BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – World class research institutions, along with a skilled workforce, strong financial community and engaged business leadership are among the assets that make the Birmingham region fertile ground for innovation and technology.
The sector’s rich landscape here is being celebrated this week, with various forums, open houses and panel discussions that feature entrepreneurs, investors, inventors and supporters.
Birmingham Innovation Week kicked off last Friday and will continue to this weekend, with a full slate of events planned. (See a complete schedule here)
According to the Birmingham Business Alliance, the metro area is home to more than 700 technology-based companies and $2 billion in innovation capital. It’s also in the top 5 percent of I.T. sectors and innovation cities in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the area’s bioscience technology resources include more than $500 million in annual R&D expenditures at its major research centers, more than 1,400 active clinical trials and one of the largest U.S. academic medical centers in the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“Birmingham is a place where people want to be, not a place where people have to be to pursue a career,” said Jon Nugent, a technology executive with more than 20 years of experience who joined the BBA in July as vice president of innovation and technology.
RAISING THE PROFILE
In his new role, Nugent said he wants to focus on increasing the visibility of the physical and intellectual assets the region already has. Those include UAB; Southern Research, a non-profit research organization marking its 75th year; and the Innovation Depot business incubator, as well as all of the great work being done at the facilities.
“We already have internationally recognized research,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity because there are so many interested parties in helping to move innovation forward.”
People who are making a difference in the field, Nugent said, include Will Wright, founder and CEO of Pack Health, a Birmingham-based company that’s streamlining healthcare for those who are overwhelmed by chronic disease and reversing escalating costs by changing patient behavior.
The company offers coaching, support and navigation of the complexities of the healthcare system through dedicated health advisors who regularly check in with patients. In doing so, they leverage a lot of technology, through texts, videos, software and other tools that enhance the set-up and reach people where they are.
“We’re helping them improve the value of each dollar they spend, making sure they take their medication, have access to it and get to the right doctors,” Wright said. “We hire and train folks who are the single point of contact for these individuals, which helps build trust.”
Birmingham has been a good fit for Pack Health for several reasons, he added. The company started in Innovation Depot, which has had a $1.4 billion economic impact since 2010.
“From an entrepreneurial standpoint, this is a place where there is a lot of activity and interest. We’ve gotten a lot of support from key community leaders, who are dedicated to seeing the entrepreneurial scene grow,” he said. “We have since moved out of Innovation Depot and bought a building relatively affordably. There’s room to run here, and that’s important.”
Pack Health also has access to some of the leading clinicians in the world, and it’s been relatively easy to reach out to them, Wright said.
“We work a lot with UAB folks, and there’s a real receptivity to something that’s built here, grown here and addressing a problem for the state,” he said.
Another innovator to watch in the region, Nugent said, is Tanveer Patel, who has been involved in a number of startups and also is an outspoken advocate for the Birmingham tech sector.
Her current venture is ConcertCare, a medical technology company that is growing locally and globally. The firm develops technology solutions to help streamline and automate the tedious tasks involved in practice management, so doctors can focus on patient care.
“Not only is she moving her company forward, but through the other initiatives she’s part of, she’s helping to move a number of companies forward,” Nugent said.
Last year, Upstart Business Journal named Patel among its top 100 entrepreneurs in the U.S.
Patel said the startup culture in Birmingham is gaining huge momentum and called the region a “hidden gem in the Southeast for startups.”
In addition, healthcare is thriving here, there’s a friendly business community and the cost of living and doing business makes it viable and feasible.
Nugent spent the last five years at UAB, where he led the development and direct marketing plan for graduate programs, including biotechnology, which led to enrollment increases.
In his new role with the BBA, he also wants to look at the need for additional seed stage capital, or early stage funding for technology projects.
“We’ve got a very good angel investing network, and we’ve got very good institutional investment and venture funds, with people like Harbert Management Co. taking the lead,” he said. “We’re extremely lucky to have them here, and I’m looking forward to working with a lot of the investors here to look at other ways to improve access to revenue capital.”
Nugent’s experience at UAB involved a lot of relationship building between the university and medical schools, two-year colleges and other institutions, and he said he looks forward to applying those skills to working with companies, investors and other parties involved in Birmingham’s innovation sector.
“To be able to help these small companies move ahead and move to the next level will be key to helping build the industry here,” he said. “We’re at an interesting time, at the intersection of innovation and economic development and capital investment, and I’m looking forward to bringing those resources together in a productive way.”