, state and national awards recognizing his achievements. Fortune Magazine applauded U.S. Coating’s success with consecutive rankings to its annual 100 Fastest-Growing Inner City Businesses in 2010 (No. 29) and 2011 (No. 13). The listing is based on revenue growth over a five-year period. Washington has worked with Innovate Mississippi as he developed the hat and brought it to market. “The things that you don’t see, they see. When they help you, they know it’s a benefit for you and them,” he said of the team at Innovate Mississippi. Along with on-going consultation, Washington participated in the VIP Lounge during Innovate Mississippi’s Accelerate: The Conference on Technology Innovation on November 14, 2018, where he had the opportunity to meet privately with a few investors for advice and feedback. In the year since StayCool Caps hit the market, more than 3,000 have sold at $49.50 each. With the help of Innovate Mississippi, Washington is talking to manufacturers in hopes of signing a licensing agreement in the coming months, which he is certain will happen. “If you’re going to bring your cost down and get your volume up, you have to go to more automation,” he explains. “That’s the reason we started looking at factories and licensing, which will allow us to get into big-box stores. A manufacturer would buy the license, and they would help us market it on a larger scale. We’d have to build a huge manufacturing plant to get to where we want to go. It’s best to go with someone that already makes caps.” After some prodding, Washington reflected on yet another award he received 15 years ago that seems to predict his second act of entrepreneurship: The Global Visionary Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency. “I guess it just comes naturally. I see things as they are. See which way I can improve something or make it better. I don’t call myself a visionary. It’s just how I see life,” he said. p

Illustration designed by Freepik

Bac Yeast W

hen Bill Mowers started his Hattiesburg-based beer lab, Bac Yeast, his original plan was to focus on creating local yeast for home brewers. His rationale: Those same customers would in turn ignite sales by talking about his Mississippi-grown yeasts when they visited commercial breweries. It turns out the opposite was true. “I didn’t have time to spend a lot of effort on the home brewers,” he explains. “I spent most of my time chasing the commercial end.” His shift in focus has paid off. Nearly two years later, Bac Yeast is approaching 20 regular commercial customers. “My concept was to make it so that they could focus on brewing beer and becoming stable, and then not have to worry about having a lab because that’s expensive. So, I’d be their lab, and basically everyone can share the resources,” he said. In the first six to nine months, Mowers focused on purchasing and installing equipment, experimenting with the best methods for optimized yeast growth and obtaining the highest volume. Once he felt confident in the foundation, he reached out to breweries. Today, about 80 percent of his customer base is out-of-state, primarily in Louisiana and Alabama, where nearly 100 breweries are located. Mississippi, by contrast, has less than ten. Having mostly out-of-state clients is not a problem, though, even for a small operation just starting out. “That’s a benefit of being in the Hub City,” says Mowers, a native of Boston. “It’s very easy for me to get to Mobile, New Orleans, Tuscaloosa. I even have a brewery in Montgomery that I go to whenever they need a delivery. I try to deliver myself, so I can talk to them.” Making deliveries isn’t Mowers’ only hands-on contribution to the lab. In fact, he does it all, balancing his time between lab work (prepping yeast, running samples and analyses), writing and working on grants. With a Ph.D. in polymer organic chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is still very much a scientist and researcher, and would spend more time working on grants if he had help in the lab. Right now, most of the profits are reinvested back into equipment for the lab, which is costly.

“I want to take it to the next level, but I need to be able to hire somebody to work in the lab,” he says. “I’ve discovered that for my sales, I need to be out there. I can’t be in the lab and out there on the road doing sales to grow the business. I need an investor.” Mowers is working with Innovate Mississippi to help with the next round of funding for Bac Yeast, located in The Accelerator at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Innovation Park. Bac Yeast wouldn’t even exist, he says, were it not for the resources The Accelerator provides. Though he has two business partners, microbiologist Tyler Hodges and engineer Joe Charette, Mowers says he mostly handles the day-to-day operations. It’s a lot of work for one person, but the pay-off is they have no debt. Thanks to a new law, chain restaurants with more than 20 locations must have a nutritional label for their beers, so nutritional analysis is a growing area for the lab, along with quality control and water analysis. On the day of this interview, Mowers was working on 30 samples for various breweries. He is also conducting research on making specialty yeasts that are local and regional—Mississippi doesn’t get many hard freezes, which means a long growing season. He’s also working on specialty strains for making different flavors of beer, and test strips to do specific tests for the brewers. “I’m hoping that eventually we can take over the whole region, the whole southeast area,” he said of his strategy. “I would like to open a place where I can grow yeast in two different regions, maybe one in Tampa and one in Houston, and keep this as the main entity where the lab services are.” Once an investor comes on board, Mowers is confident Bac Yeast will expand to the next level. With services cheaper than the competition, most of which is located on the west coast, not only does Bac Yeast save customers money, but it’s also quicker. Mower jokes that while you’ll frequently hear the phrase “drink local,” his personal take on that advice uses insider beer lingo— “pitching” is when you add yeast to the hops, water and grains to start the fermentation process. “Some folks say ‘drink local’—I say ‘pitch local’,” he said. p

Entrepreneurial Development • 25



s a busy stay-at-home mom 13 years ago, Karen Kurr found she wasn’t able to prepare a home-cooked meal every night, so she started cooking meals on weekends, dividing them into small containers and freezing them. When she couldn’t cook, she’d grab something from the freezer. “My mother and I talked about it, and I began to start compiling a notebook of these great family-friendly freezable recipes with the idea of maybe one day, if I have an opportunity, I would start a business,” Kurr said. When her children, Annaleigh and Allen, were about 10 and 12, respectively, Kurr started taking some of her frozen meals to farmers markets. She would cook all week, freeze the dishes, go to the markets on the weekends, sell out, and then go back home and cook some more. “That gave me the opportunity to really test my recipes, meet my customers face to face, find out what they liked and what they didn’t like,” she says. Her farmers market fare consisted of entrees, soups, cakes and appetizers. She’d sell a family-sized chicken and dumplings entrée for $15 or $16, for example. Her business, NoTime2Cook (NT2C), was born. Kurr, a Louisiana native who grew up in Jackson, only cooked out of her home kitchen for two months. Her food was popular; however, selling at other farmers markets required a commercial kitchen and a license. She rented a restaurant kitchen at first. Later, she had an extra room at home converted to a commercial kitchen, where she cooked for four years. 26 • Entrepreneurial Development

Because NT2C is a certified woman-owned business, she was able to secure a low-interest loan through the Mississippi Development Authority in 2010. That loan, along with another from a local bank, allowed her to build a USDA-inspected food plant in Oxford. With the plant, the company more than tripled the number of meals produced each day with the same three to four employees. And since upgrading to new equipment, they now produce more than 10 times (about 1,000 units) what they did in her kitchen. The meals produced in her plant are sold in select Kroger stores in seven states, as well as independent grocers. Kurr says Innovate Mississippi was instrumental in helping NT2C prepare for its national launch into Walmart stores in October 2018. “As we have gone into fundraising efforts, Innovate Mississippi has sponsored meetings for us with angel investors,” she says. “We are in due diligence right now with one of those three, and that opportunity came to us because of Innovate getting behind us, and giving us a platform to tell our story and pitch our efforts.” The North Mississippi Angel Fund evaluates technology as well as non-technology deals. Kurr has learned a lot since starting NT2C, but says she’d do several things differently if she had it to do all over again. Watch cash carefully: “You’ve got to make sure, with your purchases and your cash outflow, that you’re seeing results. There were expensive things we spent money on that were not necessary, and I wish I had that money back,” she says. Invest in packaging: She created her own initial packaging and printed labels on her computer. “I didn’t realize how important packaging was, and what the consumer was seeing. Everything that’s going out there is branding you. You have to protect that image,” she says. Create a business plan and update it annually. Kurr didn’t write a business plan until she went to the bank to borrow money. “If I had had some business courses and had known before I started, it would have been very helpful,” she says. A business plan is critical to knowing where your company is going, Kurr says. Build your network. Her son, Allen Kurr, now vice president of Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation, convinced her to attend an event that the EDF and Innovate Mississippi were sponsoring. There she met Josh Mabus, who became her business partner and took NT2C to the next level in packaging and branding. “That new packaging is what got the attention of our consulting group and the buyers at Walmart,” she says. Use your resources. Kurr says that while being in Mississippi, she has taken advantage of every resource available to her. “I don’t know what kind of support I would have gotten in another state, but I know what I got in Mississippi, and it was crucial to our growth,” she says. p

EasyKale E

asyKale’s founder, Bilal Qizilbash, is a passionate, driven guy. While studying for his master’s degree in medical science from Mississippi College, he ended up with a surprising discovery from a lab experiment—he found that juiced leafy kale, in vitro, would kill melanoma cells while leaving noncancerous ones alone. He received a patent on that discovery earlier this year. “I wasn’t sure what I was originally looking at; I thought I was making a mistake at first. When I realized I was getting consistent results, it was then we knew we were on to something fascinating,” Qizilbash said. After graduating with his degree, he found he had a desire to both continue his research and to create a way for people to get more kale into their daily diets. The cruciferous green is tough to cook, and a lot of people dislike its bitter taste, and yet it seems to offer unique properties that make it an important part of a regular diet. So, he settled on powdered kale. Of course, he wasn’t content with the powdered version on the market. He developed a process (now patented) of drying the kale in a way that maintains the bioavailability of the kale’s nutrients while nearly eliminating bitterness that turns many consumers off. The result is kale that you can add to almost anything: smoothies, sauces, dips, soups, stews, even yogurt or coffee—any dish where the little bit of flavor it does add won’t be noticed. Some people shake it right on steak, fries and burgers. Others, like some mothers Qizilbash has spoken with, will hide the kale in their kids’ macaroni and cheese, or in their spaghetti sauce. “They just need to shake it on their food, a small portion every day,” he said. “The whole key to it is to be consistent and to squeeze a little nutrition into their day. An ‘all or nothing’ approach doesn’t mesh well with general health.” After pitching earlier versions of the product at the Mississippi New Venture Challenge in the fall of 2017, the first shaker of the newly-named EasyKale was labeled and sold through Aladdin Mediterranean Grill in Jackson, Mississippi in January of 2018. Aladdin is owned and managed by Yoseph Ali, a close friend of Qizilbash and a stakeholder in EasyKale. In February 2018, the company launched for e-commerce sales, and Qizilbash set up shop at the Mississippi Farmers Market and other venues to talk to customers, hone the sales pitch and learn more about what people wanted from kale. “Through the year we learned about the product and had some fun with the customers. We discovered a lot,” Qizilbash said. “We learned that our product is convenient, especially for mothers and busy professionals. As time goes on and people are learning more and more, people are lov-

ing it more and more. That’s coming out in testimonials.” Qizilbash partnered in late 2017 with Richard Sun, at that time the entrepreneur in residence at Innovate Mississippi and the immediate past chairman of its board of directors. Sun is also a co-founder of the Mississippi Coding Academies whose prior careers include investment banking, emerging-markets private equity, and startup investing. Sun and Qizilbash have worked to commercialize several discoveries, and to continue expanding his research and the patent protection. “It has been a true joy to work with Bilal,” Sun said. “His energy, integrity, intelligence, curiosity and adaptability are exactly the characteristics sought by professional startup mentors and investors.” Qizilbash credits Innovate Mississippi with helping him hone his pitch, think through the business plan and find his co-founder; he participated in the Company and Investor Spotlight in the fall of 2018 and the company intends to pitch the Mississippi Seed Fund in 2019. In summer 2018, the EasyKale team also took part in the Delta I-Fund accelerator, which encouraged them to focus on customer interaction. “I-Fund helped us clarify and better understand our early adopters; we understood their income levels, that they’re mothers,” said Qizilbash. “We interviewed lots of mothers who gave us valuable information in regards to their eating habits and those of their families.” One way they’ll take advantage of that knowledge in 2019 is rolling out a USDA-certified organic version and focusing on Amazon as a marketplace, where their research told them many of their target customers shop. In their marketing, the EasyKale team plans to focus even more on the health benefits of EasyKale, including the flavonoids present in the product such as kaempherol, which is an antioxidant that studies show helps fight cancer and other diseases. Qizilbash and EasyKale are garnering national recognition. Foodboro, an online industry group for food and beverage manufacturers, named “must watch” companies in each state; EasyKale was the Mississippi one to watch. Qizilbash is continuing his cancer research with his former teacher and now research partner, Dr. Elizabeth Brandon. He also plans to continue running the “R U Hungry” program through his nonprofit, the Draw-a-Smile Foundation, by which he feeds the homeless every Friday in Jackson’s Smith Park, along with a sister program in Brooklyn, New York. Qizilbash says his goal is to get people healthier and happier with EasyKale and future products, and that the entire enterprise is designed to serve humanity. p Entrepreneurial Development • 27

