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DED recognizes Innovate SOMO on statewide tour

ARPA provided $3.5 million in grants to regional network

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State officials were at the Efactory on June 27 to recognize Innovate SOMO, a regional network created last year to boost the tech workforce in southern Missouri.

Representatives with the Missouri Department of Economic Development visited Missouri State University’s business incubator as part of its 12-stop Helping Missouri Prosper Tour highlighting projects funded by the American Rescue Plan. Innovate SOMO, aka the Southern Missouri Innovation Network, was the beneficiary of two grants from the DED this year totaling roughly $3.5 million funded via ARPA.

Cape Girardeau-based technology incubator Codefi Foundation on Rural Innovation, which is partnering on the network with the Efactory, received a $1.5 million grant in January through the DED’s workforce training grant program, followed in March by nearly $2.1 million in grant funding for small-business support. The ARPA-funded grants designated for Innovate SOMO came a few months after the initiative was awarded a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.

Innovate SOMO is designed to assist entrepreneurs in 47 counties with software developer training and other programs, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

The DED’s nine ARPA grant programs have awarded a total of more than $500 million, according to Michelle Hataway, who was named in mid-June as acting director.

“When the DED received more than $500 million in federal dollars to assist Missouri’s economy, we went to work right away to make the most of this truly historic opportunity,” Hataway said. “Over the last year and a half, our federal initiatives team has worked hard to design and appoint programs that will have a meaningful impact for Missourians for years to come.”

Shad Burner, director of federal initiatives, said the DED has obligated about 92% of the ARPA funds.

“At the department, we really wanted to be forward thinking about how we could request to use some of those funds for community and economic development projects that would help move communities in our state forward,” he said. “We’ve been working really hard to get those funds out to identified projects like this around the entire state to put the dollars to work.”

During its statewide tour in June, the DED visited other communities such as Columbia, which is using ARPA funds to develop new green space at Orr Street Park, and Independence, where nonprofit Mother’s Refuge is establishing housing for mothers experiencing homelessness, according to the state agency.

Codefi co-founder James Stapleton said Innovate SOMO has used grant funding to expand some of its programs, such as Code Labs for software developer training and Youth Coding League to introduce fifth through eighth graders to computer science and coding education. He said 45 people, including 12 in Springfield, graduated in June from the most recent Code Labs cohort.

The program, which is free to participants, is available to working adults as well as high school seniors with no prior technology experience or education.

“What we do every year is we finish one up, and then 60 days or so in advance of that we start taking applications,” he said, noting 160 people were admitted among multiple cohorts last year.

Some cohorts meet in person twice a week, while others are completely virtual, Stapleton said, adding face-to-face sessions are held in Springfield at the Efactory as well as in Joplin and Cape Girardeau. The next front-end development course in Springfield will begin in September, he said, and it will be followed in January with back-end development, including database and application programming interface work.

“We’re excited for their opportunities as some of them begin interviewing with other employers and others begin participating in our innovative apprenticeship program,” Stapleton said of the recent Code Labs graduates. “We’ve also added several dozen teams and schools in the region and have a waiting list for our fifth through eighth grade co-curricular Youth Coding [League] program that provides coding education to all students, regardless of where they live or their academic background.”

The league, which uses Google’s CS First curriculum and the Scratch programming language, is expected to have 36 teams across southwest Missouri involving nearly 450 students. Stapleton previously told SBJ the program launched last fall in Springfield and the Joplin area with 22 new teams, comprising 225 students. Roughly 120 of those were in the Queen City with most participating at Boys & Girls Clubs of Springfield Inc. sites as part of a partnership with the nonprofit. He said 150 students are expected to participate this fall in Springfield.

Codefi also is expanding its Springfield presence beyond office space in the Efactory, Stapleton said. Staff size will double to around 10, as the company waits to move half of the employees to the Brick City 3 building on MSU’s downtown campus.

“Efactory has some space in that building,” he said, declining to disclose costs. “We’ll have another office there because we’ve outgrown the space here. They’re finishing some Wi-Fi in the other facility, so in the first part of September we should be opening an office there.”

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