HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — A new facility in the University of Alabama System that aims to fuel entrepreneurship, build regional collaboration and spur the development of science and technology firms across North Alabama and beyond is off to a strong start.
The Invention to Innovation Center (I2C), which officially opened in June at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, is surpassing growth expectations and launching a full slate of programs to support its mission. I2C is focused on building the entrepreneurial ecosystem in a 15-county region in northern Alabama and south-central Tennessee.
In just the third month of operation, the $16 million, 46,650-square-foot I2C already houses 12 startup companies. Several more firms in the pipeline are expected to sign on, bringing occupancy to more than 50 percent by the end of the year.
I2C is home to startups that specialize in software, electronics, data science, ed-tech, fin-tech, cyber and more, in an environment that features shared workspace, a co-working community and opportunities to create and collaborate alongside mentors in similar fields. It includes office space, conference rooms, meeting rooms and cafeterias as well as co-working, community engagement and event space.
“Our ultimate goal is to create an innovation-driven ecosystem that helps facilitate new ventures,” said Rigved Joshi, who oversees strategy, programming, partnerships and daily operations at the center.
“We are in a great position to do that and work with partners locally, regionally, nationally and globally to ultimately service the entrepreneurs.”
The UAH center has also launched Mentor.Live, involving a core group of 11 founding mentors from the community and the UAH faculty.
“These folks bring together great experience and domain expertise in different facets of starting a company, including corporate, legal, social media, marketing, design, technology, engineering or other relevant fields,” Joshi said.
“They are available for anyone who uses the center, and they are pivotal to what we are trying to create: a great resource for the ecosystem we are building here.”
I2C has kicked off an internship program for area college students to work directly for the center or for one of the startups housed there.
Another new initiative is a pre-accelerator program called igniteHSV that is a partnership with the National Science Foundation and Georgia Tech Venture Lab. The Phase Zero I-Corps Program offers intensive support to startups to determine the commercial readiness of their technology concepts.
While startups and full-time entrepreneurs are key players, the center also makes room for other innovators. For example, Joshi said, I2C can offer workspace for the engineer who has a day job but wants to explore an idea for a new business.
Proximity to other professionals and business resources will help those ideas blossom into viable ventures.
For Niall W. Rogers, I2C is providing crucial support for his company.
Rogers is president and skipper of AeBuma, which is focused on product development in business and technology solutions.
“I’m here over 100 hours a week, and I really appreciate how the university has provided a place for us to be on campus,” he said. “It’s a great avenue between the talents here at UAH in the students and the professors.”
Rogers cites the facility’s amenities, including office space, conference rooms and extremely fast internet speed. The staff support is also helpful, he said, as are many conferences and other on-site events.
Large windows and an airy, modern design help spark creativity, while kitchen space and showers are useful for entrepreneurs trying to make the most of their time.
“This is an amazing facility. I feel like there’s no better place for me to be than here. Everything that is needed for my company to succeed is here,” Rogers said.
Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said the center will be a valuable tool in recruiting new business to the Tennessee Valley region while also promoting growth from within.
“Innovation is the driving force behind industry growth, so we as a state must provide the best resources for our communities to birth, shepherd and ultimately bring new ideas to market. The resulting companies, investments and jobs lead to the development of even more leaders and creative thinkers, who will continue to shape next-generation technologies in their respective fields,” he said.
“I2C is truly an investment in the people who currently make Huntsville and the surrounding area such a dynamic place to live and work. We are excited to see what they will do next.”
The center began building momentum long before this summer’s opening. A temporary proof of concept center began operating in February 2018, housing a number of the current I2C startups until the permanent quarters were ready.
Now that I2C is open, the momentum is even stronger, Joshi said. The three-story building features easy access to UAH’s College of Business, along with the university’s library, engineering, and science and technology facilities.
“We want to leverage UAH’s valuable resources and explore opportunities for joint research, student and faculty engagement and access to special purpose labs and equipment,” he said.
Since the June opening, I2C has been abuzz with conferences, networking activities and other gatherings.
“It’s a great resource, not only for UAH, but also for the community,” Joshi said. “We have the space, we have a great location, we have the momentum and we have companies moving in.
“Now it’s time to add fuel to the fire and create the resources, the programming and the opportunities that will make the space unique and fulfill what we are trying to deliver as a part of our mission.”