28 • Innovate Mississippi

Mega Patch M

egaPatch LLC, a Madison, Miss., company that is producing “the world’s most durable cold patch for pothole repair,” underwent a number of changes in 2018, with more planned for this year. First, there was a name change (from Mega Technologies LLC) to more accurately align with their pothole repair product, also called MegaPatch. Second, Jack Wilson, the founder and inventor of MegaPatch, sold a 50-percent interest in the company to an investment group. “I’m an innovator and a very creative person, but I’m not the one to build a large business, and we’re hoping to have a significant size within the next year,” Wilson said. Anyone who has spent any time driving knows the hazards of potholes, especially in the winter when there is a rain followed by a freeze that cracks up the asphalt. “Some potholes are filled eight or nine times during the winter because they don’t make asphalt in the winter and use cheaper material to temporarily fill the pothole,” Wilson said, but MegaPatch is revolutionary because it can be applied anytime and is a permanent fix to the pothole.

”That’s the business we are after,” he said. MegaPatch was in 13 states this past year demonstrating its product. Testing is being conducted by several major universities and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The testing is a slow process, as the material must go through several freeze and thaw cycles to ensure that a pothole will stay securely filled through weather changes. “Innovate Mississippi gave us some really good information, and they worked hard with us. I didn’t want just an investor; I needed help,” Wilson adds. He remains in charge of research and development, but the company now has a president and some staff who are establishing contacts throughout the U.S. When asked what’s next for Wilson, he said, “Sell the rest of the company! I’m 82 years old, and I’m about ready to stop.” While we think it’s unlikely Wilson could stop if he wanted to, if his innovative product continues to perform as it has, the prospect of a lucrative exit looks promising. p Entrepreneurial Development • 29

Growing Innovation The Mississippi Seed Fund has provided vital funding to Mississippi Startups since 2008. In 2018, it awarded $510,000 to 10 companies.

30 • Innovate Mississippi


his raises the number of investments made since the seed fund’s inception to 44 awards spread out across 38 of Mississippi’s technology-based companies, making a grand total of over $2.8 million invested. The money is authorized by the Mississippi State Legislature and managed by Innovate Mississippi to encourage a more modern and vibrant Mississippi. The Mississippi Seed Fund is intended for those in the process of commercializing advanced technology. Applicants must be classified as a small business with the U.S. Small Business Administration—employing no more than 500 workers—to be eligible for the funds. Lastly, their product must have potential for explosive growth. There are three levels of funding, each of which are based on the applicant’s needs. “Based on a company’s status, prospects and needs, staff determines whether an investment from one of the seed fund programs will fit the company’s needs and will also meet the requirements of the seed fund as set out by the legislature,” said Clay Lewis, Mississippi Seed Fund’s Investment Manager. “If these hurdles are met, a company is invited to apply. After due diligence, and for the larger investments, a third-party evaluation, the Innovate staff takes promising applicants to the seven-member Seed Fund Investment Board for final approval.”

Proof of Concept

Very early stage, usually for pre-revenue applicants looking to validate a product for the market. Maximum one-time award of $10,000.

Research and Development

Still in the early stages of development, these companies usually need university-related research to reach a point of marketability. Maximum award of $100,000 in any one year with a $200,000 aggregate limit.

New Technology Business

Any development stage prior to full production—from product and market validation to business plan implementation and early market sales. Maximum award of $100,00 in any one year with a $200,000 aggregate limit. Recipients must eventually pay back their award. The guidelines for doing so vary for each category of funding.



Read about the 10 companies • 31


DueTT Technologies Best friends Tyler Anthony (CEO) and Thomas White (CTO) decided to start their company when White noticed a problem during his barber’s apprenticeship—the equipment required to be a barber is expensive, and the electric clippers and trimmers he used would frequently overheat, requiring him to own multiple identical devices. Anthony, who had gained product design and 3D-printing experience as an engineering student at Mississippi State University and on a co-op at Kopis Mobile, decided he and White should do some research to see if the problem was widespread. They found that 95 percent of African American and Latino barbers face the issue of trimmers overheating. So, the team went about designing—and 3D printing—prototype clippers that are more affordable, regulate heat, and have design cues to appeal to the growing millennial generation of professional barbers. DueTT Technologies was referred to Innovate Mississippi to pitch the Mississippi Seed Fund, where they received $10,000 to create a proof of concept. “Working with Innovate Mississippi helped prepare us to pitch our company and product to angel investment funds around the state of Mississippi. Since our company is developing a complex hardware product, potential investors wanted to see a well-developed prototype,” Anthony said. “Before working with Innovate Mississippi we didn’t have the funds to finish the development and fabrication of the parts for this prototype. However, Innovate Mississippi allowed us to pitch to its board and subsequently raise $10,000 from the seed fund for our prototype development. We have since successfully completed this prototype and utilized it in raising seed funding for our company.” They also received a grant from the MSU Venture Catalyst program. 3D printing at MSU allows them to create prototypes and test quickly on a budget. In DueTT’s seed round, they’ve raised over $300,000 from investors. Working with marketing director Vicki Jordan, the company runs and its social media channels, where they publish blog entries, video tutorials and other content that has built a following among younger barbers. They expect that audience to be receptive when they’re ready to launch their clipper system, since they’ve built a strong following in a short period of time. “By combining our different areas of expertise, we have developed a product which we believe has the ability to disrupt the mature barber industry,” Anthony said.

Collegiate Tutoring After winning first place in the student category at the 2017 Mississippi New Venture Challenge, Lee Ingram was excited for his company, Collegiate Tutoring, which he’d envisioned as a peer-to-peer solution for tutoring on college campuses. But in 2018, he took a bit of a pivot when he realized that in one particular customer base—Greek organizations—his combination of a software platform and a focus on quality tutors could really help chapter executives attack the challenge of keeping chapter GPAs up. “We’re building something for three users: chapter executives, members and tutors — it’s a pretty multifaceted piece of software, and it takes time to get it right.” For sororities and fraternities, the software enables them to sign up an entire chapter at once so that members can get tutoring as needed. The chapter can also budget for certain types of tutoring that the organization will pay for, and it can respond to requests for group tutoring or paid tutors for members. The software is designed to benefit the tutors, as well, giving them an opportunity to make money without having to market themselves extensively, as Collegiate Tutoring facilitates connections and payments online. And students who aren’t affiliated with a Greek organization can participate as well. For example, at Ole Miss, Ingram has a group in the system specifically for students who aren’t Greek-affiliated. Collegiate Tutoring raised a seed round in 2018 and secured funding from the Mississippi Seed Fund, along with winning prize money from the Mississippi New Venture Challenge. Ingram says the pitch competitions have helped him validate the concept and feel good that the money is available to draw on as they finish the software rollout and move on to “marketing mode” in 2019, with plans to grow to universities throughout the Southeastern Conference.

32 • Entrepreneurial Development


Torrus Josh Frazier had worked for a number of years as an evaluator in Rankin County schools when he started thinking about the paperwork load on teachers who are tracking a student’s progress—it’s a data collection problem, Frazier said, particularly for kids with special needs or who struggle and need to be tracked carefully. Traditionally, teachers have a binder (or folder) for each student, kept locked in a desk drawer. The binder has to be meticulously updated for meetings with parents, counselors and administrators to track a student’s progress. Frazier decided he could come up with a better way. Although he isn’t a coder or developer, he talked to his wife about taking a risk and developing software that could help. She said if he could find funding, she’d support him. So he did, launching Torrus and working on its first product, Capture. “I started looking for funding and developers, and found funding and a good developer for my team; we started developing a year ago and went into pilot mode,” Frazier said. He has the software in a few school districts now, mostly collecting student intervention data. Torrus is going up against some huge players, and working in an industry that can be slow to adopt new technology solutions; however, Frazier is excited about the possibilities that come from collecting a lot of good data on students—and teachers—and what comes from being able to cross-reference and easily analyze that data. Torrus was awarded $10,000 from the Mississippi Seed Fund, which Frazier says all went to developing the product. He also received funds from the Delta Regional Authority “Delta iFund” accelerator and has self-funded part of the development. He credits the Innovate Mississippi team with helping him refine his pitch through the Mississippi New Venture Challenge and a “bunch of discussions” they’ve had with him to help him grow. Frazier hopes to get feedback from teachers and administrators while testing the first release with districts in Mississippi and California; Frazier says the final product will be inexpensive and offer a custom level of service from a Mississippi-based company. He’s willing to bootstrap the development to get it right. “I’d rather have a better solution for students and teachers than something that makes crazy amounts of money,” he said.

Meta Games Not long after graduating from Mississippi State University and entering the workforce with a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering, Ryan Gilbrech was lamenting to his parents the fact that no one seemed willing to reimagine and update Nintendo’s “Super Smash Bros.,” a 19-year-old franchise with only four games to its name. Gilbrech has been a competitive gamer in “Smash Bros.” for 11 years, and he’s the main moderator of its 400,000-user Reddit channel. “Why don’t you do it,” his father said. Gilbrech thought about it and—despite having limited programming experience and no idea how to build a game—he jumped in. He quit his job, enrolled in Mississippi State’s MBA program and made himself known at the MSU Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach. After studying finance and project management, he set out on a two-year adventure to build his prototype. In August 2017, he pitched the game to the Bulldog Angel Network. He was the network’s first pitch, and a mentee of network president, Wade Patterson, who is also a gamer. The result was a $150,000 seed investment. Later that fall, he pitched to Innovate Mississippi’s Mississippi Seed Fund, which resulted in a two-thirds match of the Bulldog investment. With a $250,000 budget, he’s hired designers, programmers and animators, pulling in freelancers from around the world. He credits MSU with teaching him the tools to help with project management of his far-flung team. In 2019, Gilbrech hopes to launch his modern take on a “Smash Brothers”-style game on the PC, distributing via the online marketplace, Steam. He says he might get things rolling with a Kickstarter campaign to build hype and encourage people to pre-purchase the game. His big dream? He’d love to see his game make it to competitive eSports contests in national and international arenas.

