WCU awarded economic development grant

In an effort to create jobs and stimulate economic growth in an area with unemployment higher than the state average, Western Carolina University has been awarded an economic development grant of $128,592 annually for the next five years for a total of just under $650,000.

The grant, awarded through the U.S. Economic Development Agency (EDA) and the U.S. Department of Commerce, aims to “…develop critical skill sets among students and support the regional and state economy through product development and entrepreneurship,” said U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler in an article for The Asheville Citizen-Times.

The grant was awarded competitively, meaning that in a list of proposals for possible grant recipients, the WCU economic development project was given priority. This signifies Western Carolina’s status as a regional business leadership hub and an outlet for future economic growth in a vital area.

The bulk of the grant will be used to further the operational effectiveness of the EDA University Center for Rapid Product Realization, located inside the Belk Building.

The EDA University Center for Rapid Product Realization works to boost job growth for existing and emerging businesses and enterprises throughout Western North Carolina.

In collaboration with the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, headed by Zahed Subhan, an assistant professor in WCU’s Entrepreneurship program, the grant money will be used to “advance both product development and entrepreneurship for the benefit of the community, particularly in Western North Carolina,” said Subhan.

An immense amount of research and effort is required in order for an entrepreneur to fully understand and succeed in the market he or she attempts to enter, especially when introducing a new product or service.

Subhan pointed out that an entrepreneur must ask him or herself what will they sell, who their ideal customers will be, who will sell the product, how will it be promoted, financed, produced and what the terms of each of those will be.

Given all that an entrepreneur has to consider when planning his or her business decisions, and the various pitfalls and “mousetraps” they may fall into, it is important that expert, trustworthy business counsel and informative market analysis be at the ready.

Subhan said that to ease this process and to make Western North Carolina more enticing for businesses and entrepreneurs, this sort of research and regional business perspective should be available to any and all local entrepreneurs.

“This grant funded initiative… enables local entrepreneurs to avail themselves of business counsel and expertise from successful entrepreneurs that will work alongside to ensure that this degree of introspection, analysis and planning is achieved from early concept development all the way to ultimate product commercialization,” said Subhan.

Interim dean for the Kimmel School of Engineering and Technology Dr. James Zhang said part of the grant money will be used to hire graduate and undergraduate students from engineering, technology and business disciplines in order to provide students local jobs and carry out identified projects.

The new projects will be supported “by using faculty/student teams … selected based on the nature of the project,” said Zhang.

Dr. Patrick Gardner, director for the Center for Rapid Product Realization at the Kimmel School, will serve as principle investigator for the grant and will lead much of the efforts of the EDA University Center.

Zhang called the selection process for the grant “very competitive” and said the university did not know of the award until the official notification went out on June 29. The Kimmel School, the Small Business and Technology Development Center and the College of Business will reap the primary benefits of the funding.

In a press release from July 6, Rep. Shuler (D-Waynesville) heralded the grant as an investment that “exemplifies the value of public-private partnerships.”

Rep. Shuler went on to say that as a tool for stimulating local growth, the grant “produces a strong return on investment and we are fortunate to have this program right here at home.”

When reached for comment, his office stated they support the grant application and the initiative.