Mercer University announces plans for center to encourage and develop entrepreneurs

Mercer University announced plans Tuesday to create a center that encourages and develops entrepreneurs with a focus on using technology to promote economic growth, create jobs and attract and retain talent.

"The Mercer Innovation Center will provide physical space, programming, technology resources and tools, and access to talent that will help people with good ideas turn them into commercially successful businesses that create 21st century jobs for Middle Georgia," Mercer University President Bill Underwood said in a statement.

The center will be based in a modern, repurposed, 10,000-square-foot space adjacent to Mercer's School of Engineering, School of Medicine and the Willet Science Center. The building was formerly the Religious Life Center, but offices housed there have been relocated.

A 14-member advisory board made up of business leaders, entrepreneurs and academicians and chaired by Macon entrepreneur Stewart Vernon, founder and CEO of America's Swimming Pool Co. and ASP Franchising Inc., will work with the center to provide mentoring and guidance for programming. The advisory board will manage a $2 million venture fund to invest in startups that come out of the Mercer Innovation Center.

One of the center's key initiatives will be the Mercer Innovation Fellowship, a competitive program open to entrepreneurs worldwide. Each year, up to five fellowships will be awarded through a competition. Recipients will get one year of housing, office space, interns, access to all Mercer facilities and $20,000 cash. Applications are due by Feb. 1, and winners will be announced by April 30.

The Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority is providing up to $75,000 annually for three years to help underwrite the salary for the center's director, according to a Mercer news release. Also, the authority will furnish five spaces in a building it recently bought in downtown Macon.

"This is one of the most impactful endeavors that the Industrial Authority could be embarking on at this time in our history," said Cliffard Whitby, chairman of the authority's board of directors.

Macon entrepreneur and neurosurgeon Dr. Hugh "Tripp" Smisson III has made a significant, but undisclosed financial commitment to the center, according to the Mercer news release. Additional funding is coming from local business leaders Bob and Robbo Hatcher, as well as from the Knight Foundation Fund, which was established at the Community Foundation of Central Georgia by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, officials said.

Mercer will collaborate with other Middle Georgia organizations that support entrepreneurship as part of their programming, including Navicent Health's recently announced Center for Disruption and Innovation, NewTown Macon's SCORE program and SparkMacon, a downtown makerspace.

"So this is truly a broad-based, communitywide endeavor," Underwood said during Tuesday's announcement on Mercer's campus.

The center will work with the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce to establish a Young Entrepreneurs Academy, a national experiential entrepreneurship program for middle and high school students that will be the first of its kind in the state.

The center will offer three levels of membership to the public, with a 10-percent discount available to veterans and active members of the military. The membership levels are:

A $25 per month community membership that includes admission to a monthly entrepreneur speaker series and workshops by Stetson School of Business and Economics faculty, as well as access to mentors, coaches and other entrepreneurs.

A $100 per month community plus membership that also includes workspace in the center, access to other university facilities and student interns.

A $500 per month community pro membership that also includes a furnished office in the Mercer Innovation Center; access to University facilities, including laboratories, machine shops and fitness center; invitations to sponsored events, including venture capital pitches; and automatic entry into competitions such as an April 2016 pitch competition with business community judges and prizes.

"It will be open to any entrepreneur from anywhere with an idea that will help the economy of Middle Georgia," Underwood said.

Inspiration for the center came from the Atlanta Technology Village in Buckhead, founded in 2012 by entrepreneur David Cummings. The ATV has grown into the largest technology entrepreneur center in the Southeast with more than 200 startups and 900 entrepreneurs in residence, the release said.

Underwood also said he drew inspiration from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who also spoke during the announcement.

Cagle described economic development as a "three-legged stool," with the most commonly emphasized legs being the recruitment of new business and development of existing business.

"The third leg of the stool, that is equally important, is growing that new talent," he said.

A yearlong feasibility study, supported by the Knight Foundation, including visits with incubators and organizations across the country involved with entrepreneurship-focused economic development to determine best practices.

The study concluded that an innovation center would help create startup businesses and new marketable products and services that will boost economic development and create jobs in the region.

"I look forward to coming back and celebrating all the successes that will come out of the Mercer Innovation Center," Cagle said.

More information about the center and upcoming programs is available on the center's website at mic.

Telegraph writer Jeremy Timmerman contributed to this report. To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.