Entrepreneurial Development • 33


BidMoni In 2018, Stephen Daigle, CEO of BidMoni, set an audacious goal for the total value of 401k plans he wanted his online marketplace, Fiduciary Shield, to be handling by the end of the year: $100 million in employees’ assets. By November he was already at more than $150 million. “2018 was about us proving the concept and showing that the platform works,” Daigle said. “We have advisors on the platform from 19 states; deals have run through anywhere from Pasadena to Montana.” Fiduciary Shield is a retirement-plan marketplace that connects employers, plan managers and financial consultants to help create transparency and good practices for 401k plans. While the largest companies can put out RFPs to get competitive bids for 401k plans, smaller companies often get locked into pricey ones because they don’t have a way to comparison shop. BidMoni worked with Innovate Mississippi to pitch the Mississippi Seed Fund in 2018, which awarded him access to a line he could draw on. He says the Seed Fund award has allowed him to focus on building the business instead of raising money in the second six months of 2018. Daigle’s goal for 2019 is lofty as well—$1 billion in retirement dollars handled through the system. He says to do that, the company will need to grow into a national company—he envisions a Series A raise in 2019 with the vision of becoming a significant national player. “The idea worked, the flow is there. Now it’s about turning it into a company,” he said. “We want to become a serious company and a national presence that’s based in Mississippi.”

The Servizi Network Is it the “Uber for house-cleaning services”? That’s one way to describe the Servizi Network, an online portal designed to connect housecleaners with homeowners needing cleaning services. Homeowners go to the site and enter information about the size of their home, the number of bedrooms and baths, and how deep the cleaning needs to be. Their request is then put out for bids on the network, where cleaners (who have all passed a background check) check in and say how much they’re bidding for the job. Homeowners select the bid they like based on the cleaner’s profile, price and references. “Current online options are mostly referral models that basically pass your personal information to strangers for a significant fee, who then inundate you with phone calls,” said Adam Marconi, founder and CEO of Servizi. “The Servizi Network seeks to make finding cleaners safer, easier and more cost effective than any other model.” The Servizi Network launched in mid-2018 after receiving a Mississippi Seed Fund award earlier that spring. Marconi started in Jackson with online marketing that first focused on the cleaners themselves, so he could build a roster of cleaners available to bid on jobs. In September he switched the marketing to homeowners, and began to take on transactions. Through the holiday season, he launched in Memphis to build a second metro area—one with four times the potential housecleaning transactions as Jackson—to see if he could build toward profitability. He launched his first radio commercial over the holidays, which he said really drove awareness and new transactions. Marconi credits the Mississippi Seed Fund with helping him get off the ground quickly to test and refine his marketing. “It might have taken me 18-months and the seed fund award cut that down to four,” he said. “I was able to get the website completed and go immediately to launch with the appropriate marketing campaign.”

34 • Entrepreneurial Development


Vizaura Early in Mark Lanoue’s career, the FBI tasked him with building a desktop instrument that they could use for examining forensic evidence. The instrument technically fit on a desktop, but had to be 4 feet tall in order to have room to focus its lens. “It was a complex system, but we made it simple to use,” he said. Lanoue isn’t certain what exactly the device was used for, since its purpose was classified, but he knows it was capable of checking for forged signatures, hidden messages and explosives. The same skills used to simplify a complex tool led Lanoue to found Vizaura, LLC many years later with Jeff Meredith to pursue specialized projects they knew the market needed. The south Mississippi company specializes in providing innovative and technical products centered around the use of the electromagnetic spectrum, both visible and invisible. The founders also have a passion for the research and development of new and improved technologies. Currently, Vizaura is in the process of developing a handheld hyperspectral imager—a sensitive instrument that will read the electromagnetic spectrum of an object and provide that data to the user. So, for instance, a user could check the nutrient and water density of a plant, or check for counterfeit passports, or determine the mineral content of a rock. The instrument reads the electromagnetic attributes of an object, then software interprets that data. Using funding from the Mississippi Seed Fund and a private investor, they are well on their way to completing the instrument. “We have the hardware but are working on the software. That takes the longest, because you want to get that right,” Lanoue says. There are handheld instruments on the market now that will read the non-visible electromagnetic spectrum; however, because of some proprietary advances the company has made, Lanoue expects his device to go on the market at a substantially lower cost than the currently available instruments. “We are making the system and the way we collect data different from all the others, and this will allow us to reduce the cost,” Lanoue says. “A lot of people worry if you sit around too long, you are going to get passed up by the market. In most cases this is true, but if you’re working on something that is intellectual property, that changes the whole dynamic.”

CampusKnot CampusKnot, aimed at college campuses, offers a software platform for instructors and students to interact online in ways that complement classroom interaction. Unlike most competitive tools, CampusKnot’s interface is based on familiar social media applications, making it something that students and professors alike can easily learn and use. The tools make mundane tasks such as attendance, quizzes, interactive polls, homework assignments and discussions easy to take from real life to a digital space and back. Over the past few years, CampusKnot has been actively involved in multiple Innovate Mississippi events such as Mississippi New Venture Challenge and the Company & Investor Spotlight. Most recently, in 2018, CampusKnot secured funding from the Mississippi Seed fund and used the year to complete its sales process, hire a full team, and expand into the United Kingdom and India. They’re also looking at Australia, CEO Raul Gopal says. “We’ve been used in 10 states at 15 universities,” Gopal said. “In Mississippi, the Barksdale Reading Institute is using us; the Mississippi Coding Academies are using us.” Gopal said that in 2018, CampusKnot has moved from a focus on signing up individual professors to licensing the software to entire institutions—both college campuses and corporations can use the software for training and communications purposes. It’s a slight pivot that means looking for partnerships within the Learning Management System, or LMS, space, and finding ways that CampusKnot can add functionality to existing IT systems for student interaction, while not necessarily replacing tools in which a college or university has already invested. CampusKnot also won a STEP grant from the Mississippi Development Authority, which enabled them to research international markets for CampusKnot, including travel that resulted in the company’s UK and Indian presence. Gopal says their next step is a “Series A” raise in 2019, which should offer significant new funding to expand operations. “The platform is enhanced; it’s become much more robust in terms of performance and what it offers. Now we offer tools for distance learning and virtual classrooms as well as traditional classroom settings,” Gopal said. “In 2019, we’ll have a heavy push on the licensing side of things and international growth. We’re focusing on small private institutions that can’t afford other LMSes, as well as corporate clients.” Entrepreneurial Development • 35

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36 • Innovate Mississippi


WISPr Systems Conor Ferguson had a slight leg-up on the competition when he graduated from Mississippi State University—he’d already started a wireless Internet company with his dad when he was still in high school. That company offered high-speed wireless access to residential areas where other types of broadband didn’t reach. How it works is straightforward: You place one antenna on a tower and another on the house where you’re providing service. The problem was testing to find the optimal location for the receiving antenna. “You could spend three hours running a test just to figure out you couldn’t get a good signal or get high enough,” Ferguson said. So, while in college, he worked on the solution: a drone that could cut that three-hour testing time down to five minutes. That drone, the WISPr Scout, is the centerpiece of his new company, Autonomous Industrial Solutions, which does business as WISPr Systems. Ferguson and his co-founder, Austin Ratcliff, started the company in August 2017, a few months before Ferguson graduated in December 2017 with a degree in electrical engineering—throughout their college careers, they had worked in labs and on projects to learn how to build drones. In late 2017, they pitched the company at Innovate Mississippi’s New Venture Challenge in the student category. “We placed second and won a little money, plus some lawyer time. It was a good perk for us,” Ferguson said. WISPr Systems raised money from the Bulldog Angel Network and from the Mississippi Seed Fund in 2018, with the seed fund accounting for $100,000. Those investments gave them the funds they needed to ramp up production in Batesville and put together a marketing team. They’ve got preorders that they’ve started to deliver, and a big trade show to prepare for in 2019, where they plan to pitch to Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) companies, large and small, from around the country.

NuTech Metals In a world dominated by the lean startup model and the “minimum viable product” approach, NuTech Metals is a little different, having spent nearly six years doing research and development in pursuit of a new technology. The goal, said Jim Borque, partner and technical lead, is to develop a next-generation body armor for military and law-enforcement personnel, offering a critical mix of lower weight and higher performance. So, “minimum viable” isn’t an option. “One of the challenges in the industry has been to change the approach to solve the equation,” Borque said. “You might be able to enhance performance, but there’s compromise in the weight; or reduce the weight, and the cost of the materials are astronomical. Finding the right mix has been the challenge.” Borque approached Elaine Saab and her husband years ago with the idea, and she decided to partner with him, along with her business partner Brenda Howard, to facilitate his research, and offer support. “Startups are just what they are—you want to start up, but you might have to start over,” Saab said. “And when you start up you have to be a good problem-solver. If you don’t have the endurance, you’re going to fail.” Saab credits Innovate Mississippi with being encouraging and connecting them to resources while they were forming the company; NuTech also received a $10,000 proof-of-concept Mississippi Seed Fund award in 2018. “They were very interested in how we were developing the company. They’ve been really available to meet with us; the team met with us three or four times,” she said. “They continue to be that place where we can go, and they’ll listen to what we were doing or saying. They were excited about it and saw an opportunity.” NuTech’s next steps in 2019 are to finalize the design and begin marketing to military and law enforcement, as well as get the appropriate certifications for the product. Saab says they have funding in place and a commitment from the partners to continue seeing it through, even if it takes a lot of faith.

Entrepreneurial Development • 37

p 38 • Innovate Mississippi

p Innovation Ecosystem Innovate Mississippi is charged with creating an environment in which the next class of entrepreneurs and innovators can thrive. This is achieved through programs including the Mississippi Coding Academies and the Mentor Network or through regional, innovationbased projects and events throughout the state. • 39

40 • Innovate Mississippi

IDEA SHOP In one corner, a team of students with their own startup company huddle around a 3D printer to work on a product prototype they plan to pitch to investors in a few weeks.


t another workstation, a retiree works in the woodwork shop on a project she intends to sell at an upcoming farmer’s market. The door opens, and a father and son walk in wearing Cub Scout uniforms. They’ve got a Pinewood Derby car to build for the upcoming race. That’s the vision behind the Idea Shop, a facility that opened in early 2019 in downtown Starkville and was made possible by the USDA and an individual donor to Mississippi State University. The 2,000-square-foot space is about three-quarters “maker space” and one-quarter “retail incubator,” said Eric Hill, the director of the MSU’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach, commonly called the MSU e-Center, which built and runs the Idea Shop.

