If you believe all of the most innovative business development in Georgia happens in the Atlanta metropolitan area, Dr. Dominique Halaby would like to have a word with you. Dr. Halaby is the Director of the Business Innovation Group (BIG) at Georgia Southern University, and he has spent the past several years developing programs that provide entrepreneurs and small business owners throughout the region with access to the wide array of skills, knowledge, and high-end business services that GSU has to offer. These sorts of programs were once the exclusive domain of much larger universities surrounded by much larger local economies, but no longer.
When Dr. Halaby arrived in Statesboro in 2014, the need for – and viability of – such a program tailored to the needs of South Georgia was abundantly clear. “This entire region has enormous potential from my perspective and from the university’s perspective,” said Halaby. “We feel we have the ability to be more transformative in the way people here think about economic development, the way they think about entrepreneurship and economic gardening. Local leadership was onboard from the very beginning.”
The vision is to connect startups with industry and faculty experts to help those businesses reach the next stage of their development while providing students with real-world experience in starting a business. Imagine a small business being interested in conducting research into the potential market demand for a widget they make. They could, for example, hire a professor with expertise in that field to design and implement the research with the help of students during an upcoming school session. If that research proves favorable for taking that widget to market, the company can also hire GSU students to develop marketing materials in support of that effort. GSU’s BIG model offers many of those services to participating companies at either fair market rates, at a discount, or even free depending on the task.
One of the first endeavors undertaken by BIG was in response to a very pressing local concern: how the university could attract more students to downtown Statesboro. GSU already had an underperforming bookstore there with a research unit in the back, but there was no synergy between downtown and campus. So Dr. Halaby and his team put a proposal together that made sense both for students and the city. The first phase of the plan called for consolidation, so they moved the Small Business Development Center, the Center for Entrepreneurial Learning & Leadership, and the Business Research Unit, and colocated them in that single downtown space. Immediately, people interested in starting or growing their business understood where to go for assistance and support from the university, faculty, and students.
That was just the beginning of GSU’s commitment to downtown Statesboro. Armed with a $1.1 million federal grant for renovations and improvements, BIG then partnered with Statesboro’s Downtown Development Authority to acquire that space, plus one other, to create an incubation space for startup businesses. It’s called the Innovation Center and it’s equipped with all the office infrastructure a startup company would need to get off the ground. An adjacent space, called the Fab Lab – short for Fabrication Laboratory – gave participating entrepreneurs convenient access to leading-edge equipment including 3D printers and a variety of metal- and woodworking tools for rapid prototyping. Together they form a seamless interface between the community’s future business leaders and GSU’s faculty and students.
In Phase 2 of the program, BIG and the Downtown Development Authority acquired a third property to provide office suites for participating businesses to accommodate staff while they grow. The site also had enough space to create a miniature civic center to host events and programs centered around job creation, business growth, and workforce development in a downtown setting that tells the world that Statesboro is a great place to do business.
Tightening the bonds between GSU and the city of Statesboro is just one of BIG’s many goals. Another is the creation of an interwoven ecosystem of economic development programs located in communities throughout the region, and well beyond the campus of GSU. In December of 2020, the Georgia Department of Agriculture, BIG, and the city of Metter, Georgia opened the 7,000 square foot Georgia Grown Innovation Center to showcase local agribusiness efforts and support agribusiness owners by providing advisory and administrative support services as well as access to first-class facilities with office and meeting spaces.
Another BIG project follows this same business incubator model. This time in Hinesville, Georgia. In 2018, GSU and the City of Hinesville Development Authority were awarded a $750,000 grant from the United States Department of Commerce to fund the program. The focus of this business incubator is to help entrepreneurs who want to start businesses that service military facilities in South Georgia, including nearby Fort Stewart, Hunter Army Airfield, and Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base.
The ultimate goal for Dr. Halaby and Georgia Southern University’s Business Innovation Group is to expand the incubator model to include a wide variety of specialties in locations all over Georgia that can share expertise between centers. In doing so, the entire state of Georgia – not just the Atlanta MSA – becomes a rich breeding ground of economic success. That success will only raise the stature of the university, and enhance the university experience for students while preparing them well for their futures. All in all, those are BIG accomplishments worthy of praise, and Georgia Power is proud to support it.