Q&A: Kirksville innovation center director talks budget cuts, rural entrepreneurs

Under recent budget cuts, the Missouri Rural Enterprise and Innovation Center will face challenges reaching about half of its clients in northeast Missouri, according to Carolyn Chrisman, executive director of the Kirksville-based center.

The center is funded by the Missouri Technology Corporation, which has experienced dramatic cuts in state funding. For fiscal 2018, which ended June 30, the MTC had its state funding slashed by more than 80 percent. For the current fiscal year, the state plans an additional 10 percent reduction in MTC funding, to $2.25 million.

That has led to fewer resources for the MTC’s nine innovation centers. The Kirksville center’s funding has been reduced significantly.

For fiscal 2018, Chrisman said, the center endured a cut of almost 50 percent, which has prompted it to seek other partners and adjust staff time. Chrisman said she expects a decrease of at least another 10 percent this year.

The cuts have largely impacted the center’s ability to reach the entrepreneurs it serves outside the Kirksville area, Chrisman said. About half of the center’s clients are located in other counties.

Many of the businesses the center serves are agriculture-based. Chrisman said the center has clients in fields such as plant genetics, animal genetics and applied engineering. It has served Truman State University students who approach the innovation center with business ideas.

An abbreviated version of Missouri Business Alert’s conversation with Chrisman was featured in an episode our entrepreneurship podcast, Speaking Startup. Audio of an extended cut of the conversation is available through the player embedded above.

Topics covered with Chrisman included:

The evolution of entrepreneurship in the Kirksville area

“I want to say that it’s probably been there all along. Anytime that you’re on a farm and you’re involved in agriculture you have to be innovative. … So some of it is just us discovering that, being able to offer support for those good ideas, and being able to get them out there to others. … Because if one farmer’s experiencing a problem, you know that more are going to experience it as well.”

“As the younger people come in … there is just more of an entrepreneurial bent to those folks. And a lot of them it is technology-related.”

The innovation center’s wide geographical reach

“A lot of the innovation going on is going to be around animals, agriculture and some of those things — and those people aren’t going to be right in the center of Kirksville or necessarily attached to a university.”

Serving in many roles

“In rural communities, you have to. You can specialize up to a point, but you really have to be a generalist in a lot of ways. And that’s why it’s nice to have a network, which MTC provides with all the innovation centers. Because Kansas City, Columbia, Springfield, St. Louis — all of those places — they’re able to really specialize. And so that allows us to, in some ways, be a pipeline for them, but also to reach out to them for assistance.”

Impacts of budget cuts

“Our ability to travel and get out to our clients is going to be severely affected by a lack of funding for the mileage and for being able to do that.”

“We can do a lot of things maybe over the phone, via email, or via Zoom or some other media. But sometimes that’s tough with some of our clients. You get out into the rural areas where they don’t have the broadband that they need, and so there’s a lot of buffering, and so some of those communication tools… we can’t always use them.”

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