“The charter of the Idea Shop is not entrepreneurially driven per se,” Hill said. “There’s no entrepreneurial reason somebody has to have to interact with the makerspace. We want it to be an inspirational place, the spirit and culture of ‘making.’” Hill said that people who want to sign up and use the maker space, which features a wood shop, 3D-printing facility and other tools for creating physical products, do not have to be students or faculty of the university. In fact, they don’t have to be part of any sort of business-incubation program. “It will have its own programming—a series of workshops on how to use this equipment,” he said of the Idea Shop. “The goal is to involve the community members and alumni in the area, get them from their garages to here.” Michael Lane, a recent graduate of Mississippi State with a

Photos by Megan Bean / Mississippi State University • 41

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degree in mechanical engineering, has been tapped to run the Idea Shop. He and his father were responsible for a lot of the construction of the space, and Lane takes personal pride in bringing it to people in Starkville. Lane says he comes from the small town of Amory, Miss., where he wouldn’t have dreamt of having access to resources such as 3D printers and other tools the Idea Shop offers to locals. Now he’s running the membership-based organization where kids and adults can access those sophisticated tools for individual or group projects. “It works like a gym membership, except … ours will run you through a training course when you come to join the first time, safety regulations and stuff for the space,” Lane said. “You pay monthly, (semi-annually) or annually.” The Idea Shop is open to members from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. during the week, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. One of the goals of the Idea Shop is to help companies working their way through the MSU e-Center’s programs create the product prototypes they need to prove their business ideas. The e-Center is on campus and is designed to support students and faculty who want to start their own businesses. In fact, that’s a major differentiator at Mississippi State, Hill said. Hill says that MSU students can participate in the e-Center “Venture Capital” program regardless of their major and what their project is. The program can grant up to $7,500 to promising companies in incremental stages. They start with a $500 grant to prototype their project. After training and mentoring, they can gain access to $2,000 more, and after proving their potential and going in front of a review board, some student companies can qualify for another $5,000 in funding. Those grants have led to real companies forming and raising some serious money, Hill said. In fiscal-year 2018, 110

different teams from seven different colleges went through the e-Center’s programming. They ended up raising $1.1 million dollars as startups. A lot of that startup capital has come from the Bulldog Network, a group of investors that aren’t directly associated with Mississippi State University, but is comprised of MSU alumni and people with a strong interest in economic growth in the region. “I can’t overstate the Bulldog Network’s effect on our growth,” Hill said. “In fiscal year 2017, our student companies raised about $200,000. In 2018, (they raised) $1.1 million, and we’re on track to beat that this fiscal year.” That focus on getting startup companies up and funded in the MSU ecosystem has spilled into Starkville, particularly downtown, where startup companies have taken up shop. The Idea Shop stands to be a big part of that. “That’s another area that excites me,” Lane said. “I also have my own startup, and I enjoy entrepreneurship, and the Idea Shop is important for people wanting to come in and build their prototypes. If you want to raise money, it helps if there is something you can visually see, move and manipulate.” The Idea Shop also has a “retail incubator” space where MSU-affiliated startup companies can sell their products and test the items’ popularity while gathering customer feedback. While non-students can take advantage of the MSU e-Center (everything but the grants), The Idea Shop is really designed to be a living, breathing part of downtown Starkville. “We have a tremendous relationship with the city,” said Hill. “Students with startups graduate and set up offices in downtown Starkville, creating a reason for people to be downtown. The city loves the younger energy staying downtown.” “What we’re trying to do is create some economic churn and some activity downtown,” said Jeffrey Rupp, the former mayor of Columbus, Miss., and now the director of outreach for MSU’s College of Business. “We are looking at having family nights, so that instead of going bowling or to movies, they could come in and do a project together.” Rupp says he wants to weave the Idea Shop into the fabric of the community. He calls it, “blurring the lines between town and gown,” so that the university and its resources are more accessible to the city in which it’s located. “We think this could be a good model we could replicate in other communities,” Rupp said. “Mississippi State is a land-grant institution. By its very mission, we have a service component. To me, this is a logical extension of our mission as a university.” Hill says that the Idea Shop and MSU e-Center fit into a larger narrative about Mississippi as a state. “This is not about being the best in Mississippi, this is about making Mississippi more competitive on the national level,” Hill said. “We’re looking heavily at how MSU can be a driver among our state partners to help Mississippi promote that message and vision.” In 2019, his plan is to create more funded startups at the e-Center, and he expects that the Idea Shop will impact the number of people trying new projects and building better prototypes. “One thing we’re sure of is that it’ll impact the culture in Starkville and beyond,” Hill said, speaking of the entrepreneurial and innovation culture in the state. “That’s huge.”p Innovation Ecosystem • 43


Connecting Investors to Mississippi’s High-Growth Startups

Investment opportunities abound with high-growth startups – and the Mississippi Angel Investor Network along with newly forming regional angel funds allow investors of all types and interest to participate. Pitch meetings occur across Mississippi – including Jackson, Oxford, Starkville & the Gulf Coast. Investors in the network often want to do their own due diligence and make their own decisions – members can do so simply by attending pitch sessions and connecting with companies. Investors who want to lean on the expertise and experience of other members can also join an angel fund from their region and diversify their investments across several companies. If you are an accredited investor, we invite you to join the Mississippi Angel Investor Network to interact with investors, gain access to quality deals and grow Mississippi’s innovation economy while hopefully getting in on the next big deal. 44 • Innovate Mississippi

For more information, contact: TONY JEFF 601-960-3610 TJEFF@INNOVATE.MS



Dr. Nashlie Sephus got the idea for The Bean Path, her 501c3 nonprofit corporation based in Jackson, shortly after she left Mississippi following her undergraduate studies.


he Jackson native, a product of the Jackson Public Schools’ Academic and Performing Arts program, received a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Mississippi State University before heading to Georgia Tech for her graduate studies. It was around then—especially once she began pursuing a doctorate in computer science— that she began to notice a pattern. “I noticed all the time that people would reach out and say, ‘You’re into computers; maybe you can help me,’” she said. The questions that followed ranged from basic issues with the web to complex explorations of potential startup businesses. The idea stuck, as she realized a lot of people had great ideas or opportunities for advancement, but lacked knowledge of computing or basic web development, particularly in her hometown of Jackson. Sephus’ nonprofit idea stayed on the backburner while she finished her Ph.D. and then became chief technology officer of a startup company called PartPic, which quickly grew into a success. During its ascendency, Steve Case, founding CEO of AOL, wrote about PartPic in his book The Third Wave, where he touted it as an example of the kind of startup that could succeed in the modern era by applying innovative tech solutions in old-school manufacturing industries. Later, the company was acquired by Amazon. After the sale to Amazon, Sephus spent some time helping set up the new office in Atlanta (the PartPic team opted not to move to Seattle), but then she found she had more time on her hands once they settled into a routine. “I’ve been at Amazon now for a little over two years, and the free time allowed me to do more things. I wanted to see Jackson grow in terms of technology and opportunities for technology,” she said. She settled on the idea of helping people get advice on using technology in their lives or their businesses. She also wanted to help people start businesses where technology might be a centerpiece. “I thought, ‘People are already sitting down with me talking about these things. How could we do this on a much larger scale? How could I do this back at home?’” she said. Thus, her nonprofit, The Bean Path was born. With a tagline “cultivate to sprout, determine your route,” the organization launched in late 2018 with a three-prong strategy—help individuals (particularly those in underserved communities) on a wide-range of technology issues; teach

kids to code; and make strategic grants to local organizations and students to help them overcome technology hurdles. For the public education component, The Bean Path’s launch strategy has been to meet in Jackson’s libraries once per month for “office hours,” where anyone can ask questions of a Bean Path volunteer ranging from PC-buying advice to simple Web design help. Sephus notes that some people come to the sessions with questions about the feasibility of technology-driven business plans. For the pitches that look promising, she’s planning a business accelerator program in 2019, so those people can work on prototype products and the pitch they’ll need to raise funds from investors. As of early 2019, The Bean Path has also given $1,000 grants to organizations such as Spark-o-Matic, which teaches kids digital production and video editing skills in an afterschool setting, and Girls With a Dream, or GWAD, which meets regularly to encourage self-esteem and empowerment of girls and young women. The nonprofit also granted a $1,000 scholarship to a Jackson State University student researching camera sensors under the auspices of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or the IEEE. Sephus says one of the most common questions she hears is: “When is the The Bean Path coming to my city?” For now, the plan is to grow to more locations throughout Jackson and Mississippi. They’re looking at the Gulf Coast, the Delta and rural areas where they can make use of the existing public libraries for technology consultations. As 2019 progresses, Sephus plans to put a tracking mechanism in place so the effectiveness of the organization’s programs can be measured and reported to the public and to participants. “We’ll have a one-year anniversary in October, and I’m looking forward to what we’ll have to report on—how many people have been helped and so forth,” she said. p FOR MORE INFORMATION AND TO GET INVOLVED, VISIT THEBEANPATH.ORG

Innovation Ecosystem • 45

46 • Innovate Mississippi


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hen the North Mississippi Angel Fund held its first meeting in late 2018, it heard pitches from two Mississippi-based startups that sought angel investing in their early-stage companies. “Both companies from that first meeting received ‘term sheets’ defining an offer for investment,” said Tony Jeff, CEO of Innovate Mississippi. “In one case, eight other investors are waiting to see the North Mississippi Angel Fund term sheet so they can likely join on,” Jeff said. The ability to take the lead to fund promising startup companies at the “angel” level is a major upside to having these investor networks in the state. The North Mississippi Angel Fund is the first of a number of groups of investors that Innovate Mississippi is working to organize. The first fund, the North Mississippi Angel Fund, was created by Innovate Mississippi and the Angel Capital Group through a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission administered by Mississippi State University. While Innovate Mississippi already manages the Mississippi Seed Fund and Mississippi Angel Network, Clay Lewis, manager of the Mississippi Seed Fund, says equity investment in early stage companies is often difficult and time consuming for company founders as well as for potential investors. “We believe that new angel funds in Mississippi will provide a venue and structure that will bring many more

players to the table. The growing availability of investment capital through the new angel funds, along with existing funds such as the Bulldog Angel Network, will definitely accelerate the creation and growth of many promising Mississippi companies,” Lewis said. For many investors, they just want to invest in a company they like and have someone else work the details. “That’s the beauty of these member-managed funds,” Jeff said. “They can choose to be purely member-managed. Get the attorney in the group to do legal, the accountant to do accounting and so on. Our focus is to make sure the groups understand their choices and to make the decision that best fits them in that area.” The North Mississippi Angel Fund actually opted to hire Angel Capital Group to manage their fund, so that when the group meets and decides they want to back a company, the professionals negotiate terms and perform due diligence. The members remain very active in the decision-making, but can get to other startups and look for additional deals. Jeff says most funds will want a mix of different types of companies. “They won’t look only at high-growth companies. They probably want some ‘singles’ and ‘doubles’ in the mix,” he said. “The members in general will need to invest where they feel comfortable. If a membership group has medical and retail and digital experience, it might do those deals, but the group might not do something beyond the expertise of the members.”p Innovation Ecosystem • 47

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48 • Innovate Mississippi

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Mississippi Coding Academies First two cohorts graduate from Mississippi Coding Academies • 49

“Our graduates are now prepared for careers in tech. A year ago most were working in minimum-wage jobs.”


he Mississippi Coding Academies, a non-profit startup launched by Innovate Mississippi, hit a significant milestone in 2018, graduating a first class from each of its cohorts in Jackson and the Golden Triangle region (Starkville, Columbus and West Point). Twelve junior developers graduated in the first Jackson class, while nine junior developers graduated from Golden Triangle. “The Mississippi Coding Academies provide a pathway to quality computing education and helps address the challenge of providing equitable access to this type of learning for all citizens,” said Dr. Sarah Lee, associate professor and assistant department head for the Mississippi State University Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and a board member for the Mississippi Coding Academies. All of the 2018 graduates successfully completed the 11-month, full-stack curriculum that began in Fall 2017. The program trains developers in HTML, CSS, Java, Python and some of the coders got to experience other tools, such as Xcode and Swift for Apple’s iOS. In addition, coders spent time off-site with the Mississippi Coding Academies’ corporate partners, visited with mentors and received soft-skills training in a 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m., work-like environment. “Our graduates are now prepared for careers in tech; a year ago most were working in minimum-wage jobs,” said Rich Sun, cofounder and director of the Jackson cohort. “As we increase the number of graduates, we will make a major contribution to the growth of the tech industry in Mississippi. After graduating from the program, all 21 students transitioned smoothly into either jobs or college. Twelve received job offers from Mississippi companies such as HX5 (a contractor to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), Southern Farm Bureau, Seventh Knight, Liberty National Insurance, C Spire, BankTel and the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office.

