When it comes to creating the future, Mississippi State University wants students to dream big. Through the MSU Center for Entrepreneurship & Outreach, aspiring entrepreneurs have direct access to a full range of world-class resources to power their business ideas from concept to reality while fueling Mississippi’s economic growth.
Since launching an entrepreneurship program more than two decades ago, MSU has opened the doors to business ownership for scores of student-led teams, as well as non-students, while reinforcing the university’s role as an economic development engine for Mississippi. A study commissioned by the university found that MSU’s start-up and spin-off companies annually generate $20.8 million in income for Mississippi, and that number is growing.
“As a leading land-grant institution, an important part of MSU’s charter is getting great ideas out into the world that create jobs, innovative products and wealth for the community,” says E-Center director Eric Hill. “The E-Center is at the core of that mission. As a teaching institute, it’s also a practical learning objective for business students who are gaining real-world skills that can lead to careers.”
The VentureCatalyst program is an example of the E-Center’s applied, immersive approach. Open to all majors as well as faculty, the self-paced, co-curricular program provides up to $7,500 in funding, mentorships and training to prepare future entrepreneurs.
Trainees quickly learn that having a great idea is not enough. To appeal to investors, they must demonstrate a demand for their product by performing market research and gathering insights to fine-tune their proposals or return to the drawing board.
Walker was an electrical engineering major at MSU when he helped develop liquid-activated light technology as part of a senior project. With support from the E-Center, his team developed the idea into colorful light-up drink cubes marketed as Glo Cubes.
The idea rapidly evolved into Glo Pals light-up bath toys for kids, which are now carried by hundreds of retailers worldwide. In 2021, Glo reached an exciting milestone when the company partnered with Sesame Workshop to launch a new line of Glo Pals based on Sesame Street Muppets.
“We don’t think our success could have happened anywhere else but Mississippi State,” says Glo co-founder Anna Barker, vice president of business development. “We were blown away by the amazing network of alumni who directly support E-Center programs as well as the encouragement we’ve received from the community. That level of support was a major factor in our decision to keep our business in Starkville.”
Before Conor Ferguson enrolled in MSU to study electrical engineering, he’d helped his father build a wireless internet company. Servicing a largely rural area, they spent most of their time performing surveys to detect signal strength using a bucket truck and extension pole — a slow-going process for a small crew.
At MSU, Ferguson and fellow engineering student Austin Ratcliff began experimenting with drones, and with help from the E-Center, their idea led to WISPr Systems, a Batesville-based company specializing in wireless site survey drones and software. Thanks to their technology, a process that once took hours now takes minutes.
“Had we not gone through the E-Center program, we wouldn’t have a business — we’d just have a product,” says Ferguson, president and CEO of WISPr Systems. “They’re willing to put the effort into developing new technology and R&D, and they’re not afraid to take chances. Anybody who wants to start a tech business is already a step ahead of the game if they go to MSU and get involved with the E-Center.”
Calvin Waddy discovered the E-Center when he came up with an idea for a social media app during his sophomore year in finance. His idea didn’t pan out, but he ended up landing a job with the E-Center, completing the VentureCatalyst program and acquiring new skills to take ideas to the next level.
One of those ideas was Buzzbassador, a software that helps brands create ambassador and influencer programs. Waddy and team members Shelby Baldwin and Brandon Johns won first place in the 2019 SEC Student Pitch Competition and went on to form Rocketing Systems, Inc., in Starkville. Buzzbassador, their flagship product, is available on Shopify and powers more than 1,400 merchants worldwide.
It’s no coincidence that MSU is the centerpiece of one of Mississippi’s fastest-growing entrepreneurial hubs. In addition to a steadily expanding base of businesses sparked by the E-Center, Starkville is home to the Idea Shop at MSU, a fully equipped prototyping studio and retail store where aspiring entrepreneurs can build and test market products.
They also learn the importance of building connections. Through the E-Center, trainees meet and network with students and alumni whose success stories are living proof that entrepreneurship is attainable with the right mindset, training and resources.
“We’ve hit on a perfect formula for preparing students to turn ideas into marketable products and launch their own businesses,” Hill says. “It’s also important for them to have an intrinsic belief in themselves, and the E-Center has nurtured an environment that helps them build confidence in their ideas and abilities.