Mercer University President William D. Underwood today announced establishment of a new center designed to advance a culture of innovation and develop a thriving community of entrepreneurs, with a focus on utilizing technology to foster economic growth, create 21st century jobs and attract and retain talent.

“Innovation is a primary driver of the U.S. economy and is one of the American attributes that makes our country globally competitive,” Underwood said. “Much of the growth in our cities over the coming decades will come from within. Jobs are being generated by startups and expansion of existing business and industry. 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.”

Inspiration for the Mercer Innovation Center came from the Atlanta Technology Village, founded in 2012 by entrepreneur David Cummings and located in Buckhead. Cummings, who was recently named entrepreneur-in-residence for the Atlanta campus of Mercer’s Stetson School of Business and Economics, has quickly grown ATV, of which Mercer is a founding sponsor and tenant, into the largest technology entrepreneur center in the Southeast with more than 200 startups and 900 entrepreneurs in residence. According to Cummings, the majority of jobs created in this country over the next decade are going to come from companies that have not yet been established.

With support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, over the past year a team made up of representatives from Mercer and Cross Channel Initiatives conducted a feasibility study. The team visited and had conversations with 18 incubators, accelerators and organizations around the country that are involved with entrepreneurship-focused economic development to assess best practices. The feasibility study concluded that a Mercer Innovation Center will help create startup businesses and new marketable products and services that will boost economic development and create jobs in the region.

The Mercer Innovation Center’s goals are to:

  • Advance the discovery and commercialization of products and services that have marketplace potential to promote job creation and economic development in Macon and Middle Georgia
  • Inspire a culture of innovation in the region by bringing together like-minded entrepreneurs in order to attract, cultivate and retain creative talent
  • Share the University’s knowledge and resources to achieve positive growth in Macon and Middle Georgia

The Center will be based in a modern, repurposed, 10,000-square-foot facility strategically located adjacent to Mercer’s School of Engineering, School of Medicine and Willet Science Center. It is across the street from the site of Mercer’s new $40 million undergraduate sciences building, scheduled for completion in 2017, and is steps away from the Stetson School of Business and Economics. Macon-based Birch Communications is installing the latest telecommunications tools in the Center, including 1 gigabit-per-second (Gbps) broadband service.

The University is partnering with the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority, which is providing up to $75,000 annually for three years to help underwrite the salary for the Center’s director and furnishing five additional co-working spaces in facilities it owns in downtown Macon. Macon entrepreneur and neurosurgeon Dr. Hugh F. “Tripp” Smisson III has made a significant financial commitment to the Center, and additional funding is coming from local business leaders Bob and Robbo Hatcher, as well as from the Knight Fund at the Community Foundation of Central Georgia.

“The Authority is elated about this partnership. It builds on our theme of reimagining Macon-Bibb and economic development as a whole,” said Cliffard Whitby, chairman of the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority board of directors. “Silicon Valley was not a stroke of luck. Its exponential growth came from intentional innovation and planning. Our next-generation workforce is Generation Z, ages 16-19. They have no illusions about staying in comfy corporate jobs. Over four in 10 think they’ll work for themselves in their careers, more than four times the current number of people who work for themselves.

“In the latest Fast Company magazine poll, 63 percent of the Gen Z respondents think that entrepreneurship should be taught in college. So we are on the cutting edge of structuring a future where Macon-Bibb’s young people can build their capacity, their community, but, more importantly, their dreams,” Whitby 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. 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:

  • 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 locked 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

A 14-member advisory board, composed of business leaders, entrepreneurs and academicians and chaired by Macon entrepreneur Stewart Vernon, will work with the Center to provide mentoring opportunities and guidance for the programming. The advisory board will assemble and 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.