Four of the coders were inspired to pursue higher education. One joined the Army Reserve, and four others are interning or are currently in the interview process for software development jobs. The Jackson students also participated in the Mayor’s Summer Jobs Program, where four of the coders learned and taught Swift and the Xcode development platform to 30 Jackson Public School students for four weeks. They then coached them during the subsequent four weeks while interning with and building apps for Atmos, the Baptist Hospital system and Nissan North America. From June 2018 to May 2019, the Mississippi Coding Academies is taking a second cohort of students through the 11-month program in both the Jackson and Golden Triangle locations (now housed at Mississippi State University). Those coders who complete the second cohort are scheduled to graduate from the academy in May 2019. A third cohort in both locations will begin in June 2019. If you or someone you know is a recent high school (or college) graduate who loves to solve problems, and has the grit and determination to see this program through, you can apply through the website. The Mississippi Coding Academies is also taking applications from veterans for a new evening and weekend program (called “COMCAST Veterans Code”) to help veterans train as front-end web developers starting in June 2019 during a 5-month program with potential to expand. Tuition for all Mississippi Coding Academies cohorts and programs is free, and no coding experience is necessary. Mississippi Coding Academies was funded through grants and support from the Mississippi Development Authority, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Mississippi State University, The Appalachian Regional Commission and private donations from employers and individuals. p FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT MSCODING.ORG

50 • Innovation Ecosystem


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hen Innovate Mississippi set out to create a network of mentors within the state, the idea was to get organized when it comes to giving advice. The Mentor Network has been up and running now for more than five years. It is currently a collection of about 30 industry professionals and successful entrepreneurs who volunteer to be available to the startup companies that work with Innovate Mississippi. “The goal is to have a pool of people that we can reach out to. If an entrepreneur is struggling with something specific, then we can lean on that pool for someone who can step in and advise, make connections or get involved,” said Tasha Bibb, director of entrepreneurial development for Innovate Mississippi. Mentors can get involved at whatever level makes sense for themselves or that company. Some offer a single lunch’s worth of advice; others offer regular meetings or office hours so that the entrepreneurs can check in with them. Some mentors go even further than that. “Bruce Deer, our current entrepreneur in residence, was introduced to a company a number of years ago, and he became its CEO” said Bibb. Another example is Joel Bomgar, founder of Bomgar Corporation and now a Mississippi legislator, she says. He

“doesn’t have a ton of time on his hands,” Bibb said, “but he likes working with startups.” Bibb says that’s the challenge: finding mentors who can actually be active within the network. In 2018, she addressed that problem by having a special event for entrepreneurs and mentors, hosted by Fuse.Cloud in Jackson. “It was mentors and entrepreneurs. We put them in a room, we fed them, and then we gave them prompts,” Bibb said. “We wanted to make sure they were networking, so every 30 minutes we’d get on the microphone and say something like, ‘Find a mentor and talk to them about the biggest problem you’re facing,’ and then we’d give them another 30 minutes. That worked well.” Bibb says that Innovate Mississippi would love to hear from people who have actually been founders, and know all the hard stuff that companies need help with. She’s looking to expand the network with founders in a variety of industries—even with Mississippi natives who have moved out of the state or run businesses elsewhere. Interested? If you’ve started and run a company and would like to get involved with the Mentor Network, get in touch with Tasha Bibb at 601-960-3624. p

Innovation Ecosystem • 51

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fter completing the sale of a company Bruce Deer was heavily involved in last year, he found himself at the receiving end of a pitch from Tasha Bibb, director of entrepreneurial development at Innovate Mississippi. “Tasha said they need a new entrepreneur-in-residence,” said Deer, referring to a rotating position at Innovate Mississippi that former board chairman Richard Sun had inaugurated. “For the last few years I had gotten so busy that I didn’t spend as much time at Innovate Mississippi as I’d like to.” Deer is a long-time member of the organization’s Mentor Network and a former chairman of the Mississippi Seed Fund board of directors. Over his 40-year career, he has spent a great deal of time in technology and telecommunications, including as president and CEO of SkyTel, Inc., where he expanded the product offerings to include wireless internet services and vehicle telematics and facilitated its sale to Bell Industries for $23 million in 2006. As entrepreneur-in-residence, he frequently sits in on calls with new entrepreneurs who meet with Bibb and Innovate Mississippi CEO Tony Jeff to see how the organization can help. “We get companies at various stages,” Deer said. “They’re usually early stage, young kids in college or just out of college, but they range to 60- and 70-year olds who have an idea. It’s interesting to see the whole range of ideas.” Deer said that having a great idea is key, but that he really appreciates an entrepreneur who is “coachable.” “That’s the sweet spot—when they have a good idea, but they know they don’t know everything,” Deer said. “One

lady came in with a great idea, and she has a very unique skill set she brings to it. But she was spending two-thirds of her time on something that’s already been done. I told her to find another solution: ‘Partner with a company and use their APIs (application programming interfaces) so you can focus on your part that’s unique.’” He said it was a “eureka” moment for the woman, who left the meeting energized. A few weeks later, she told him it was the best advice she had received, which he found gratifying. Deer says that since his expertise is in technology and telecommunications, he likes to help those companies; however, he is also interested in and encouraged by the “lifestyle” brands that come to Innovate Mississippi for help. “It doesn’t have to be an app,” he said, mentioning food products such as EasyKale and household tools such as The MaxBit, which goes on the end of a drill to dig holes for gardening. His key advice to entrepreneurs? Be able to articulate what you do quickly. “You may have a 20-minute presentation, but you need to get their interest in 90 seconds,” Deer said. “Some people call it an ‘elevator pitch’ and say you have 20 seconds or whatever. I say you have a minute and a half to get them to want to ask you more about your idea.” Deer says that Innovate Mississippi welcomes ideas of all kinds, and he enjoys volunteering with people who have good ideas and want to move quickly to execute on them. “Ideas can go stale. If you drag around for a year or two, you’ll find someone out there in the market doing it,” Deer said. “You need to get moving.” p

Innovation Ecosystem • 53


eeking to catalyze an interest in technology among youth in Mississippi, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians hosted their first hackathon in Neshoba County in July 2018. Called “Hack the Future,” it brought together high schoolers, college students and coding academy students to compete in the event. The goal: Get young people into teams and have them tackle critical problems in creative ways. The MBCI’s Office of Economic Development put on the event. John Hendrix, director of economic development, told the Meridian Star that he considered the hackathon a recruiting opportunity, with the goal of encouraging teens and young adults toward high-tech industry jobs. “Every industry we recruit is looking for a highly skilled workforce,” Hendrix told the Star. “The jobs that are being created today require a more advanced skill level and some expertise in technology.” The event was supported by the Mississippi Community College system, Mississippi State University and the Mississippi Coding Academies, which sent some students and faculty to help with the teams. Along with the computers and other tools for “hacking,” the event also included demonstrations of virtual reality de54 • Innovation Ecosystem

vices and software, and access to a mobile NASA planetarium that the young people involved could observe and learn more about. Leigh Jones, a coder with the 2018 Golden Triangle cohort of the Mississippi Coding Academies, was part of a student group that looked into using VR headsets and software to turn math problems into a game where solving the problems gets you further along in the storyline. Mississippi Coding Academy coder Kingdom McGee, who received an MVP award for being outstanding in the competition, led the first-place team. Also on his team was another coder from Golden Triangle and a student from Choctaw Central High School, the Star article said. “The Mississippi Coding Academy students were outstanding in this competition and competed alongside our Mississippi State University engineering students,” said Dr. Sarah Lee, associate professor and assistant department head for the Mississippi State University Department of Computer Science and Engineering, as well as a board member for the Mississippi Coding Academies. “It was exciting to see both groups of students working together and learning from each other.” p • 55

strategic design

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Randi Zuckerberg, sister to the founder of Facebook and a serial entrepreneur in her own right, was the keynote speaker for the inaugural C Spire MVMT conference, which took place on May 8, 2018, at the Jackson Convention Complex.


uckerberg traveled to the event with Sue’s Tech Kitchen, a touring science demonstration offering STEM-related projects that marry up play and learning for younger students. She envisioned Sue’s Tech Kitchen, which former NASA scientist Jim Augustine brought to life. The exhibit includes 3D-printed s’mores, robots controlled by candy, chemistry experiments that students can eat and drones that drop treats. Sarah Bond, general manager of business development for Microsoft, and Howard Wright, vice president of Global Business Development for the Intel Sports Group, were the other keynote speakers. The day-long conference that C Spire presented was really two different events—one was a serious cyber security conference for technology professionals, and the other was a technology fair for students, teachers and the general public. “(Mississippi) can lead in technology,” said Hu Meena, the chief executive officer of C Spire. “Today’s event is a catalyst to do that.” Mississippi Coding Academies was out in force for the event, with some coders presenting at the Mississippi Coding Academies booth, showing the public samples of the code they have created in the Jackson and Golden Triangle cohorts.

Innovate Mississippi sponsored Innovation Alley at MVMT 2018, a series of booth presentations from some of the companies that the organization has helped grow. Participants included Glo, well-known for their liquid-activated cubes that light up in drink glasses; CampusKnot, a company looking to create more engaging college classroom experiences; WISPr Systems, which uses drones to find the optimum placement for wireless broadband Internet antennas; CollegiateTutoring, which seeks to create a peer-to-peer network for tutors and students; Momentum Dryer, a better dryer for beauty shops; and the MSU Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach. “MVMT 2018 is part of a broader C Spire Tech Movement initiative designed to leverage the company’s technology leadership and investments to help transform its service areas,” C Spire’s announcement of the event says. “Other elements of the program included creation of a state-of-the-art digital customer care platform for customers and team members, massive deployment of broadband internet for homes and businesses and other leadership initiatives to drive innovation and development of a 21st century technology workforce.”p

Innovation Ecosystem • 57

Where Public Meets Private

Coming Together for The Betterment of All

The Madison County Economic Development Authority is a public entity that offers a broad array of economic development, business development, and corporate site location assistance services to new and expanding businesses and industry. The Madison County Business League & Foundation is a private, stakeholder-based support organization that works with business owners and decision makers to discuss topics that affect economic development. Together, we continue to build upon the economic development infrastructure of Madison County. We recognize and salute the industry and businesses for the contribution they make towards our quality of life.

