Growing Businesses from the Ground Up

The Millaway Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Business Innovation Center assists budding entrepreneurs in moving from ideas to action

Bay County knows about innovation. The existence of not just one, but two established entrepreneur programs in this relatively small economic area is testament to the fact that entrepreneurship is something that runs deep in this coastal community.

Crook Stewart III, a tour manager who has worked for bands including Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Rolling Stones, conducts a workshop on entrepreneurial skills for musicians. Stewart got his start as a fabricator of large speakers.
Courtesy of Gulf Coast State College

Economic development follows many paths, but the commitment to growing prosperity specifically by investing in a grass-roots business-planting program is generally the realm of entrepreneurship programs. The basic premise is that investing in people who are already members of the community and helping them grow their ideas into profitable organizations leads to a deeply rooted and valuable member of the local business sector. Homegrown is most likely to result in corporate responsibility, local sourcing and investment.

The Millaway Institute for Entrepreneurship (MIE) describes itself as a commercial and social accelerator that supports the community of innovators and aspiring entrepreneurs. This includes engaging students, faculty, staff and outside stakeholders as they find ways to innovate and transform ideas into commercially viable products, services and companies.

Gulf Coast State College is the parent organization for the institute. The MIE grew out of Gulf Coast’s Advanced Technology Center, which is designed to bring together the best minds in government, academia, business, the nonprofit world and education to create synergy in innovation.

Embedded in the Advanced Technology Center philosophy was always the spirit of entrepreneurialism, according to Steve Dunnivant, the executive director of the Millaway Institute and associate dean of program development for Gulf Coast State College.

Founded by a gift to the college, the MIE was established to create and nurture the “entrepreneurial ecosystem” that includes chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, educational institutions, veterans groups, laboratories and more.

The MIE works with various groups in the area on growing entrepreneurship locally. The Business Innovation Center at Florida State University — Panama City and the Small Business Development Council in Bay County are two of its most prominent partnerships. Through these strategic alliances, the institute helps students and entrepreneurs in the area find the tools and information they need to launch an idea from napkin to fabrication.

In all, the MIE has supported 48 entrepreneurs in all stages of prototyping and business development.

This is especially important, Dunnivant notes, because upwards of 50 percent of people in the Florida Panhandle are employed by small businesses or entrepreneurs. These are either service industries (such as medical) or manufacturers of commercially available products.

The fact that the small-business and entrepreneur economy hits so close to home in Bay County is why Gulf Coast State College invested in the philosophy instead of avenues more traditional for academia.

Dunnivant points out that economic development for colleges is not an obvious area of concern. Most colleges are looking for transfer students — that’s their currency in the academic world — and the more students they can push up to the degree level, the better for their CV.

Alternatively, many colleges have turned to workforce development, such as two-year degree and certificate programs. But Dunnivant sees the third rail of economic development for colleges in entrepreneur programs, where benefits go straight to the economy. Once a product is past testing and on the market, money is immediately pumped back into home base.

“Entrepreneurs come from all walks of life.  Some have college degrees while others don’t have anything after high school,” he says. “You just need guts and a whole lot of mentoring to navigate the pitfalls.”  


The MIE seeks to connect those dots — being the hub for the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Bay County area. Gulf Coast State College gathers municipal government, colleges, economic development organizations, chambers of commerce and the like to help entrepreneurs get the tools they need immediately.

From a Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) chapter for one-on-one mentoring to the Business Innovation Center for business incubation, to the Tech Farm and Fab Labs for development, the MIE has something for an entrepreneur at any stage in his or her journey.

Gulf Coast State College also offers a certificate and an associate degree in entrepreneurship, which can help launch an idea for someone in high school or college.

“Boots to Business,” meanwhile, is a model for veterans at the college that is nationally recognized by the Veterans Business Outreach Center and funded through the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Kurt Morris, an engineering technologist, leads students in Franklin County in electronics experiments as part of a K-12 student outreach program undertaken by Gulf Coast State College.
Courtesy of Gulf Coast State College

The MIE is funded through the college and therefore the Florida College System and the Florida Legislature. It benefits from a variety of grants, but the most innovative funding source is the PLEDGE model, which is still in its pilot phase. This five-year agreement with each entrepreneur in the MIE program promises a percentage gift back to the school for scholarships to other fledgling innovators. 

In just a year and a half, the MIE has helped create 13 businesses under the model, ranging from one to five employees. Currently, there are 26 products from individual entrepreneurs who are in the PLEDGE model — from plumbing to IT and robotics, and mining safety.

Dunnivant believes that these entrepreneurs will give back to the ecosystem that grew them.

“It doesn’t work without a commitment to the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he explains. “We are trying to create the ideal citizen who is informed, educated and has all the skills needed to perform in a moving economic landscape.” 

Included in this ecosystem — but differentiated in important ways — is the Business Innovation Center.

The connection to FSU is little more than free office space, but the name recognition certainly doesn’t hurt.

The Business Innovation Center is a true small-business incubator that began in Lynn Haven in 1992 and moved to the FSU Panama City campus in fall 2013.

Today, the Business Innovation Center works with stakeholders in every part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Northwest Florida — from the Small Business Administration to the Small Business Development Center, FSU, Gulf Coast State College, the MIE and more.

The main mission for the Business Innovation Center is to take businesspeople at any stage — from simple idea to existing business — and connect them to the next link they need for success. During an initial “discovery meeting,” Executive Director Pamela Kidwell and her staff talk through the needs and strategy of the client.

“We make a concerted effort to leave folks with a next step forward,” Kidwell says. “We don’t want to just give them a number to call.”

Perhaps the next step is a business plan or a patent … or maybe they need office space or a prototype. The Business Innovation Center seeks to connect the dots for a business owner and link him or her to the available resources in the Bay County area.

The center works with startup companies forming around a new idea; foothold companies looking to expand into Bay County; and expansion organizations that want to grow into the area. The only stipulations are that they must meet federal guidelines for a “small business” (250 employees or fewer), and have a willingness to learn, accept coaching and grow.

In its first few months after reopening, the Business Innovation Center was already full. Over the past year, it has turned down 10 companies that wanted space only (rent is quite reasonable). And a few business sectors simply don’t fit well with the services that the center offers. Retail, restaurants and nonprofits are on that list.

The Business Innovation Center offers plenty of resources for its participants, including office space and equipment, administrative capabilities, mentoring and consulting. Businesses sign on for 12- to 18-month contracts and must be “graduated” from the program within 36 months.

The center utilizes a fee-based structure for its incubator services, ranging from $50 to $250 per month. Three full-time staff members and seven interns (graduate and undergraduate) work at the center. Companies also hire students as interns, both paid and unpaid. This synergy between academia and business is what sets the Business Innovation Center apart. Access to the latest thinking and research on what makes business successful, as well as on-demand resources for administrative tasks, allow companies to focus on their business itself — and that’s the beauty of the small-business incubator.

Perhaps the best example of the center’s success is recent graduate Jellyfish Health. In just nine months, the company hired 16 private engineers in high paying jobs to work on its product. 

“Being part of the economic engine is phenomenal,” Kidwell says. “There’s something new every day. You never know what idea will come through the door, and how far you can take them.”

For these entrepreneur mentors in Bay County, there’s nothing more exciting than that.