UA System adding momentum to Alabama’s innovation economy

Innovative ideas launched on the campuses of The University of Alabama System and the network of experts who are shaping those plans into a viable reality are making an impact across the state and beyond.

The University of Alabama, The University of Alabama at Birmingham and The University of Alabama in Huntsville are advancing Alabama’s innovation economy in distinct, significant ways.

“Helping transform ideas from our laboratories and classrooms to the marketplace is a top priority for The University of Alabama System,” said Chancellor Fess St. John. “We are committed to using our resources to spark innovation in rural areas and other pockets of Alabama that need an economic boost.

“Our students, alumni, faculty and staff are be a continuous source of new products and developments that create jobs and investments that will make a substantial contribution for generations to come.”


Alabama life sciences
Dr. Kathy Nugent, executive director of UAB’s Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, says it’s time for Alabama to build a substantial presence in the life sciences industry. (Image: UAB)

One of UAB’s major contributions to the innovation economy is its massive research engine, said Dr. Kathy Nugent, executive director of UAB’s Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The university also has the know-how and the commitment to deliver that research directly to the marketplace.

“Here at UAB we are precise and intentional about the processes we are making available for every innovation and discovery, whether it is in the School of Medicine, in Engineering, or in Music,” Dr. Nugent said. “We are providing a pathway to make it easy for those things to be commercialized.”

In 2017, the Harbert Institute launched the Commercialization Accelerator, a program that provides a customized support structure for startups to flourish on campus and beyond.

In its first year, seven student-led initiatives went through the 10-week program, which teaches the fundamentals of entrepreneurship with guest lectures, mentor connections and collaborative curriculum designed to turn business ideas into reality.

“The Accelerator has exceeded our expectations, showing us there is a strong appetite for that kind of program, not just among students but among faculty and staff as well,” Dr. Nugent said.

Applications for this fall’s cohort of the Commercialization Accelerator rose sharply from last year, and there are plans for other programs specifically designed for faculty innovators.

Meanwhile, UAB has tapped Dr. Patrick Murphy, a former DePaul University professor, as the inaugural Goodrich Endowed Chair in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Collat School of Business. He is focused on launching a number of programs, including a new entrepreneurship major.

UAB’s prowess in life sciences research has led to significant opportunities in the industry. There is a strategic, intentional process in place to identify the right management team when key innovations are poised for commercialization.

In the last 18 months, UAB has spun out three companies: including HemEdits, a gene editing company focusing on sickle cell disease; TriAltus Bioscience, a protein purification firm; and Incysus, which specializes in immuno-oncology.

Dr. Nugent said this is the right time for Birmingham and the state of Alabama to focus on building a substantial presence in the life sciences industry.

“Because we are such a strong life sciences research institution, we need to have a substantial footprint in the industry here. We are working to garner more visibility among venture capitalists and life sciences institutional investors and getting them to focus on the things we are doing here at UAB,” she said.


Innovation to Invention Center
The Invention to Innovation Center, called I²C, is designed to create a community of diverse entrepreneurs. It will open in Spring 2019. (Image: UAH)

UAH is spurring innovation with a new facility designed to create a community of diverse entrepreneurs, from startups formed by recent university graduates to established firms making their first foray into Alabama.

The Invention to Innovation Center, called I²C, is a 46,650-square-foot facility scheduled to open next spring. This regional initiative supports 15 counties across northern Alabama and south-central Tennessee.

“We want to foster, promote and accelerate commercialization of tech-based businesses, and we want to do it through incubation, co-working, mentorship, funding and support,” said Rigved Joshi, the center’s director. “We will leverage what we have and harness the resources across the region we support, which could be other facilities or organizations that are doing amazing work.”

Plans for I²C include space for community engagement and events, a board room, collaboration spaces and offices to incubate companies. Co-working spaces are designed to accommodate individuals who need a spot to pursue an idea.

Joshi said the facility fills a need in Huntsville, which has a wealth of resources for entrepreneurs, such as those in the biotech and defense industries.

“For the average entrepreneur, there’s no facility tied to the UAH ecosystem that he or she can go to, to establish or explore their ideas. When you add I²C to the mix of resources in our region, it is a dynamic ecosystem for current and aspiring entrepreneurs,” he said.

I²C is off to a good start, with seven startups housed in an interim facility that opened earlier this year. Through a virtual incubation model, the center supports 10 other businesses that have the potential to move into I²C as well.

Joshi and his staff are talking to larger, out-of-state companies that want to establish a presence in Huntsville and see I²C as a soft landing spot. They are also working with other established companies that want to commercialize certain products and see I²C as a launching pad.

Promoting entrepreneurship is critical in taking the Huntsville region to the next level of growth and prosperity, Joshi said, and UAH programs that foster innovation are key to that mission.

“It is definitely an advantage for all of us to work together and leverage each other’s resources,” he said. “It ultimately creates the best possible chance of success for entrepreneurs, startups, students and faculty.”



University of Alabama
The University of Alabama’s Technology Villages program opened a location in Cullman to enhance the city’s entrepreneurial culture. (Image: Dave Warren)

At The University of Alabama, there is a new effort to identify and offer key resources to entrepreneurs in rural communities across Alabama that do not traditionally have a strong support network for innovators.

The Technology Villages program aims to assist communities by building and operating storefront technology-focused incubators and then linking startups with university experts.

These aren’t traditional incubators, said Dr. Rick Swatloski, director of UA’s Office for Technology Transfer.

“We are working to enhance the entrepreneurial culture in these towns and create a place where people come together and get help,” he said. “The vision is that they will be in these centers anywhere from nine to 12 months, and we will get them to the point where they can get in front of investors to raise funds.

“At that point, they will graduate from the Technology Village and go to a traditional incubator – or to a space in the local market. We are trying to put the right pieces around them, help them identify corporate partners as well as their risks, and get them in the best possible shape for seeking funds. In addition, we link the centers together creating a network of resources. These networks allow small towns to support emerging technology companies.”

Cullman and Fairhope have been named initial sites for the program, which is modeled after a similarly successful one in South Carolina. Fundraising and branding efforts are underway, and the center directors have completed a training course.

Greensboro and Brookwood will have a smaller version of these centers, as part of a pilot project in collaboration with West Alabama Works. These micro centers are designed for small towns, creating a part-time resource for emerging entrepreneurs.

The next steps in Cullman and Fairhope include raising program awareness through meetings with business and school groups, then identifying five to six entrepreneurs per city. Prospective participants include those involved in e-commerce, digital management, software and app development and chemical-based technologies.

As he travels the state talking about the Technology Village, Dr. Swatloski said he iss often asked where they will find the entrepreneurs.

“Every community has entrepreneurs. They’re out there. This is an effort to bring them together, network them, leverage resources and help them move forward. Our biggest challenge is to change the culture and help people in small towns and rural communities realize they can be successful entrepreneurs,” he said.

Dr. Swatloski says the program also provides a way to diversify the state’s job creation efforts.

“This is a way we can rebuild Alabama’s heartland economies by helping create higher paying tech jobs,” he said. “According to the Small Business Administration, over 90 percent of jobs created in 2016 were in small companies. We must find effective methods that support new companies and related job creation across all communities in Alabama.”