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Alabama Launchpad competition seeds startups with funding (with video and gallery)

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Over the past seven years, the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama Foundation has awarded more than $1 million to entrepreneurs through Alabama Launchpad, a competition designed to help their promising ideas blossom into full-fledged companies.

The competition brings together small teams from across the state to pitch early-stage startups to a panel of expert judges. The contest promotes and rewards high-growth, innovative startup companies by helping fledgling ventures in seed or early-growth state gain momentum.

In 2006, the EDPA and Alabama research institutions began talking about finding an impetus for supporting entrepreneurship and startups across the state. Launchpad was born. In this year’s contest, the judges in early March narrowed a pool of teams from 12 to 7 after live pitches. Five teams then advanced to the final round of pitches on May 3, with three teams receiving funding.

For the first time, Alabama Launchpad will stage two competitions this year and is currently accepting applications for the second round. Seven universities participate in funding the program: The University of Alabama, Auburn University, University of South Alabama, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Alabama State University, Alabama A&M University and the University of Alabama in Huntsville. The program also receives corporate funding.

Alabama Launchpad program director Greg Sheek said each competition awards $100,000 in funds to finalists. Idea funding is based less on a “winner” and more on a promising business’ financial needs and on the marketability of the idea behind the startup.

“From the startup’s perspective, we hope that the most important thing of value they get is a lot of constructive access from informed judges from their industry that they probably would have a difficult time getting through their own channels and in such a short time frame,” Sheek said.

Last week, three teams were awarded funds. The largest amount went to Exscien Corp., a biotechnology firm based in Mobile that has developed a method for repairing damage to mitochondrial DNA. The $54,000 will go toward developing a way to improve lung transplants and potentially repair damage from a number of diseases. Two Birmingham-based firms, Nutripilot and Carbon Nanotubes Engineered Surfaces, also won funds, winning $38,000 and $8,000 respectively.

A former Launchpad finalist and funding beneficiary is Chris Otto, co-founder of Halo Monitoring Inc. Halo, founded in Huntsville, developed a wearable device for the elderly so caregivers can monitor the patient remotely to identify falls or other serious health problems. After winning $50,000 during the competition’s first year, Halo raised $4.5 million in funding before being acquired last year by Florida-based MobileHelp.

Otto said Alabama Launchpad was a big factor in getting the company off the ground.

“It’s really difficult to raise capital, and (venture capitalists) and angel groups put a lot of stock in experience, but the first time out the door it’s tough to do that,” he said. “Alabama Launchpad gave us a chance to compete.”

Avery Jordan, a senior vice president at Wells Fargo in Mobile, was one of the most recent round’s five judges for the Alabama Launchpad competition. Avery, a recent transplant to Alabama from Atlanta, said new business and entrepreneurship is the primary way to create net jobs for economic development. She said recruiting major industrial plants are economic coups, but innovation on a smaller level is even more vital.

“To have a thriving ecosystem of entrepreneurship, you have to embrace new ideas and new brains coming into your culture,” Jordan said. “So to be able to avoid brain drain and attract new talent you have to support new business ideas and innovation and have the ecosystem to support that.”

Jordan said she was impressed by the contestants’ creative business application around the science they supported. Teams took direction well and were ready to tap not only into the Alabama Launchpad funds, but also the network of support provided through the EDPA.

“What the EDPA Foundation is doing is highlighting the risk and reward of being an entrepreneur,” she said. “And that’s the first step.”

Watch an ABC 33/40 video news report on the competition.




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