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Š 2019 AT&T Intellectual Property. AT&T, Globe logo, Mobilizing Your World and DIRECTV are registered trademarks of AT&T Intellectual Property and/or AT&T affiliated companies. All other 60 the â&#x20AC;˘ Innovate Mississippi marks are property of their respective owners. <br >


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he inaugural Gulf Coast Pitch Event took place on Oct. 17, 2018 at the Great Southern Club in Gulfport, Miss., with the goal of hearing pitches from some highly technology-driven companies from three states that border the Gulf of Mexico. The Small Business Innovation Research Consortium, the Louisiana Technology Transfer Office, the Marine Industries Science & Technology Cluster and Innovate Mississippi co-hosted the event. “This was really a networking event with a few pitches,” said Tony Jeff, CEO of Innovate Mississippi. The idea is sometimes scientist-driven businesses have trouble reaching the investment community, and they need opportunities to refine their pitch in order to find investors. Many of these companies fit into the federal government’s SBIR grant program, which is the only federal program where for-profit companies can receive grants. And some of these research-driven companies are great contractors for government outposts such as the Stennis Space Center; however, all too often, private investors don’t often move in the same circles as these science-driven companies, so it’s tougher to get them connected to capital. Three companies participated: Soldier Fly from Baton Rouge, Innovative Imaging & Research from Stennis, Miss., and DaVinci Research Solutions from Mobile, Ala. Soldier Fly is a startup focused on alternative proteins for animal nutrition. The company uses insects to recycle food waste into a sustainable protein that can supplement the use of fish meal and soybean meal in livestock feeds. Innovative Imaging and Research develops precision

electro-optical imaging technologies, including new nighttime imaging capabilities that enable remote sensing. In one example, the company showed how its technology could help satellite imaging systems circumvent cloud-cover in military applications, helping to determine hostile forces’ locations regardless of weather or air pollution in the area. DaVinci Research Solutions, which won the pitch competition, offers a web-based financial tool called CAPTure that is designed to automate the billing of clinical-trial research through health-care providers. That improves the patient’s experience while mitigating the risk of being out of compliance with the study parameters or the healthcare provider. Title sponsor Callais Capital was joined by a number of other sponsors, who together underwrote the event and supported the pitch winner’s package, a $10,000 value in cash and in-kind services. Other sponsors included Cara Stone, Baker Donelson, MIST, Model Content, IDEA Village and the Louisiana Technology Park. Joe Graben, director of the Business & Innovation Assistance Center at the University of Southern Mississippi, said the event was a success both for networking and for building awareness in the innovation ecosystem about important grant programs. “An equally important goal of this event was to educate members of the investment community in understanding how the federal SBIR programs may be leveraged to mitigate investment risk and improve a business startup’s chances for success,” he said. p Innovation Ecosystem • 61


he Delta I-Fund works with early-stage entrepreneurs throughout the federal Delta Regional Authority’s area of influence (252 counties in eight states that more or less border the Mississippi River). The DRA represents an area that has suffered from decades of persistent poverty. I-Fund is a program designed to help change that by supporting and accelerating new businesses in those areas. Entrepreneurs apply to the program and, if accepted, they receive access to three free resources, said Program Director Amy Hopper: one-on-one virtual training, a dedicated mentor and an automatic, “non-dilutive” $5,000 in technical assistance. (Those lucky enough to be in Arkansas can also pitch for an additional $50,000 in seed funding. Hopper says they’re looking for funding partners in other states as well.) In 2018, the I-Fund’s summer cohort kicked off in Jackson, with 16 companies participating in the launch weekend. For a full two days, budding entrepreneurs met at Coalesce in downtown Jackson, with breakout sessions at Innovate Mississippi and other offices in the Innovation Hub. “I typically try to choose a location that’s central for our applicants so they don’t have to travel too far,” Hopper said. “We have a relationship with Innovate Mississippi, which is supportive of the program. We contracted with Innovate Mississippi to help recruit for the program. That relationship has been a great one because we’ve now had (Innovate Mississippi Director of Entrepreneurial Development) Tasha Bibb as a mentor, as well.” 62 • Innovation Ecosystem

The I-Fund runs a 12-week, lean-startup accelerator, which focuses on helping entrepreneurs build a “lean canvas” for the business instead of a formal business model. The lean-startup model encourages the company’s founders to make assumptions about customers, product differentiation, marketing approaches—even price—and then test those assumptions through customer interviews, prototypes, and attempts to create and sell a “minimum-viable” version of their product that they can learn from in the marketplace. After the launch weekend, companies in the cohort meet online with different teachers on a weekly basis, get together with the entire cohort for a few different lectures and question-and-answer sessions, and are expected to meet regularly with a seasoned mentor. Hopper reports that after their I-Fund experience, 70 percent of the companies who went through the accelerator continue pursuing their idea or product. I-Fund seeks to broaden diversity in the startup world. As of early 2019, 110 total entrepreneurs have gone through the program, with 33 percent of them female and 35 percent of them people of color. Delta I-Fund will hold a spring cohort in 2019, with the launch weekend taking place in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It will kick off on March 9, covering the entire Delta Regional Authority footprint, and will not focus on a specific industry. (Some cohorts are more industry-specific, with a focus on agriculture technology, for instance.) p FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT DELTAIFUND.COM

Small Business Innovation Research ROAD TOUR

Photo by Freepik


n 2018, Mississippi was a stop on the SBIR Road Tour, a national outreach effort to bring the Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, program to businesses across the nation. SBIR, along with the Small Business Technology Transfer, or STTR, program, is a federal program administered by the Small Business Administration that offers billions of dollars in funding to small firms. The goal of the programs is to help innovative firms worry less about funding and growth so they can make new technological discoveries and commercialize their inventions. For example, Mississippi-based WhirlWinds LLC worked in the early 2000s with NASA, through the SBIR program, to develop technology that used data collected by the space shuttle to create more accurate storm surge maps. While they were in phase two of that work, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. NASA and FEMA put WhirlWinds’ innovations to the test in real time, powering FEMA’s post-Katrina Risk Map project with WhirlWinds’ technology. The resulting Risk Map offers the agency better tools for assessing the risk from flooding in a given area. With the desire to fund small and emerging companies, the SBIR Road Tour works to attract firms that might be able to qualify for funding, holding these special sessions to give them tips and advice. “We plan to better support small innovative firms across the country through this kind of face-to-face interaction,”

said John Williams, SBA Director of Innovation and Technology, prior to the event. “To further company success within the SBIR/STTR programs, we first must help potential applicants understand the process.” The SBIR Road Show rolled into Jackson on April 17, 2018, with a program at Jackson State University. After introductions, a “reverse pitch” took place, where a number of government agencies—NASA, the Department of Defense, U.S. Homeland Security—quickly pitched the audience of entrepreneurs their “agency elevator pitch.” After the reverse pitches, presentations moved into a discussion of the grant opportunities that are available from the Federal government and tips for aligning your company with the goals of the government to make sure things “stay on track.” The morning ended with a presentation called “Inside the Head of an Evaluator,” where attendees learned how to avoid common mistakes that might lead to negative evaluations of performance and affect grant approval. During the main sessions, entrepreneurs could meet with representatives from the different government departments for one-on-one sessions to learn more about the funding possibilities. “SBIRs are a great tool for technology-risk startups,” said Tony Jeff, CEO of Innovate Mississippi, which served as a host for the event. “They remain the only grants available to startups, albeit only to those who are doing world-class research.” p

Innovation Ecosystem • 63

Welcome to Ole Miss.

Innovation and education meet in world-class facilities like the 62,000-square-foot Innovation Hub at Insight Park (above) and the TeachLive virtual classroom housed within the University of Mississippi School of Education (left).

For more information, call William Nicholas, 662-915-2526, or visit

64 â&#x20AC;˘ Innovate Mississippi






The idea behind 1 Million Cups is a simple one: Cities around the country should have a designated hour of the week or month where entrepreneurs can quickly share their ideas with the community, and get feedback, encouragement, support—and maybe a partner, investor or team member.


rowdsourcing is a normal byproduct of these gatherings, and the value is almost always worth the 60 minutes invested for both presenters and attendees. The Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based nonprofit organization that focuses on entrepreneurship in Kansas City and around the country, created 1 Million Cups and helps groups around the world get organized for a regular hour of entrepreneurship. Each city’s event organizers are volunteers who work within the foundation’s guidelines to educate, engage and encourage entrepreneurs in their communities. As of 2018, more than 160 communities have regular 1 Million Cups meetings. In Mississippi, 1 Million Cups Jackson offers entrepreneurs and members of the innovation ecosystem a place to visit and share ideas. Meetings take place the first Wednesday of each month in Coalesce Coworking space, part of the Innovation Hub in downtown Jackson where Innovate Mississippi’s offices are also located. The meetings generally follow a pattern: After everyone gets a cup of coffee (sponsored by Cups Espresso Cafe) and whatever other treat is offered that morning, one or two entrepreneurs will fire up their slide deck and pitch their idea or company to the group. After a five-to-seven minute pitch, the group responds with questions, suggestions and encouragement. At the end of each question-and-answer period, an organizer asks the presenter, “What can the 1 Million Cups community do for you?” Frequently the request is to get the word out about the company or help them find funding; however, sometimes the presenter just wants a particular type of professional mentor to talk to or,

occasionally, just a hug or a handshake. “1 Million Cups is a wonderful venue to present ideas and get feedback,” said Bilal Qizilbash, who has presented to the group a few times. “When an idea is challenged and discussed, it can be an opportunity for immense growth.” As his company, EasyKale Labs LLC, has grown and gone through pivots and changes, he, like many others, has been asked to return to the group and report on both successes and challenges he faced. “A big part is just adding to the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” said Todd Stauffer, publisher of the Jackson Free Press and an organizer for 1 Million Cups. “It’s great to see the ideas flowing, the questions and friendly challenges coming at the CEOs. Its just good practice.” While 1 Million Cups isn’t generally a direct line to funders, the Jackson audience has been known to feature a “celebrity” entrepreneur or investor at times, making it that much more valuable of an experience to those present. And the consistent presence of Tasha Bibb, director of entrepreneurial development for Innovate Mississippi and a 1 Million Cups Jackson organizer, means professional help is never far away for promising companies. Coalesce Coworking, TeamJXN, Innovate Mississippi, the Jackson Free Press, TinyJXN and JxnPreneur sponsor 1 Million Cups Jackson. To attend, follow the event series on Facebook or join the Meetup group. To present your company, visit to enter an application and learn more about the process. p

Innovation Ecosystem • 65

66 â&#x20AC;˘ Innovate Mississippi

Our mission is to provide a collaborative workspace for our members, inspire them by a sense of place, and allow them to leverage the social and human capital of our partners.

Work and meet in Downtown Jackson starting under $100 per month!

