At our last PBE meeting I provided a print out from CNN Money that ranked Hattiesburg, MS, as Number Nine on its 2009 Top 10 “Best Places to Launch” for Startups. Like many of those that received the print out, I was shocked that not only did CNN even know our town, but gave it such a flattering score. However as one begins to read the details of the article, additional factoids arise that are just as curious as the celebratory designation itself.
“Hattiesburg prides itself on a long-standing tradition of entrepreneurship -- a legacy it's working to carry forward by supporting companies in expanding industries and encouraging young, educated workers to stay in the city.”
Really? Being born and raised in Mississippi, I never heard of Hattiesburg (or any Mississippi town for that matter) as being such a fertile ground for entrepreneurs. The following sentence was even more shocking:
“In 2005, Hattiesburg's Area Development Partnership and the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) opened Business Launchpoint, an incubator that supports small businesses with high growth potential. A half-dozen companies are located within the incubator, and a previous tenant, Town Square Design Co., was acquired by Eco-Systems Inc. in March.”
WOW! Not only do we pride ourselves on a long-standing tradition of entrepreneurship, but we even have our own startup incubator?! Granted, the source of this post is a 2009 CNN article, but if our Hattiesburg incubator is so well established that it has already produced its first acquisition target almost six years ago, surely current and future entrepreneurs can utilize this invaluable local resource – right?
This is the point where the shock and awe of the CNN article turned into sheer confusion for me. I immediately tried to learn more about “Business Launchpoint” via their official website at www.businesslaunchpoint.com, only to find an advertisement that “this domain may be for sale”. Not a good sign. To ensure this was not a fake CNN article or some type of other gimmick, I began to google numerous terms associated with the content of the article and learn that Business Launchpoint had actually made quite a splash in local media. Several noteworthy search results that immediately surfaced:
Mississippi Business Journal: “Business Launchpoint sending Hattiesburg start-ups sky high”
University of Southern Mississippi, Office of University Communications: “Southern Miss Incubator Helps Jump Start Local Business Effort”
Privco: “Business Launchpoint - Trent Lott National Center”
As denoted by the prior two links, more research suggested that the Business Lauchpoint incubator was a public/private partnership between at least private investors, the University of Southern Mississippi, the Area Development Partnership, and maybe others.
So what happened? How did we go from being on the top ten list of CNN’s Best Places to Launch for 2009, to a dead domain name and radio silent incubator? I am pleased (and saddened) to learn that our very own PBE Member Brantley Fryfogle was able to contact someone that knew the backstory. A person that was quite knowledgeable about the Business Launchpoint incubator filled in the blanks for Brantley:
“Business Launchpoint was disbanded several years ago when the University was undergoing budget challenges. While it was successful in launching several small firms, the University suffered several setbacks that ultimately spelled its demise. There was significant support for the incubator when in launched from internal university leadership and from the community's/county's leadership. As you likely know, change in leadership brings new focuses. Therefore, when the fiscal challenges occurred in conjunction with the recession, financial support ebbed from all parties supporting the incubator. Coupled with all of this was the building owner's desire to raise the rent on a fairly marginal building. The University made the decision to disband the effort and focus its efforts on the high tech incubator in its new technology park.”
It should be said that the “high tech incubator” mentioned in the quote above actually deals with the science department of the university and is not the normal startup incubator that Business Launchpoint was – and the kind we still need now.
So there you have it. Hattiesburg, Mississippi, did have its very own startup incubator that was actually fruitful during its short life. Among the numerous takeaways we can glean from the Business Launchpoint story is that we do in fact have talented local entrepreneurs with good ideas that can be taken to market if only a supportive infrastructure is in place to help them do so.
Isn’t it about time for a new Business Launchpoint?