Small business incubator planned for Oxford, Lafayette County
By Stephen Singer
OXFORD – Oxford and Lafayette County economic development officials are studying a proposal to establish a center to spur business start-ups in Oxford that would recruit the University of Mississippi and its enormous research capacity.
If the idea for the so-called business incubator is eventually approved, it would add to the rapid growth of an economic development tool for entrepreneurs who want to transform their ideas into profitable businesses.
“One of the strongest trends driving the U.S. economy is growth in entrepreneurship,” said Lynn Stacey, a Mobile-based consultant who drew up the 78-page proposal for the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation. “We’re in a period where we are restructuring the whole economy. That’s going to continue for a few more years,” he said.
Development officials have turned their attention to examining how much an incubator would cost to open and maintain and are seeking a source of funding, said Max Hipp, executive director of the Economic Development Foundation.
That stage of the project is expected to be completed by mid-November.
Hipp did not disclose the cost of Stacey’s study, though he said county development agencies typically pay $18,000.
Satellite facilities near Oxford
Stacey’s report offered seven recommendations for the incubator, which would bring together prospective small-business owners to share costs and ideas, easing the difficulties in setting up a business.
The report called for “satellite facilities” in other communities in Northeast Mississippi to complement the Oxford center, which would be the hub.
Development officials are looking at the Northeast Mississippi Business Incubation System in Corinth as a model. The Corinth center, which opened in June 1993, operates satellite business incubators in Ripley and Iuka.
The study also recommended that the incubator should emphasize technology and commercialization of research.
Ole Miss is “the single most important element” in the area’s ability to promote and sustain a business incubator, the report said. “The university can offer unlimited amounts of educational and research resources,” including the Office of Research, Office of Technology Transfer and Business Development, and the School of Business.
Unlike Tupelo, which has succeeded in attracting manufacturers, Oxford and Lafayette County can draw on the area’s strength in university-based research, Hipp said.
Business incubators form one part – a “creation strategy” – in a three-pronged economic development effort, Stacey said.
While Oxford and Lafayette County have successfully used the other two development methods Stacey cited – retaining and recruiting business – officials believed they needed a strategy to create business, he said.
No shortage of capital
Two recent developments could help spur an incubator.
Growing investments in stock purchases, particularly in retirement funds, is making hundreds of billions of dollars available to prospective business owners. As a result, entrepreneurs do not face a shortage in capital, Stacey said.
In addition, population shifts could benefit Lafayette County with newcomers who seek a small town near a large city such as Memphis, he said.
“The growth of small businesses will become the driving force in many of these small communities,” Stacey wrote in his report. “Therefore, the needs of entrepreneurial start-ups will grow in tandem within these small, but growing communities.”
Applying science to business is one possible direction for the business center, said Darron Kendrick, administrative manager for the Jamie Whitten National Center for Physical Acoustics.
As an example, Kendrick cited the construction of a tornado detector at the acoustics center that could be applied to business.
“Someone could take an idea like that and manufacture it,” he said.
The first business incubator opened in Batavia, N.Y., in the late 1950s, but the “boom period” was in the 1980s, said Tracy Corrigan, spokeswoman for the National Business Incubation Association in Athens, Ohio.
Since then, incubators have been opening nationwide at an average rate of one a week, she said. In North America, 550 are in operation.
Business incubators help entrepreneurs avoid the pitfalls that come with business start-ups, she said.
“There are tried and proven methods that pop up every day,” Corrigan said. “One reason businesses fail is because owners are so isolated.” A business incubator can help owners raise capital and support each other by sharing information, she said.
An average stay for a business hopeful in an incubator is between three and five years, she said.
By the start of 1997, Oxford and Lafayette County officials expect to know “which direction we’ll go in,” Hipp said. “We think the time is right.”