Birmingham becoming epicenter for technology, startups, and entrepreneurs

Kathleen Hamrick
Kathleen Hamrick (Photo by Bob Farley)

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Kathleen Hamrick.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

I’m a 29 year old millennial living here in Birmingham with a passion for entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology.

I travel often to the East and West coast and I’ve seen other innovation ecosystems, met investors, and gotten to know successful startup founders from all walks of life, and I can tell you that it’s a real doggone good time to be in Birmingham.

Back in 2014, I voluntarily left my safe, corporate job with a great company.

The decision – while full of risk – allowed me to work more closely with an early stage cancer molecular diagnostics company – Blondin Bioscience – was a door to meeting other entrepreneurs and an entry into the world of startups here in Birmingham.

Innovation Depot

That same year, Blondin transitioned from coffee shops into Innovation Depot in downtown Birmingham. Innovation Depot houses over 100 member startup companies that collectively employ over 800 people.

Innovation Depot is a 140,000 square foot 501(c)3 startup incubator that is the hub for startups and technology in our Birmingham region.

It gives entrepreneurs a competitive advantage in obtaining the resources they need to succeed: resource organizations like the Birmingham AIM Group, Alabama SBDC Network, BioAlabama, the Birmingham Business Resource Center, the Birmingham Venture Club, and TechBirmingham.

Our team at Blondin moved into a small office downstairs. I painted our walls with chalkboard paint and we began building the company.

I got to know the Innovation Depot team that year through working with Blondin.

UAB iLab

In early 2015, I joined the Innovation Depot team in a cross functional role as Director of the UAB Innovation Lab (UAB iLab) – a partnership between the UAB Collat School of Business (CSOB) and Innovation Depot.

The UAB iLab affords students with interest in entrepreneurship and innovation with relevant experiential learning opportunities with startup companies at Innovation Depot. The UAB iLab maintains several programs: ENT 445 (a for-credit internship for students who apprentice with Innovation Depot startups), an app development center (student-led web and mobile application development), and a student venture incubation program (currently, there are between 10-15 student-led startups in the UAB iLab).

The UAB iLab is also home to community resource partners such as: Women Who Code, Code for Birmingham, the Kauffman Foundation 1 Million Cups program, and StartupGrind Birmingham.

Velocity Accelerator Program

Innovation Depot is also home to the Velocity Accelerator Program, and Depot/U educational programs (including the Covalence software developer bootcamp and McKinsey Social Initiative Generation IT).

You may have heard of accelerator programs like TechStars, Y Combinator, or even 500 Startups. Velocity Accelerator was created in the ‘likenesses of TechStars by way of the Global Accelerator Network (a network of leading accelerators around the world who share best-practices).

Each year of the program, up to ten high growth potential startups – primarily technology product companies – are selected for the program via a competitive, global application process.

Each company receives $50,000 from the Velocity Investment Fund in exchange for 6% equity.  Over the course of 12 weeks, the teams work to build their startup through a full-time, intensive program, with the culmination taking place at “Demo Day” where each company presents to investors from around the Country.

The Velocity Accelerator is unique in many ways.

First, it is funded entirely by the local community as a technology-based, economic development program.  Second, investments are made in each company through a ‘venture philanthropy fund,’ which is a fancy way of saying that when company has a successful exit, the proceeds from the 6% equity stake are recycled completely back into the Velocity Fund, with the goal of ultimately supporting future Velocity Accelerator companies. It’s a beautiful thing and appears to be unique to Birmingham.

Depot/U program

If you ask Innovation Depot CEO, Devon Laney, about resources – he’ll say that back in 2014, Innovation Depot member company Platypi, was having a difficult time finding software developers to build out a product. To meet this need, in 2015, Innovation Depot partnered with Platypi to launch Alabama’s first software developer bootcamp: Depot/U.

Depot/U has been so successful that it is being expanded to other states and re-branded as Covalence. The program is a fraction of the cost of most national programs, maintains close partnerships with employers, and boasts a 95% hire rate for its graduates.

Birmingham snags an “America’s Promise” Grant

It gets better. In 2016, Innovation Depot played an integral role in working with UAB to secure a $6M U.S. Department of Labor “America’s Promise” grant to train 925 youth (over four years) in our community for technology jobs.

It’s a natural fit that the training for this program takes place on-site at Innovation Depot so that youth have direct access to employers and exposure to technology companies and jobs.

100 gigabit fiber network

UAB has strengthened its ties with Innovation Depot and has committed to extending its 100 gigabit fiber network into Innovation Depot.

Long term, the goal is for that connectivity to extend throughout all of downtown as part of the Innovate Birmingham initiative.

All the incredible goodness that is inside Innovation Depot has begun to pour out into the Birmingham region.

As more companies graduate from Innovation Depot, community partners have recognized the importance of having the right infrastructure in place to support those that want to remain near Innovation Depot in the urban core.

Birmingham is becoming the epicenter of technology, startups, and entrepreneurs.

Don’t take my word for it, though; come see for yourself.

Kathleen Hamrick is an Alabama native serving as Innovation Depot’s Director of Marketing & Education, where she has played an integral role in the implementation of for-credit experiential programs for students with interest in entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology. In her spare time, Hamrick is a Books Running sponsored ultra-marathoner, occasionally flies single-engine prop planes at the Birmingham Flight Center, and frequently dreams of building a kit plane: Cessna 162.

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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5 thoughts on “Birmingham becoming epicenter for technology, startups, and entrepreneurs”

  1. Outstanding Blog Kathleen! Did you post it on twitter or linkedin? I would like to share it with my linkedin contacts!

  2. Very nice article! I was part of an organization that was part of the business incubator that was on the UAB campus in the late 80’s. The energy in that atmosphere was incredible, so I am sure that it is off the charts at the Depot! I woud love to visit sometime.

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