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Mobile’s Innovation PortAL to create ‘entrepreneurial ecosystem’ in heart of downtown

A projected $4 million investment sits poised to propel the rebirth of downtown Mobile’s St. Louis Street corridor, while cultivating innovative, financially viable businesses and positioning the Port City as the Gulf Coast’s entrepreneurial hub.

Lynne Chronister, the University of South Alabama’s vice president of research and economic development, unveiled informal plans Wednesday for Innovation PortAL, a long-discussed technology-centered – but not exclusive – incubator and accelerator to be housed along the city’s former Automobile Alley.

“When we applied for the (U.S. Department of Commerce’s Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership) designation, one of our primary focuses was in workforce development, but another aspect we looked at was innovation. Because Mobile was a traditional manufacturing community, we hadn’t focused (historically) on building an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” she said.

Innovation PortAL – expected to build on the region’s manufacturing base, focusing on collaboration between local industry, innovative manufacturers, and regional entrepreneurs – was conceived, designed and developed by the leadership of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, the city and county of Mobile, USA and a group of young leaders representing the FUSE Project.

Chronister’s comments came during the “Advancing Southwest Alabama” briefing delivered to Jay Williams, administrator of the Economic Development Administration and assistant secretary of commerce for economic development. Spearheaded by USA, the coalition represents impact partners from across Mobile, Baldwin, Washington, Clarke, Escambia, Choctaw, Conecuh and Monroe counties who are working collaboratively to leverage the “Manufacturing Community” designation to boost economic development activity across the eight-county region.

The need – and industrial support – for a city center incubator has become a familiar refrain in recent years, but earning the federal IMCP designation helped shift discussions toward action, Chronister said.

“The goal is to create entrepreneurial energy, collaboration and innovation. We really hope to make St. Louis Street an exciting place,” said Hayley Van Antwerp, slated to become the Innovation Portal’s executive director in a few weeks.

She said the overriding hope is to contribute to the St. Louis Street corridor’s revitalization while boosting pedestrian activity.

“What’s unique about downtown Mobile, and especially about the tech corridor, is that it has this great culture and phenomenal cost of living. It’s very efficient for startups to locate here because the dollar goes a lot further than, say, in San Francisco, and we’re ready to embrace the entrepreneurs,” she said.

The specs

Van Antwerp said the soon-to-be-acquired property will take up an entire city block, offering ample room for expansion as demand increases. Initial plans, however, call for occupation of only about 3,000 square feet of the total 40,000-square-foot structure.

“We hope to begin providing incubation services in late spring,” she said, noting initial tenants will be housed in an off-site “exciting collaborative space until our building is complete.”

The early 20th-century warehouse offers a tremendous amount of charm and character, Van Antwerp said.

The engineering and design phase of construction is set to begin immediately following closing on the building, and renovations are expected to take between nine and 12 months.

The goal, she said, is for Innovation PortAL to be self-sustaining within five years. In fact, according to the nonprofit incubator’s preliminary business plan, Innovation PortAL aims by the close of its fifth year in operation to have helped create 500 local jobs, served at least 350 entrepreneurs through various programs and contributed an estimated $5 million in economic impact to the local economy through salaries, investment and capital.

“The tricky thing with incubation and acceleration is that it usually takes 3-10 years for the return on investment to be realized, whether through tax revenue or jobs capitalization, so it truly is an investment in the future at this point,” Van Antwerp said.

Collaboration will be the linchpin in the project’s success, and nearly three dozen institutions, agencies and support networks all aimed at encouraging small business development and entrepreneurship have already been identified as potential partners.

“We’re talking about creating something here that is truly regional that serves everyone along the (Interstate)-10 corridor from east of New Orleans to Pensacola and north on (I-)65,” she said.

Target tenants?

Van Antwerp concedes the ongoing St. Louis Street transformation has long been discussed as the birthplace for a high-tech corridor, and Innovation PortAL aims to become a centerpiece for that renaissance.

Although she called the space a “mixed-use” incubator where all comers – within reason and specifications – are welcome, the facility will purposefully target entrepreneurs focused on innovation in the areas of advanced manufacturing, technology solutions, aviation and shipbuilding and biomedical development.

Prospective Innovation PortAL tenants will be required to complete an online application and must include business, marketing and sales plans. All candidate material will then be reviewed to ensure the new business is a logistical, physical and cultural fit for the facility. The final step in the application process is a candidate business pitch to the incubator’s executive director and representatives from the governing board.

Van Antwerp said both USA and Airbus are already in discussions to become anchor tenants, meaning they will be available to offer on-site guidance and troubleshooting for the new ventures recruited.

In addition to typical incubation tenants, Innovation PortAL plans to offer industry partners the ability to have a dedicated “Biz Lab,” intended to “generate and accelerate new technologies in an ‘open innovation’ environment that will allow a free flow of ideas from teams of bright engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs. The Biz Lab could offer industry participants dedicated space, infrastructure, resources, and networking opportunities to develop their own local R&D capacity,” Van Antwerp wrote in the preliminary business plan.

This second-phase – and for-profit – accelerator component of the facility will include “access to capital via angel investor networks and other local and national investors,” she wrote.

February 26, 2016

By Kelli M. Dugan

Small Business

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