601.526.3728 â&#x20AC;˘ 67

p 68 â&#x20AC;˘ Innovate Mississippi

p Events

Innovate Mississippi hosts a number of events to inspire and facilitate creativity and connections for Mississippiâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s entrepreneurs and business community â&#x20AC;&#x201D; from Startup Weekends and business pitch competitions to conferences and luncheons. â&#x20AC;˘ 69

Startup Weekend Entrepreneurs participate in Innovate Mississippiâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s 16th Mississippi Startup Weekend

70 â&#x20AC;˘ Innovate Mississippi


Graphic by Freepik

n April 2018, about 50 people took part in Techstars Startup Weekend Jackson, which Innovate Mississippi hosted at the Coalesce Coworking facility in downtown Jackson. The event began on a Friday evening with an introduction from the facilitator, Sibi Murugesan, who is a project manager at Gener8tor, a startup accelerator based in Wisconsin and Minnesota. “It’s not about how many times you get punched,” Murugesan told the group, slightly misquoting General George Custer. “It’s about how many times you get up.” He also emphasized that the most important components of startup companies are their teams. As an investor himself, he said, he looks for quality teams more than the best initial ideas. A good team can “pivot” their offering and come up with something even better that the public wants, he told the group. Tasha Bibb, Innovate Mississippi’s director of entrepreneurial development, said Murugesan and Gener8tor’s involvement was a real strength of the 2018 event. “Sibi’s been a startup founder, so he’s got that experience, which is really good,” she said. “He’s got networks and was able to connect a lot of the startups to contacts that he knows. He made himself available as a resource even after Startup Weekend.” After Murugesan was a welcome video from Chris Meaux, founder of Waitr, a firm that delivers restaurant meals to consumers’ homes using an Uber-style business model. Meaux related some of the trials and triumphs of Waitr as a startup business. Bibb said that participation on the first evening of Startup Weekend, which she planned and coordinated, was strong from the outset. “We had about 100 percent pitches,” she said, referring to the opening night business pitches from participants. Each person stands in front of the group for a few minutes to present their ideas. The group then chooses the best ideas. Eight were chosen in this case, Bibb said, and those ideas became the group projects that teams worked on for the rest of the weekend. Once teams were formed and tasks assigned on Friday, the groups then returned on Saturday morning for training in customer interaction and validation. Their task was to

interview potential customers and determine whether their startup idea is a good one, or if they need to go back to the drawing board. On Saturday afternoon the groups worked with mentors—some local, some via Skype—to hone their idea, work on a prototype and determine if their customer research supports the business they planned to pitch. On Sunday, eight companies pitched their potential product or service to the group with the events judges in attendance: Dr. Nashlie Sephus and Ivan Walker (both from Amazon), Mike Morgan (University of Southern Mississippi), David Pharr (Jackson-based attorney and developer), Paul Jones (Multicraft) and Todd Stauffer (Jackson Free Press). From the eight companies, the judges selected three winners. Mike Morgan announced the first place winner, GiveCherry, saying “A lot of y’all are still in school, some of you are techies—standing up in front of a big crowd, presenting your idea and trying to convince people it’s a good idea is hard to do, and you all did a really good job,” Morgan said. GiveCherry, an online platform for charitable giving, got the top honor in part because the judges felt that the company had offered a strong prototype, presented well, and handled questions and objections from the judges. Sole Child, a startup mobile app designed to help parents order shoes for their kids (including the built-in ability to measure a kids’ shoe size), took second place. Third place went to Vibra Muse, who created a true working prototype of their device, which is designed to help people who are hard of hearing to enjoy and even perform music. Two other companies acknowledged during the event were Rhizio, a team of coders working on a way to fund apps for consumers by trading computing cycles on their mobile devices for “big data” calculations, which received an honorable mention from the judges. And Weekly Harvest was the “crowd favorite” with their plan to re-invent the consumer’s relationship with farmers through a direct delivery system. “Startup Weekend is really starting to become a staple in the entrepreneurial community in Jackson,” Bibb said. “My wish is for this to be seen as a regular event that people come to expect and prepare for. If you want a crash course in building a tech company, you really need to go through a Startup Weekend.” Startup Weekend Jackson is scheduled to take place again at Coalesce in downtown Jackson from March 1-3, 2019. p

Events • 71


Wade H. Creekmore, Jr. and James H. Creekmore, Sr., founders of C Spire, the largest privately held wireless company in the country, headlined the honorees present at the 2018 Mississippi Innovators Hall of Fame Awards Gala at the Country Club of Jackson on Sept. 13, 2018. The Creekmore brothers received the Legend Award, the highest honor bestowed at the event. The gala’s presenting sponsor was mTrade of Oxford. The Mississippi Innovators Hall of Fame is a production of Innovate Mississippi.

LEGEND AWARD RECIPIENTS Wade H. Creekmore, Jr. and James H. Creekmore, Sr., founders of C Spire

72 • Events

2018 Mississippi Innovators Hall of Fame Inductees

Gail Pittman

Founder Gail Pittman, Inc., Ridgeland

Leo Seal, Jr. (posthumously)

Hancock Bank, Gulfport, his son Lee Seal accepted the award on his behalf

Robert Sandoz, Frank Wilhem, Jr. and Dr. Ernest Burdette Founders of Triton Systems, Long Beach Pictured with Tony Jeff (far left) and Mike Forster (far right)

Events â&#x20AC;˘ 73

Innovation Impact

To start the evening’s ceremony, Innovate Mississippi CEO Tony Jeff introduced representatives of the four companies honored as 2018 Innovation Impact recipients— ALGIX, BHN, EdgeTheory and Kopis Mobile. Jeff then introduced Innovate Mississippi board member Jan Farrington, who served as host of the event (with her husband, Lawrence), who introduced the first inductee, Gail Pittman.

Gail Pittman

Pittman was inducted into the Mississippi Innovators Hall of Fame in recognition of the success she has had going from a home-based pottery business to a multi-million dollar manufacturing and licensing firm. “Tell me how blessed I feel right now,” Pittman said as she received her award. “You never get to places like this without the people who believe in you. Mississippi … believed in me, Madison County believed in me, my friends who are here to honor me believed in me,” Pittman said, then thanking her husband, whom she called, “the smartest man in the room.” “He encouraged me,” she said, “So much so that later on … we would go to a dinner party, and he would say, ‘This is my wife Gail. She paints bowls. Do you want one?’ He was my first salesman, too,” she said, to appreciative laughter. “This is a great moment for me. I am very honored. Thank you,” she said.

Leo Seal, Jr.

John Hairston, president of Hancock Whitney Bank, introduced the video for Leo Seal Jr., the second inductee in the Mississippi Innovators Hall of Fame. During his remarks, he relayed advice that Seal had offered to him when he was a young manager in the bank: “Three things exist in great companies: They have the best tools, they have the best people, and they have the best heart. At least have the best heart and you’ll always be able to do OK.” After the video, Leo’s son Lee Seal accepted the award and relayed another anecdote about Leo. “There were so many nuggets of wisdom,” he said. “ … One came to mind: He didn’t take very many vacations, but he liked to go to the Olympics. A friend of his asked him, ‘Who is going to run the bank while you’re gone?’ He said, ‘The same people who run the bank when I’m there.’” Lee then accepted the award on behalf of his family and the staff at Hancock Bank that had been a huge part of Leo’s success.

Triton Systems

The Triton founders—Dr. Ernest Burdette, Robert Sandoz and Frank Wilem, Jr., were present to be inducted into the Mississippi Innovators Hall of Fame, recognized for their innovations in building ATM machines that didn’t have to be attached to banks, ultimately growing to the point that they sold more machines in one year than any other company in the country. Burdette, in accepting the award, said, “Because we were friends, we decided to be equal partners in the business— that’s how we started the business, and that’s how we ended it.” 74 • Events

Left to right: Joshua Lunn, Kopis Mobile; Joe Stradinger, Edge Theory; Andrew Putnam, Kopis Mobile; Clark Love, Brighter Health Network; Ashton Zeller, Algix; Ryan Hunt, Algix

Innovation Impact Algix, Meridian Brighter Health Network, Flowood EdgeTheory, Ridgeland Kopis Mobile, Flowood

“It’s an unusual situation that you can be friends after running a business for 25 years,” he said.

Wade and Jimmy Creekmore

For the final presentation of the evening, Bill Rayburn, chairman and CEO of mTrade, introduced former Legend Award winner Ambassador John Palmer who, in turn, introduced Wade and Jimmy Creekmore. Wade Creekmore, in accepting his recognition, used the opportunity to instead praise Dr. Jeff Bullington, the leader of the chess program in Franklin County that Creekmore has helped create for public school students. Creekmore gave Bullington credit for the success of the program and had him stand up to be applauded by the crowd. When Jimmy Creekmore took the podium, he thanked all the people in the room and said, “I wish so many other people who have helped Wade and me could have been here, too.” He congratulated the other Mississippi Innovators Hall of Fame inductees and Innovation Impact honorees. “I want to say that Mississippi is doing very, very well. A lot of people who are responsible are here tonight from the entrepreneurial and innovative world,” he said. “The entrepreneur and technology fires are hot in Mississippi. Innovate Mississippi is an important part of that … a very important part of that. But we have to get with it and stay with it,” he said. “We can do that, because we have done that.” p

COMPLETING THE CIRCUIT. At Entergy, the circuit means more than electricity. It means connection and potential. Families. Neighborhoods. Businesses. We’re all part of a circuit. So we invest in industry. Inspire education. Nurture community. We empower each other. And together, we power life.

A message from Entergy Mississippi, Inc. ©2016 Entergy Services, Inc. All Rights Reserved. • 75

In its 19th year, the Conference on Technology Innovation, an annual event convened by Innovate Mississippi, got a new name, Accelerate, which was more than apt. The 2018 conference was an exciting opportunity for entrepreneurs, investors, mentors and service providers to convene in the capital city to share ideas and resources in order to grow the innovation ecosystem in Mississippi.

76 â&#x20AC;˘ Events


he event featured strong keynote addresses and session talks, while Innovation Alley offered a fantastic opportunity for attendees to network, share and get to know one another better. The conference began with the Company and Investor Spotlight on Nov. 13, which showcases companies in Mississippi that are currently seeking funding or are getting close to a funding round. Likewise, investor panels throughout the afternoon offered insight for entrepreneurs on the world of startup finance, with participants from major seed-fund networks in the state. (See page 82 for more on the Company and Investor Spotlight.) On the morning of Nov. 14, the breakfast session began with Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who presented facts and figures from the “Y’all Business” survey, with a particular focus on how the state’s businesses can work together with educational entities to build a strong and stable workforce. Dr. Nashlie Sephus delivered the breakfast keynote. Sephus is a Jackson native and graduate of Jackson Public Schools who went on to receive a doctorate in engineering at Georgia Tech University. While finishing her Ph.D., she became a cofounder and CTO on the startup PartPic, which Amazon acquired in 2016. PartPic developed software for visual search, making it possible to find products (in their case, replacement parts for industrial equipment) by taking a photo of the part and submitting it to the search engine. That technology has been incorporated into’s search functionality. Dr. Sephus now works for Amazon in Atlanta, but she also recently founded a nonprofit in Jackson called “The Bean Path.” The organization seeks to help people in Jackson learn about technology and explore the possibility of using technology in their businesses or startup companies with a potential technology solution as their product or service. (See page 45 for more on Dr. Sephus and The Bean Path.) After breakfast, attendees spent time on Innovation Alley, networking among themselves and the vendors who had booths at the conference. That flowed into the Big Ideas talks, which featured quick TED-style presentations. Joe Donovan of the Mississippi Development Authority introduced the session and spoke on “The State of the State in Entrepreneurship,” where he emphasized his desire to attract capital investment to the state by building a culture of attracting talent, collaborating with industry and building future-focused careers. Michael Adcock of the UMMC Center for Telehealth gave an overview of telehealth technologies and the hospital’s role in the cutting edge of delivering medicine remotely. He then took a look at the future of telehealth and how impactful it could be for the Mississippi economy. Joe Graben of the Marine Industries Science and Technology, or MIST, Cluster at The University of Southern Mississippi presented “Mississippi’s Blue Economy,” on the critical nature of the Gulf of Mexico to the state’s economy, and the exciting technologies that are happening in and on the “ocean of future opportunities.”

