ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a more prosperous Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Karim Tarabein. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
Before we start, this is going to be a sharp critique and I want to make sure we don’t get any wires crossed.
While I am critical about Birmingham, and in turn UAB, I want to point out I harbor no ill will toward either.
I also want to point out my respective criticisms on UAB are about the school system and how it can negatively affect the efforts of students and faculty alike in the pursuit of technical advancement. I do not share the same judgments about my programs or departments.
Dr. Eberhardt’s senior design class gave me real world experience in medical device design that was instrumental in me getting my first engineering job, and Dr. DeCarlo’s classes taught me how you can break down situations into small digestible bite sized problems. For all the good there, there is plenty of bad to fix.
I grew up in Fairhope, AL and moved to Birmingham for six years while I went to UAB, then moved to Massachusetts to get a Masters in Engineering.
I have received two degrees, had a multitude of rich experiences through my internships/jobs, and studied away in Hull, UK for a semester. At the time of writing this, I will have spent almost a year in the medical device and biotech industry.
Everything I got from Birmingham—I had to take
To say “Birmingham gave me a lot” would be a disservice to the individuals who taught me and all of my hard work. Everything I’ve gotten from Birmingham, I had to take. It was not given, it was not offered, and hell if I didn’t get it without fighting some governing body for it. Don’t get me wrong, Birmingham has opportunity, but there is a price to pay and a higher barrier of entry. To spell it out: Birmingham wants to attract talent, but cares not for cultivating it.
Birmingham not yet riding the tech wave
Birmingham has worked hard to cultivate a reputation as the Silicon Valley of the south, with its selling point focusing on the cheaper cost of living. Innovation Depot is taking a lot of actions to identify worthy start-ups and investing in them. I don’t think anyone in the Depot has not heard of the success stories of Shipt and Atlas RFID.
There’s a lot of discussion about there being innovation in Birmingham and that Birmingham is riding the technological wave. I believe there is innovation, despite us not clearly defining what constitutes as such, and I believe Birmingham is not really riding the tech wave sweeping the nation, but the white wash coming off the side.
The dangerous part? Birmingham is proud of it, and that type of pride can be stagnating. What I hope you will see is how Birmingham systemically holds itself back, and the only real kind of innovation that can thrive in Birmingham is business innovation, not tech innovation.
Cost of living increasing
There undeniably has been some tech growth in Birmingham, and one of the biggest selling points for companies was the great city life at a lower cost of living. While not quite tech innovation, it did lead to an increase in the professional population and left a lot of renting companies with watering mouths. Five years ago, the talk of the town was how property values around Avondale are going to double in 3-5 years. People were buying property there, but less noticeably, out of state rental companies were buying property in and around Avondale and Birmingham.
Today, rental prices are noticeably higher, so much so that while population in AL has increased quite a bit, Birmingham’s has remained stagnant since 2010 according to Census data. What many were calling the future Silicon Valley of the south started going the same route as Silicon Valley, increasing rent leads to higher cost of living, pushing people out and causing others to look elsewhere.
Birmingham’s selling point is the cheaper cost of living. If I can live and rent cheaper ($500 a month utilities included) in the 2nd biggest metropolitan area in New England where there is an abundance of opportunity, Birmingham’s selling point is moot.
UAB is a great school but…
One of the biggest sources of innovation is new people and new minds tackling age old problems. To this, I turn to the colleges in Alabama, but none are so closely intertwined with the city as UAB.
UAB is a great school, I won’t contest that. But I got a taste of a different way of doing things halfway through my first degree when I studied away at University of Hull. I’ll leave the academic differences out; just know I learned more in one semester than I had in my first two years at UAB, despite having more free time to pursue my interests and compete for scholarships.
As a Hull alumnus, I am eligible for a business loan of up to 20,000 pounds to start a business in the city. UAB did not have this kind of feature before, but my understanding is that they are implementing something similar this year. How comparable it is has yet to be seen. While UAB has the equipment and resources to help students create technological innovations, there are strings attached.
When you go through college, you have a lot of drive and as an engineering student; you might invent something that you want to patent. Let’s say you develop it through your school: they can own a significant portion of it. How much?
Their handbook avoids answering that question directly, but as a student I have heard multiple numbers from different sources. I want to emphasize that unlike other universities, there is no set percent or number listed in their faculty handbook or anywhere in publicly available school records, at least what me as a student could find.
While the Bayh-Dole Act allows Universities to own student patents that use any research funds, it is worth noting that anything that was paid by federal research funds, even if that research has concluded, and is used in the conception/development of the invention also places ownership of the patent with the University.
According to UAB’s public patent policies, which was made effective in 2013, anything patent-able “…which has been developed in whole or in part by the utilization of resources or facilities belonging to a campus of the University, shall be the property of the applicable campus of the University.” This language implies anything from old research equipment to the 3D printers in UAB Makerspace (space and materials provided by the school) falls under the same category.
To this day, I am unsure how often the University evokes this part of their policy, but it has left me and many students unsure what to do about ideas or inventions we came up with during our school career.
Every University does this but in a different way. At MIT, they own the patent and like UAB you can lease it out. However, you always have the option of buying it off of them for a set price. UAB does not have this implemented and to do so would require negotiation and a willingness from UAB to sell, a willingness that in a meeting with student engineers for senior design they stated they do not have. If you use the school’s machine shop, consult with a professor on the idea, or used any lab equipment the school has rights and ownership of your idea.
Some will say “that’s just the way it is,” but I’ll point out I patented nothing while at UAB, and in the year since I was gone I have applied for five patents. The atmosphere in Massachusetts and Hull is more conducive to innovation in technology, not just business, and I urge UAB to look at how schools in both locations operate as they move forward with their innovation initiative.
Birmingham’s not yet a great place for innovation
Innovation and entrepreneurship from within and outside Birmingham was impeded by a thirsty renter’s market that chomped at the bit. Business Innovation will thrive in Birmingham, especially involving retail, but the barrier of entry is unnecessary high. Tech innovation exists, but is stymied by archaic ownership laws that almost seem like a bait and trap, especially in academia.
People point to Birmingham as a great place of innovation. I point to it and say “not yet.” Innovation must be proven, not printed on a business card for a one person company. People love Birmingham because it has the most opportunity in AL. But Birmingham is still young and if markets keep trying to take advantage of this growth and milk it for all of its money now, it will never reach as high as it would have if it was assisted and cultivated properly.
My dream is to start a medical engineering firm in Birmingham because of how much talent is there and how much of a need is there. But I cannot justify paying engineers there less if cost of living keeps going up as it has the past few years. I cannot justify hiring engineers whose ideas might be bound up by a university because it relates to a previous project. I cannot invest money in a city who stymies its own talent.
Karim Tarabein is a UAB alumnus who grew up on the Alabama coast and lived in Birmingham for six years. He currently lives in the Boston area and is getting his MS and working as a medical device engineer.
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).
Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org