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Alabama Innovation Fund provides boost for UNA UX center

FLORENCE, Alabama – The Alabama Innovation Fund is providing more than $80,000 to advance plans by the University of North Alabama (UNA) to set up a center that assists entrepreneurs and gives students valuable hands-on experience.

UNA’s College of Business is getting $81,300 from the Innovation Fund for a proposed User Experience (UX) Accelerator Center, which will primarily focus on assisting small and medium-sized businesses. UX is a term that refers to all aspects of a customer’s interaction with a company and its services and products.

UNA officials say the center will provide outreach to businesses in the Shoals area, along with testing and design services focusing on end-user experience. Undergraduate students will receive UX education as part of the program.

UNA Alabama Innovation Fund
Gregory Carnes is dean of UNA’s College of Business. (Image: UNA)

“UNA’s College of Business is a vital part of the economic engine that is creating growth in north Alabama,” said Gregory Carnes, the university’s business dean. “These funds will benefit both students and business leaders who need User Experience technology skills to drive innovation in this region.”

FOSTERING GROWTH

The grant from the Alabama Innovation Fund will cover nearly half of the UNA center’s projected total cost of $167,000, with the university funding the rest of the project.

Governor Robert Bentley created the Innovation Fund in 2012 as part of the “Accelerate Alabama” strategic economic development growth plan, and the program is administered by the Alabama Department of Commerce.

Projects backed by the Innovation Fund are selected based on factors such as job-creation potential and additional research possibilities.

“Innovation and entrepreneurship are critical to Alabama’s long-term growth prospects, and the Innovation Fund is providing key support to many programs that will create and sustain high-paying, knowledge-based jobs,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“The UX Accelerator Center at UNA is an innovative approach to fostering business growth in the region and providing students with valuable real-world experience,” he added.

Last year, the Alabama Innovation Fund awarded nearly $4.5 million in grants to support projects across the state.

‘HIGH DEMAND’

UNA says the goal of the center will be to help companies enhance the effectiveness of their products while reducing the time required for a successful market launch. Businesses using the UX Center’s services could see revenue gains and lower costs.

“Local companies can work directly with the center, which will speed up their results and help them get to market sooner,” said Jason Watson, an assistant professor of computer information systems at UNA who will manage the UX Accelerator lab.

At UNA, UX is growing at a steady pace among the six academic programs in which it is offered as a minor, Watson said. The university offered a second section of its “Introduction to UX” course this fall, reflecting that growth. Today, 35 students are involved in the program.

“We are seeing more student interest and increased demand for the minor,” Watson said. “National jobs in UX also continue to grow, and UX is in high demand in many parts of the country.

“When it comes to our area, Huntsville UX jobs are growing in number, and several UX consulting businesses have started over the last year to help support the growing demand,” he added.

Watson said UNA students are prime candidates to fill these positions, thanks to having a UX minor to go along with a bachelor’s degree.

SHOALS SHIFT

The UNA UX Accelerator will complement Shoals Shift, a community collaborative effort that was developed to nurture and promote the area’s tech economy, and to attract new tech businesses.

That effort got a boost earlier this year when the Shoals Entrepreneurial Center received a $1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) under a federal program designed to benefit communities in areas affected by the switch away from coal as a source for energy production.

UNA and the Shoals Chamber of Commerce are teaming with the Shoals Entrepreneurial Center to turn the ARC grant into initiatives under the Shoals Shift umbrella that will boost the area’s digital technology economy.

Local matching funds of $1 million have also been committed to the program.

The project is expected to help create or retain 110 jobs, spur the creation of 20 new businesses, and leverage $10 million in private investment.

“Shoals Shift is built around three themes,” said Janyce Fadden, executive in residence at the UNA College of Business. “One theme is to build a pipeline for talent in the region, another is to create a culture of collaboration, and the third is assisting existing companies to grow. The different projects through the grant fit under those themes.”

Meanwhile, entrepreneurship in the Shoals received an additional lift through an expansion of Alabama Launchpad, a business plan competition that has supported innovative start-up businesses in the state for a decade.

The Shoals area was selected as the first regional site for a Launchpad completion.

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