Alabama universities are providing new launch pads for entrepreneurs and their innovative business ideas across the state.
Several new incubators have opened or are in the works, and all of the projects have the potential to help spin out new jobs and investment for local communities.
At the University of Alabama, the Technology Villages program has kicked off with two partner cities – Cullman and Fairhope – and the goal of creating entrepreneurial hubs that will fuel tech business growth.
The program is a “unique bend on economic development” that will be especially useful in small and rural communities that don’t have a lot of money to spend on business recruiting efforts, said Dr. Rick Swatloski, director of UA’s Office for Technology Transfer.
“Successful communities are required to continue to aggressively recruit new companies, but also diversify to support vital new small company growth that represents over half of new jobs created in the United States today,” he said. “We look forward to communities, private companies, federal agencies, individuals and Alabama corporations joining the University in this critical job creation mission.”
The Technology Villages program assists communities in building and operating storefront technology-focused incubators. In Cullman, the city has renovated a 2,200-square-foot space for its Village in the downtown business district, and in Fairhope, BBVA Compass has pledged space for the Village, also downtown.
The goal of the centers is not to be traditional incubators; rather, they will function as start-up resource hubs for distance learning and consultant support. The university also will provide business development services, including help with research, patents and contract manufacturing strategy.
“Both communities have secured initial funding for the program, and identified the location,” Swatloski said. “The next critical step for both will be the hiring of a director to oversee the day-to-day operations. Additionally, the communities are continuing to identify additional key partnerships to help ensure the sustained success of the program.”
Technology Villages is based on a five-year pilot program conducted by Clemson University in five South Carolina cities. In the first 18 months of that initiative, programs in Bluffton and Rock Hill created more than a dozen companies and nearly 70 new jobs.
TIGER CAGE ACCELERATOR
“I have a place to meet with employees, keep my work stuff, work 24/7 and I’m surrounded by other kids who have ambition like me as well.”Meanwhile, Auburn University recently opened the Tiger Cage Accelerator and Incubator, a 2,700-square-foot space at the Auburn Research Park that provides student-led startups with office and meeting space, along with access to mentors.
The facility is a collaborative effort between the Harbert College of Business’ Lowder Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship and the Auburn University Research and Technology Foundation.
Harrison Evola is a recent Auburn graduate and founder of FetchMe, a concierge delivery service that has experienced significant growth over the past year.
Evola has been using the incubator space for his business operations, and he has also participated in Auburn’s Tiger Cage student business pitch competition.
“The Tiger Cage center is so helpful,” he said. “I have a place to meet with employees, keep my work stuff, work 24/7 and I’m surrounded by other kids who have ambition like me as well.”
The idea for FetchMe was born when Evola was a teenager working for Papa John’s Pizza, where he did everything from making and delivering pizzas to washing dishes and helping customers.
“I liked interacting with people, and I thought it would be cool to own my own business. I took that thought and applied it to FetchMe,” he said.
The startup, which delivers restaurant food, groceries, snacks, coffee and more, made its first delivery a year ago. Today, the firm does 1,500 orders per month and has partnered with more than 25 restaurants in the Auburn area, with plans to expand further. A complete list of partners and services can be found at FetchMeDelivery.com.
INVENTION TO INNOVATION
At the University of Alabama in Huntsville, construction is underway on the D.S. Davidson Invention to Innovation Center (I²C), which will serve as an incubator for entrepreneurs and new business development in the region.
“That will make the incubator an open door to creating small businesses, giving those with innovative ideas a place to go, get set up, and develop more technology. ”The three-story, 46,650-square-foot building is expected to be complete by early 2019, and it features easy access to UAH’s College of Business, as well as the university’s library, engineering, and science and technology facilities.
The facility’s mission is three-fold: stimulating growth of new and existing science and engineering high-tech companies; catalyzing formation of a resilient entrepreneurial ecosystem in the northern Alabama and south central Tennessee regions; and building partnerships with various entrepreneurial ecosystems and hubs to create pathways that empower, ignite, and motivate the community to make ideas happen.
“I²C facility and programs will support entrepreneurs on building scalable, investable, high-growth, technology-focused businesses that will serve as catalysts for economic development and regional innovation,” said Rigved Joshi, who oversees strategy, programming, partnerships and daily operations at the center.
The incubator is named for Huntsville businesswoman and philanthropist Dorothy S. Davidson, who made a $5 million gift to UAH in support of the project. Other funding came from the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Innovation Fund, Madison County Commission, City of Huntsville, UAH Foundation and U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.
Davidson, who is chief executive and board chairman of Huntsville’s Davidson Technologies Inc., said she knows how hard it is to start a business when you don’t have the support you need. Most people fail, she added, not because they don’t have the technological expertise but because they lack business skills.
In the new incubator, small business owners will benefit from the university’s expertise and the close proximity of peers at Cummings Research Park.
“They won’t necessarily compete with the businesses in Huntsville, but they will be coming out with innovative ideas to improve what’s already here with help from the university,” Davidson said. “That will make the incubator an open door to creating small businesses, giving those with innovative ideas a place to go, get set up, and develop more technology.”