ST. GEORGE – A federal grant and matching donation totaling more than $1.75 million will support the ongoing transformation of the former East Elementary School into an entrepreneurial resource center with an aim to boost the regional economy.
See video in media player above featuring Kyle Wells, dean of Dixie State’s College of Business & Communication.
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration announced June 21 that it had awarded $876,000 to Dixie State’s Innovation Plaza project so it can purchase equipment and support networking activities for the facility’s launch. The grant was matched by a donation from Lindsay and Laura Atwood.
“Dixie State University has worked to pursue a strategy designed to create new economic opportunity through innovation,” Dennis Alvord, deputy assistant secretary for regional affairs for the Department of Commerce, said in a press release.
“This project will help allow for the expansion of locally-based enterprises by providing them with the tools they need to grow and thrive.”
The contributions will support the purchase of equipment for a 6,000-square-foot entrepreneurial makerspace and a 10,000-square-foot biotech, medical and environmental testing lab located in the Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center at Innovation Plaza, according to Dixie State University.
The additional resources provided through Innovation Plaza are anticipated to help create 260 jobs over the next nine years.
The research lab will host Soft Cell Biological Research, a company that works with Dixie State interns to conduct groundbreaking research to develop antibiotics to treat autoimmune diseases, according to a Dixie State officials. Soft Cell has gained international attention since becoming the first company of its kind to culture L-form bacteria.
“We started working with the (Economic Development Administration) about a year ago on this proposal,” said Kyle Wells, Dixie State’s dean of business and communication. “It’s not a unique concept. There are other areas in the country that do this type of concept, but it’s meant to be a hub for economic activity, especially for small and startup companies.”
The high-tech equipment funded by the grant, such as 3-D printers and woodworking equipment, will be available for community use, as Innovation Plaza will be open to all area residents.
Innovation Plaza is a part of an overall plan for Dixie State to help create a highly-skinned regional workforce, as well as help entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground.
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Featured in the video above is Don Willie, executive director of the Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center and regional director of the Utah Small Business Development Center.
Washington County, while growing, doesn’t have a diversified workforce, Wells said. Most of the jobs in the area are in health care, hospitality and construction. Due to the lack of a skilled and diversified workforce, the county is being left out of a huge section of the economy that includes technology and light manufacturing.
Dixie State officials also credit Sen. Orrin Hatch and Five County Association of Governments for their early involvement in helping the university get the grant.
“I commend Dixie State and Five County Association of Governments for bringing together bio tech start-ups and growing companies to develop this cutting-edge approach to supporting life sciences sector growth,” Hatch said in a statement. “I was honored to facilitate this great partnership with (Economic Development Administration) and to support bringing high paying jobs to Southwestern Utah.”
The grant required a 50-50 match, which is where the Atwoods came in.
“I bought in pretty heavily with the vision of (Dixie State President Richard Williams) for Innovation Plaza, and therefore our family has elected to fund the (Economic Development Administration) grant and match that grant for economic development, for entrepreneurialism and the benefit of the community,” said Lindsay Atwood, an area businessman and member of the university’s board of trustees.
Atwood also said he had helped form an entrepreneurial business class with Wells and others at the university that started with 11 students. The group has since named itself “Oceans 11” and now occupies one of the rooms at Innovation Plaza.
“It was an awesome experience,” Atwood said. “It’s a business we’re still moving forward and the students are involved in those businesses as option holders or actual stockholders with the company.”
One of those original students is Lilian White, who graduated from Dixie State last year.
“I’ve been really impressed,” White said of the Innovation Plaza concept. “I’m very impressed with the plans they have for this place and that they are going to open it to the community so anyone that has an idea can come here and make it come true with all these great people who know a lot more than we do.”
While speaking to St. George News, White showed off some of the projects the Oceans 11 group had been working on. Some of the projects, which have been patented, included an easier way to read a tape measure as well as a device that can generate electricity through a combination of wind and solar power.
“We’re developing things. We’re creating things. We’re testing things.” White said. “I feel like this experience is better than textbook information.”
Aiding entrepreneurs in their plans will be a branch of the Utah Small Business Resource Center.
“Not only can you come to Innovation Plaza and build a prototype of your product, you can meet with certified business professionals who can help you design a business plan, secure financing for your business, or coach you through whatever hurdles you’re facing as a small business owner,” said Don Willie, executive director of the Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center and regional director of the Utah Small Business Resource Center.
Currently located elsewhere on the Dixie State campus, the resource center will be moved to Innovation Plaza as renovations conclude.
Innovation Plaza will also house Ace Academy, a STEM magnet program for gifted and talented high school students sponsored by the Washington County School District, Dixie State and SUCCESS Academy.
“Innovation Plaza will have a tremendous impact on the economy of Southern Utah,” Willie said. “We’re excited to see what comes out of it.”
Wells said he anticipates Innovation Plaza opening in early 2019.
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