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Out of the Lab, Into the Marketplace: Coastal Innovation Hub Aims to JumpStart Region’s Technology Sector

Mobile, Alabama – The University of South Alabama will soon help aspiring entrepreneurs bridge the gap between innovation and profitability with the grand opening of the Coastal Innovation Hub.

Not unlike other incubator environments, the 10,000-square-foot facility will offer technology-centered startups affordable office space, laboratories, conference rooms, professional services, on-site consulting and access to myriad other professional networking resources.

Director Mark Weaver said the true selling point, however, will be the hub’s ability to leverage the university’s expertise for tenants’ benefit while acting as the “official hand-holders” at all levels of the commercialization process.

The new facility – for which a grand opening is scheduled from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6 – has been more than two years in the making and embodies the university’s commitment to becoming a catalyst for economic development across the Gulf Coast.

“It’s our goal to provide that fertile environment needed to grow ideas into commercialization opportunities that will employ people, pay taxes and create a situation where everybody wins,” said Weaver, who also serves as chairman of USA’s entrepreneurship program and executive director of the Melton Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

The hub is a joint project of the Melton Center and the university’s Office of Research and Economic Development, and Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson will deliver the grand opening festivities’ keynote address.

Specialized skill set

The Mobile-based hub will recruit technology-based startups – both spun-out from university research and from the community at large – with the ultimate goal of attracting top tech-savvy talent from northwest Florida to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and bringing their ideas to the marketplace.

Mark Gillespie, co-founder of Exscien Corp., said the need is strong because even rock stars of the academic world typically lack the requisite skills to make that leap.

“This university is full of talented scientists, artists, craftsmen…but to commercialize a product is a skill set most knowledge creators don’t have, and they certainly – as a group – aren’t familiar enough with the funding resources available to take an idea from the laboratory to the store shelf or the hospital room,” he said.

And Gillespie is no stranger to alternative startup funding.

Exscien, a biotechnology firm that develops drugs to repair damage to mitochondrial DNA, was awarded $54,000 in May through the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama Foundation’s 2013 Alabama Lauunchpad Startup Competition.

Exscien will join MilliTherm, a 2012 Launchpad recipient of nearly $24,000, as two of the Coastal Innovation Hub’s first tenants. MilliTherm’s David Nelson, chairman of USA’s department of mechanical engineering, is developing a technology to gauge blood flow to a region of the skin without making physical contact, thereby, revolutionizing the standard of care for burn treatments and other trauma.

Built-in support

The non-traditional incubator will also house two entrepreneurs-in-residence who, in exchange for discounted rent, will provide on-site consulting services for hub tenants.

Bo Megginson, executive director of the Gulf Coast Angel Network, will fill one of those slots and said the arrangement is mutually beneficial.

“We’re really excited about this setup because it allows us to work directly with the university and identify potential locally-generated growth companies,” he said.

Specifically, Megginson’s consultation services will help entrepreneurs maneuver startup hurdles, such as learning what they need to attract capital and helping them develop the infrastructure necessary to not only grow but sustain themselves.

“The big picture is to provide (USA) a resource to support locally-grown companies. The university does an excellent job of mining those assets and giving them light, but if we can help those ideas become companies, everybody truly wins. More jobs are created and more capital pours into the area.”

The Gulf Coast Angel Network is one of four member investor groups across the state – joining Huntsville, Birmingham and Auburn – comprising the Angel Investor Management Group, created in 2011 to identify and pursue investment opportunities among high-growth and high-revenue businesses capable of delivering a three- to 10-time return-on-investment within three to seven years.

Meanwhile, Danny Patterson, a business development executive with Birmingham-based TALA Professional Services, said the Coastal Innovation Hub’s true strength is its long-term goal of becoming the focal point for technology commercialization from Biloxi, Miss., to Pensacola, Fla., and beyond.

“It’s the catalyst this area needs,” said Patterson, whose company will serve alongside the Gulf Coast Technology Network as the incubator’s second entrepreneur in residence.

Weaver said TALA’s sales consultations and information technology tutorials will be offered to tenants on a quarterly basis and “hopefully get them past the ‘Who’s going to write that first check?’ anxiety.

TALA’s primary areas of service include voice, data, wiring, access controls systems, wireless, audio-visual systems, video security camera systems, and LED lighting control systems.

“We also provide project management, workflow and business processes, implementation, coordination center/help-desk, system management support, asset/facility management and documentation,” Patterson said.

The hub will also provide resources for not just selling the products, themselves, but quite possibly the entire enterprise.

“Knowledge creators are pretty much blind after (an idea) gets to the top of the test tube,” Gillespie said.

In turn, Weaver said he is actively planning the first of what he hopes will become an annual exit strategy symposium for the entire Gulf Coast with the Melton Center’s namesake, Chris Melton. The event, he said, will bring innovators and inventors together with an array of potential avenues for their ideas, including investment bankers, private equity managers, angel investors and the like.

For more information visit the hub’s official website.

Kelli Dugan | By Kelli Dugan | | updated November 02, 2013 at 12:10 PM

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