Bobby Rappai of Camgian Microsystems spoke on “The Disruptive Power of Artificial Intelligence,” making the point that by 2020 we’ll have more than 20 billion devices connected to the Internet, and that having more and more of those devices will provide the ability for computers to do four critical things—sense, perceive, reason and respond— capabilities that will increase as we move forward with AI. After the Big Ideas session, it was Coffee and Contacts on Innovation Alley, followed by a presentation on the current state of augmented reality and virtual reality by Vince Jordan of Lobaki, Inc. Jordan demonstrated AR and VR to the audience while speaking on the significance of the technology as it is exploding in applications today, and the potential that Mississippi has to lead in creating jobs and industry that he feels are inevitable around AR and VR. Throughout the morning, the “VIP & Mentor Lounge” featured investors and entrepreneur-mentors who met with up-and-coming entrepreneurs for one-on-one sessions. Our VIPs included Jan and Lawrence Farrington, Joel Bomgar, Lois Lovelady and Dr. Bill Rayburn. Similarly, mentors were available to entrepreneurs who sought mentoring or advice on specific topics: Whit Rayner of Jones Walker offered advice on legal topics; Bryan Carter of ThinkWebstore discussed marketing; Terrence Hibbert of the UMMC Center for Telehealth focused on health-care entrepreneurship; Robert Thompson of the Mississippi Polymer Institute visited with entrepreneurs about engineering and prototyping; and John McCallum of Grantham Poole offered thoughts on accounting. Leslie Smith of Epicenter Memphis in Memphis, Tenn., the entrepreneurial hub of the southwestern Tennessee region, gave the luncheon keynote. Smith told her story of moving from Detroit to Memphis in order to raise $100 million in investment dollars for small businesses and entrepreneurial startups that reflect the spirit and demographic makeup of Memphis, and how to forge the ecosystem relationships and partnerships necessary to make that happen. Networking opportunities were particularly strong this year, with a very active Innovation Alley in the new venue. Likewise, the speakers represented a cross section of entrepreneurs and people in the innovation ecosystem working to support those entrepreneurs in growing Mississippi’s economy and creating jobs. Innovate Mississippi’s CEO, Tony Jeff, expressed his satisfaction with this year’s conference. “It was a great venue and turnout, and fantastic speaker lineup that offered a lot of different perspectives on how innovation can grow the economy,” Jeff said. “Plus, I really want to get one of those virtual reality headsets!” Planning is already underway for Accelerate 2019, the 20th Annual Conference on Technology Innovation. This year’s conference will feature keynote speaker Steve Case, venture capitalist, cofounder of AOL, author of “The Third Wave” and founder of “Rise of the Rest.” The conference will be Nov. 12-13, 2019, in downtown Jackson. p Events • 77




LIGHTING THE WAY Mississippi’s Light Festival isn’t just fun and games. See how one woman is using the event to shine a light on something much bigger.

In a field where America desperately needs talented individuals to create and fill jobs, these Mississippi women are stepping up in a big way.


Learn how Mississippi innovators are majorly shifting the economic landscape.


THE MISSISSIPPI CODING ACADEMY For those who don’t plan to attend college, this Code MS initiative could provide a viable alternative that is feeding the national job market. Could this be the beginning of the ‘Silicon South?’




VIRTUAL REALITY VR is here, revolutionizing military training and healthcare delivery. Can Mississippi take the lead?

THE IDEA SHOP Mississippi State University’s new maker space in downtown Starkville offers creative tools to students, faculty and the public at large.


Audience Business Professionals // Higher Education Public Policy Leaders // Higher Income Digital Editions Go to to view previous issues of the Innovation Report. Pricing Contact Janet Parker at to inquire about pricing.

HALL OF FAME Hundreds gather to honor the state’s legends in technology and • 1 entrepreneurship.


With focuses on entrepreneurial development, the innovation ecosystem in Mississippi and events celebrating innovation, our magazine is where your brand meets the future.


78 • Innovate Mississippi

Contact Janet Parker to reserve your space. or 601.960.3611

Discovery Luncheon Oxford, Mississippi // 2018


ew would dispute that Oxford is a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity, with some of Mississippi’s biggest technology success stories coming from in and around Lafayette County, with mTrade and FNC calling it home. In 2018, Innovate Mississippi organized a Discovery Luncheon, presented by C Spire, in Oxford to showcase two more Mississippi-based companies: the highly successful Blue Delta Jeans and the up-and-coming Collegiate Tutoring. “Discovery Luncheons are community events designed to showcase the great entrepreneurial activity and success stories taking place in the state, many of which may be considered ‘well kept secrets,’” said Janet Parker, director of business development for Innovate Mississippi. Blue Delta Jeans CEO Josh West told the story of his company’s goal of making handcrafted, bespoke denim projects. With its Oxford studio where customers can get fitted (as well as at partner stores around the country), West says he takes advantage of an under-tapped resource in Mississippi: talented seamstresses. Using this skilled labor makes it possible to make custom jeans in north Mississippi. The company offers lifetime repairs and alterations of their jeans, which aren’t cheap, but are well-constructed of high-end fabrics. And, of course, they’re made in the USA. CEO Lee Ingram rose to prominence in the Mississippi innovation ecosystem when he won the Mississippi New Venture Challenge student category in 2017 and presented the following day at the Conference on Technology Innovation. Ingram’s company is building a software tool that helps college students find quality tutors. The software has been particularly successful for student groups, such as fraternities and sororities, that work to keep their members’ grades up and the students themselves academically motivated. Along with hearing from these entrepreneurs, the Discovery Luncheons offer an opportunity for entrepreneurs, mentors and investors in a given part of the state to get together and compare notes. “Not only are we showcasing entrepreneurs, but also providing a forum for networking among like-minded individuals, who often tell us afterward of the meaningful connections they made during the event,” Parker said. Innovate Mississippi partnered with the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation, C Spire, Insight Park and the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to make the Oxford event a success, and they’re looking forward to more such events in 2019. p

Events • 79

Michael H. Forster Executive Committee

Deborah Bailey Executive Committee

R. Mayo Flynt III Executive Committee

Richard A. Sun, CFA Executive Committee

Former CEO Commercequest, Inc. Louisville, MS

President Solon Group, Inc. Grenada, MS

President AT&T Mississippi Jackson, MS

Founder & Owner Sun & Co. Jackson, MS

Jan Farrington Executive Committee

Ashby Foote Executive Committee

Matthew L. Holleman III Executive Committee

William M. Mounger II Executive Committee

Ridgeland, MS

President Vector Money Management Jackson, MS

President & CEO Galaxie Corporation Jackson, MS

Flowood, MS

80 â&#x20AC;¢ Innovate Mississippi

William Rayburn, Ph.D. Executive Committee

R. Barry Cannada Executive Committee

Chairman & CEO mTrade Oxford, MS

Chairman Butler Snow - Business Dept. Ridgeland, MS

Board of Directors

Mark Henderson Private Sector

Greg Cronin Private Sector

Dave Dennis Private Sector

Tony Jeff Private Sector

Cofounder Lazy Magnolia Loglinear Group, LLC Waveland, MS

President & CEO Charter Bank Biloxi, MS

President Specialty Contractors & Assoc. Gulfport, MS

President & CEO Innovate Mississippi Jackson, MS

Brad McMullan Private Sector

Rodney Bennett, Ed.D. Public Sector

Al Rankins, Jr., Ph.D. Public Sector

Jeffrey S. Vitter, Ph.D. Public Sector

President Ridgeland, MS

President University of Southern Mississippi Hattiesburg, MS

Commissioner of Higher Education Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning // Jackson, MS

Chancellor until January 2019 University of Mississippi Oxford, MS

Mark Keenum, Ph.D. Public Sector

William Bynum II, Ph.D. Public Sector

Andrea Scott Mayfield, Ph.D. Public Sector

President Mississippi State University Starkville, MS

President Jackson State University Jackson, MS

Executive Director Mississippi Community College Board Jackson, MS â&#x20AC;˘ 81

Company + Investor


n 2018, the Company and Investor Spotlight returned to Accelerate: the 19th Annual Conference on Technology Innovation. The Company and Investor Spotlight enables some powerful interaction between entrepreneurs who have been working with Innovate Mississippi, and potential investors and seed fund managers throughout the state who can offer advice and get a chance to take a look at the progress the state’s entrepreneurs are making. “Personally, I got a lot out of the event,” said Ryan Gilbrech, who pitched his company, Meta Games. “It was energizing to hear about the entrepreneurs and investment groups in Mississippi, most of whom I had no idea about before the event.” Vince Jordan, CEO of Lobaki, Inc., was similarly effusive. “We made a number of good connections that we are currently in touch with,” Jordan said. “We’re very pleased that we were asked to present alongside these companies.” In November 2018, nine companies, all of which are in some current stage of raising capital, presented at the Company and Investor Spotlight. The companies included Flowers to the Grave, Torrus, Cattlog, Lobaki, Bac Yeast, Meta Games, CampusKnot and EasyKale. “For the entrepreneurs who pitched, this is an opportunity to let investors and the general public know what they’re up to,” said Tasha Bibb, director of entrepreneurial development for Innovate Mississippi. “It also was an opportunity for investors to get a look at some of the deals that are getting close to launching a fundraising round and for them to share a little knowledge on how to get involved in investing here.” Along with the company pitches, investors participated 82 • Events

in two different panel discussions, one covering the North Mississippi Angel Fund and the other comprising of members of the Bulldog Angel Network. The Bulldog Angel Network panel discussion focused somewhat on the tools they use for remote investing, Bibb said. “They’ve got some interesting tools they’ve developed,” she said. “The manager of that fund lives in Huntsville, and the members are spread out over several counties in North Mississippi, so they’re using some cool tools to collaborate on deals and even view pitches remotely.” Their talk also helped entrepreneurs realize that it’s possible to get investment, even if it is across city or state lines. The North Mississippi Angel Fund members talked about the process of pitching to the fund, Bibb said, including things like how to work through a term sheet, the process of getting an investment and other things entrepreneurs should expect when working with a fund. Between presentations, investors and entrepreneurs could network. “I was able to connect with the investment group in northern Mississippi, who were very impressed with what Meta Games is doing,” Gilbrech said. Bibb says she was excited to see entrepreneurs and investors connecting at last year’s conference, and she expects more of that to happen both at the Mississippi New Venture Challenge in spring 2019 and at the Company and Investor Spotlight scheduled for November 12, 2019, as part of Accelerate: the 20th Annual Conference on Technology Innovation. p

The Voice Of Mississippi Business

The Mississippi Economic Council works to create a robust business climate for all Mississippi companies, no matter the industry or size. We tackle broad issues that affect all Mississippians and shape legislation and initiatives to build a sustainable workforce and the infrastructure our state needs to be economically competitive. Join the more than 11,000 members from 1,100 organizations throughout Mississippi that support MEC. To learn more, go to

MEC Programs

P.O. Box 23276 Jackson, MS 39225-3276

Phone: 601-969-0022 â&#x20AC;˘ 83

At MSU, our students don’t find jobs that change the world.

They create them.

It takes more than an idea. Discover how Mississippi State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach helps students start companies to employ themselves after graduation. Visit us online at 84 • Innovate Mississippi

Profile for Innovate Mississippi

Innovation Report 2019