WVU working to help boost state’s economy

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University is using its R1 research university status to come up with ideas that can help grow the state’s economy and support entrepreneurs.

Economic research was a topic of the WVU Academic Media Day Monday. WVU is the state’s only R1 university, a classification by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education that denotes the number of doctorates and the amount spent by WVU in research expenditures.

Members of the media from around the state heard presentations on how the arts can help spur population growth, the need for cybersecurity experts in West Virginia, retaining college graduates in the state and more.

Javier Reyes, Milan Puskar Dean of the John C. Chambers College of Business and Economics, talked to attendees about Start-Up West Virginia, where Reyes also serves as vice president. Start-Up West Virginia is part of the financial gift from John Chambers, the former CEO of Cisco System. The business school at WVU was renamed after Chambers last year.

“We’re going to talk a little bit about what we’re trying to do with innovation economy,” Reyes said. “How do we use resources from WVU to actually activate the innovation economy across the state in West Virginia and not just stay within our region? What does it mean to become a start-up state?”

Start-Up West Virginia’s goals include partnering with state government, such as the Department of Commerce and the Secretary of State’s Office, to develop economic development plans and create a quick-reaction team to assist planners. The program also will work to grow entrepreneurs and focus on growing regionally focused businesses, as well as develop what it calls “high-growth disruptive technologies.”

Reyes sees several regional economic activities that need more promotion, such as the aviation industry in North Central West Virginia, the Proctor & Gamble manufacturing facility in the Eastern Panhandle, the automotive industry in Putnam and Wood counties and the petrochemical industry developing around places with high natural gas production. Reyes calls these clusters, and these clusters could be expanded outward to surrounding counties.

“We need to understand what is the road map to do it and we need to put resources at (government’s) disposal so that they can try to understand what policies are we going to have, what support will have to come from the economic development office, and how are we going to coordinate with other development agencies at the federal level.”

Heather Stephens, an assistant professor of resource economics and management at WVU, spoke Monday afternoon about her research into entrepreneurship and economic growth in Appalachia.

In a 2011 research paper written with Mark Partridge and Alessandra Faggian at Ohio State University, Stephens found that despite the low level of human capital and high poverty in Appalachia, wage and salary jobs often increased in these counties due to entrepreneurs starting new businesses. A 1 percent increase in self-employment share in 1990 saw wage and salary employment between 1990 and 2007 increase by 10 percent.

“There is evidence that having more entrepreneurs or more self-employed does matter,” Stephens said. “I think that we can say that there definitely is a positive effect from it. But the new research that I’m starting to work on more will try to help us get into the details of it.”

Since 2011, Stephens has continued her research at WVU looking more closely at why the state’s labor force participation rate is so low compared to similarly rural states.

In 2017, the U.S. average was 63 percent while West Virginia was only at 53 percent.

“There’s something that’s keeping people out of the labor force, and this needs to be explored further,” Stephens said. “But the other thing we find…is that there appears to be a link between higher labor force participation rate and future economic growth. We do need to find a way to deal with this because it could be one of the critical missing pieces for future economic prosperity.”

Last week, WVU debuted its Vantage Ventures program, a business incubator on the campus teaming up experts, mentors, investors and more than 15 companies to help entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground. The idea for Vantage Venture grew from a meeting between Chambers and lawmakers in Palo Alto, Calif.

Sarah Biller, executive director for Vantage Ventures, said the program will work with entrepreneurs from the first idea though the planning stages all the way to how to scale the new business.

“We find that entrepreneurship…is a key driver of outcomes,” Biller said. “We think it is a tremendous tool for retention of those bright minds.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)