MOBILE, Alabama — Alabama’s Port City is known around the world for building big ships and jets, but it’s also home to people who create systems, software and other innovative solutions that power industry.
The Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce has been increasing its focus on the region’s tech sector, with efforts to support start-ups and entrepreneurs, including a new downtown incubator and a business pitch competition.
A contingent of local leaders also toured several tech incubators in London while they were there for the Farnborough International Airshow last summer. The experience offered valuable insight on spurring tech sector growth, said Bill Sisson, the chamber’s president and CEO.
With aerospace giant Airbus and shipbuilder Austal, along with major steel processing and chemical manufacturing operations dotting the industrial landscape, Mobile has a successful track record in large-scale economic development projects.
“We have had a lot of advanced manufacturing growth in this area, and we wanted to renew the focus on the fact that we do have a strong tech sector as well and we can foster more growth in that,” Sisson said.
The area has a significant cluster of tech companies, including software firms CPSI, SSI and Rural Sourcing Inc. There’s also Southern Light, a fiber optics infrastructure service provider, Centralite, maker of automation products, and system and printer manufacturer Xanté.
More activity in the sector, particularly new opportunities for start-ups, also will encourage growth among small businesses and minority-owned businesses, both top priorities for the chamber, Sisson said.
“Over 93 percent of our membership is classified as small business, and we want to do whatever we can to foster that growth,” he said.
In September, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration awarded the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation a $2.9 million grant to renovate a building on St. Louis Street in downtown Mobile that will house the new incubator, called Innovation PortAL.
The project, expected to be complete in 18 to 24 months, got another boost last month, when the organization closed on the building.
Hayley Van Antwerp, executive director of Innovation PortAL, said it’s an exciting time for entrepreneurship and innovation in Mobile.
The goal for the start-ups that will be a part of the incubator is to graduate from the program, lay down their roots in the region and grow their companies.
“We want to make sure they have the tools they need to be successful: a well thought out business plan, access to the right capital at the right time, an excellent pitch for investors and a marketing strategy,” she said.
The inaugural program kicked off with five clients who are participating in a fast-track version of it. The group is meeting at a downtown Mobile co-working space, Exchange 202, until Innovation PortAL is complete.
“We’re super excited. We’re starting small, because we’re a start-up ourselves. This will be a chance to test curriculum with clients and test the relationships we’ve set up with them,” Van Antwerp said.
Meanwhile, the chamber also recently sponsored a business pitch event that drew 75 competitors, including high school students, young college graduates, veterans and retirees.
Startup Weekend, part of the Techstars program and powered by Google for Entrepreneurs, has held nearly 3,000 similar events in 150 countries.
The Mobile event, held in August, exceeded expectations, as the teams competed for free legal support, web design, office space and other prizes.
“It was a wonderful mix of people and a wild success that we didn’t anticipate,” Van Antwerp said. “It illustrated that there is a lot of pent-up demand in this market, and entrepreneurs are excited to have these resources to support them.”
Van Antwerp said she has benefited from advice on accelerating tech sector growth in Mobile from Devon Laney, president and CEO the of Birmingham tech incubator Innovation Depot, as well as Lisa McGinty, executive director for entrepreneurial development and acceleration for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce.
For Southern Light, a tech company which has flourished in Mobile, the first offices were in the Business Innovation Center on Azalea Road. The facility provided basic support in the form of subsidized rent and limited back office assistance, said CEO Andy Newton.
Current models are true accelerators, he continued, providing networking, business mentoring, legal services, accounting, and other back office resources to aggressive start-ups in order to empower them to succeed.
“Choosing Mobile as our headquarters was an easy decision because it’s our hometown and we saw opportunity in mid-sized markets,” Newton said. “At the time, long-haul (long distance) fiber carriers were deploying fiber infrastructure between Tier 1 cities. Southern Light focused on essentially building the off-ramps from long-haul networks and providing connections to local buildings and sites.”
Demand continued to grow as Southern Light brought fiber to mid-market cities and provided big-city bandwidth in the early 2000’s. The company’s growth was fueled by government entities, school systems, and wireless carriers who were hungry for the reliability and bandwidth that Southern Light provided.
Newton said the region’s goals of growing the tech sector are becoming reality.
“Mobile’s vision of creating an inviting atmosphere for tech companies is coming to fruition rapidly,” he said. “Our co-working spaces, the Innovation PortAL, availability of start-up capital, and the easy access to fiber networks are creating an environment that is extremely attractive to technology start-ups.”
And for those start-ups, Newton offers a little advice.
“Work very hard, hire an intelligent and diverse workforce, make work fun, and keep in mind that you are laying a foundation for a culture and company that will expand far beyond you,” he said.