I’m Matthew Nicaud, the Tech Policy Analyst at MCPP, and your host for the Tech Talks interview series. In our Tech Talks, we engage with tech leaders, policy makers, and entrepreneurs to discuss the tech world in the Magnolia state and promote public thought on key tech issues.

For this edition of Tech Talks, I recently had the privilege to talk with Tim Mask. Tim is an advocate for economic tech development in Mississippi and the CEO of Maris, West, & Baker marketing firm in Jackson, MS. In our conversation, we explore key questions. How can Mississippi grow its tech economy? What are the challenges? Where has the state made headway?

Let’s hear from Tim Mask….

  • Matthew Nicaud: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your philosophy on free markets, and what drove you to become passionate to see Mississippi thrive?

I was born here, and I’ve made a career here. Socially and economically, I also am the owner of a company. The prosperity of my company depends on the economy of our state doing well and particularly organizations and businesses that are largely either service or knowledge-based type companies. But it’s not just for the well-being of my company, it is for the well-being of myself and my family. And then for those people that work for this company, the state needs to do well, the state needs to do well in certain sectors. And that’s really where my passion in this lies.

I’m a strong advocate of free markets. I have seen where public-private partnerships can and do work particularly in being able to provide  some aid to entrepreneurial endeavors. And that’s probably even more important in a state like ours, where we have less available investment in venture capital than a lot of other places. This goes into part of the reason that some of our entrepreneurs ended up leaving for other places that have more ready access to venture capital. So the idea is that in some instances, the government is able to “prime the pump,” and then the private sector uses that to take it from there.

I’m not for zero government participation in the start-up culture and economic development. But I also think that the private sector can, in most cases, do things better and more efficiently than the public sector can.

  • Matthew: What do you think is hindering MS from becoming the next Silicon Valley or Research Triangle (NC)?

I think we lose a lot of potential when we’re losing talent, particularly the kind of talent that we’ve traditionally been losing. There’s also the component of talent attraction. You can argue the numbers from different aspects, but I’ve always said that you can’t argue against the fact that talent attraction policies play a huge role in this.

I think Mississippi generally has a good business operating environment. And I think most of the research and the studies show that. So, it’s not that we don’t have a good business operating environment. We look at Silicon Valley, Austin, or the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and what these tech hubs have in common is a really strong research university component. With this is an almost ferocious tech transfer effort. This means getting that theoretical technology and development that goes through the research university system, into a practical form and out into the private sector.

We have some good research universities in Mississippi. In the past, they tended to work more in silos outside of the economic development community. This is changing pretty rapidly, but it hasn’t been that great from a tech transfer standpoint. But I think we are now seeing the research universities cooperating more amongst themselves. And you’re seeing that economic development community at the state level work closer with those research universities. So these efforts are not disjointed anymore. I think that is a very encouraging development that we are recently seeing in the state.

  • Matthew: What are the barriers to entrepreneurs that you have identified in MS?

I would say the biggest issue is access to venture capital. It is mostly a venture capital issue. I’m generalizing here, but there are “five guys” that everybody goes to in Mississippi when they want an angel investment or when they’re seeking some start-up money. There are five guys. They’re all guys, and they’re getting increasingly older. These guys can only fund so many ventures, and this lack of available funding makes it difficult for start-ups to get off the ground. There is also the lack of a strong unifying network of Mississippi incubators and accelerators, which is a contributing barrier for entrepreneurs.

  • Matthew: What about social policies? In recent years, Mississippi has taken strong stands on pro-life issues and to protect religious liberty in relation to same-sex marriage. How do you think these stands influence whether people, or even companies, want to move here?

I think the flag was an issue, and I think we did what we needed do there. I think it was overdue, and I think it was necessary. I think that removed one of the biggest barriers, maybe the biggest one.

I don’t want to say that some of the other policies aren’t ever looked at by the tech community, but I also don’t want to say that these policies make a meaningful difference. I think some companies may look at these conservative social policies, particularly certain industries such as the entertainment industry. Some of these things are issues for some industries but are not an issue for others. But generally speaking, I don’t think that these things are a real barrier for venture capital coming into the state. And we’re not necessarily trying to attract entrepreneurs to the state. I don’t know if that makes a lot of sense. We’re trying to retain entrepreneurs in the state. I think that is where our focus should be.

  • Matthew: What is the greatest strength in people-based economic development, rather than industry-based economic development?

When you want more of something, incentivize it, when you want less of something, tax it. So, it’s all well and good to attract a paper mill. There is a model for doing that, and it may or may not work out, depending on the deal. But when you talk about incentivizing people, you are incentivizing the skills that those people bring to the table versus just incentivizing the industry. It is a whole lot cheaper to incentivize a person than it is to incentivize industry, such as a plant.

Also, you’ve probably got good jobs at that plant, but a plant that employed 3,000 people 25 years ago now probably employs 300 and may soon employ 30 because of automation. That’s been going on for half a century.

Additionally, most jobs at that plant are going to top out at a certain pay rate. That puts a ceiling on us. But I think it’s an artificial ceiling. It doesn’t have to be there. When you talk about people-incentivized economic development, you are talking about investing in individuals instead of industries. It is a lot cheaper to invest in individuals than it is to invest in whole industries. This leads to less overall investment in the incentives -which is good for the taxpayer. You are talking about not putting a ceiling on the earning potential of individuals who are staying in the state or who you are attracting to the state. This investment in a knowledge-based economy, is a formula to raise the state’s per capita income, which should be the goal of every economic development program. Bringing industry to the state is not the goal.  Bringing in talent to the state is not the goal. These things are just means to the end. The goal is to raise the per capita income of the citizens of the state.

As a state with only about 3 million people, it’s not going to take much to start moving the needle of higher per capita income. Especially when we talk about underserved communities, it’s not going to take that much to get this ball rolling. And then when it does, you have a snowball effect, because you are bringing in business here. You are retaining the type of individuals and entrepreneurs here that then spin off other ventures, other products, and other companies. So when you get that cycle going, it is the same model that has seen so much success in places like Silicon Valley.

  • Matthew: What is the greatest challenge in growing the investment of people-based talent in the state?

I’d say making sure that our entire economic development ecosystem has a unified game plan. For the most part, we should be moving in the same direction, from the very top down to the local level through Chambers of Commerce. That doesn’t mean all areas of the state are going to be trying to do the same exact things, but its a cluster approach that strategically moves us all to a targeted goal. That’s what we’re starting to see now. So it’s extremely encouraging.