The Rio Grande Valley is a complex network of interconnected communities bound by culture, geography and economics. At times in its history and into the present, the region sometimes struggles to overcome territorial squabbles to work together for the common good.
With the merger of campuses into the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the concept of a regional university represents another step in uniting the border region. And a recent development shows that commitment in terms of promoting economic development Valleywide.
“An entrepreneurial ecosystem, that’s what we are trying to build,” said Laurie Simmons, manager of UTRGV’s Center for Innovation and Commercialization in Weslaco. “We have a lot of the pieces but what we are trying to do is create a stronger ecosystem. This is all about economic development and changing the region’s approach to economic development.”
Created as a partnership between UTRGV, the City of Weslaco and its Economic Development Corporation, the center is housed in space adjacent to the Weslaco EDC that was designed and built out specifically for the center. The renovation is complete and staff is getting settled in at the 22,000-square-foot complex that also houses the university’s Robert C. Vackar College of Business and Entrepreneurship doctorate program.
The city of Weslaco built an apartment complex for the graduate students within walking distance of the center “to create a live-and-learn type of environment,” Simmons said. Forty students are enrolled in the PhD program this semester and will work with entrepreneurs to help develop their ideas and business plans.
The Weslaco center has merged with a similar center in Brownsville “to leverage each other’s assets to create one united center to share the mission to be able to help create new business enterprises,” Simmons said. “If we are going to be a regional university, we need to act like a regional university.”
The CIC will provide co-working space for community and student members, conference rooms, classrooms, a maker space, incubation offices and suites, mentoring and other professional services to assist start-up entrepreneurs develop their vision into a successful business.
For example, the CIC has contracted for office space with an attorney, who will also help aspiring entrepreneurs navigate the complexities of creating a corporation or partnership, and assist with reviewing contracts. “This is a huge asset for us because many start-ups are wary of attorneys and this will allow them to engage with an attorney in a comfortable setting,” Simmons said.
A membership-based co-working space will be available to businesspeople who need a place to work, with a variety of options available, from an open area with individual work stations to private offices. “It’s perfect for a small company that works out of a home or garage, to have a professional place to go to,” Simmons said. Such workspaces are becoming more popular with some private firms like Venture X opening co-working spaces around the Valley. The CIC has had discussions with several such entities to explore ways to work together to provide business services. “We don’t want to compete with anybody, we want to collaborate with people.”
Simmons said historically the Valley has often promoted itself to business prospects as an inexpensive place to live and do business, but she would like to see that change. “I want the Valley to be known for a talented workforce and good wages. Why promote ourselves as something cheap?”
But at the end of the day, the CIC’s mission focuses on fostering homegrown economic development, becoming the nexus of the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem and developing the next generation of entrepreneurs. “In addition to engaging with and providing much needed resources for entrepreneurs, we also provide opportunities for students to be involved in new venture creation,” Simmons said. “We want the dollars to stay in the Rio Grande Valley. We want to be creating products that are being shipped out of the Valley but the money is staying here.”