Why I’m building my career in Boston rather than Birmingham

Karim Tarabein
Karim Tarabein

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.

My background

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

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.

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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).

Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com

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12 thoughts on “Why I’m building my career in Boston rather than Birmingham”

  1. I second the observations offered up by Karim Tarabein.

    As a member of the local nonprofit makerspace, the Red Mountain Makers, which has identified many of the same barriers to innovation identified by the author, I support, endorse would strongly suggest that state leadership consider addressing the issues identified in this post.

  2. Profoundly naive and flawed premise, and you’re playing fast and loose in intermixing your personal career choice with respect to location with building a business in that location.

    For example, you are implying you can justify paying engineers in Boston where Google will tell you the median home cost is $587,000. Good luck with that. You’re also implying in Boston any engineer you hire will not have their ideas bound up by a university, and that’s not the case.

    Did you know large Boston-area technology companies differ from those in Silicon Valley by enforcing non-compete agreements — intended to block former employees from taking jobs at rivals or founding startups? It’s a huge assumption you will even be able to find and or hire talent in Boston.

    You might want to read the Boston.com article titled, “Boston is home to the largest ‘brain drain’ of tech workers in the U.S.” where they write, “So why aren’t tech workers staying? As one report by the Boston Redevelopment Authority suggests, workers who voluntarily leave Boston often cite better job opportunities, unaffordable living situations, say they’re in search of a “better city experience,” or want to return home.

    I don’t mean to burst your bubble but suggesting Boston solves building a business problems over Birmingham, seemingly by your article centered on the cost of living for you and your hired employees is nonsensical to say the least.

    1. Hi there.

      At WPI i get 50% of the revenue made off the patent. Also, most of the tech companies located “in” Boston are actually ~30-50 minutes from it where housing is much cheaper. I’m trying to get the point across that “everything is cheaper in bham” (the entire selling point yo try to get tech there) is a fallacy. I’m making 15k more a year as a co op than the offers floated to me down there, and my cost of living is significantly cheaper.

  3. The author brings up interesting points that should be addressed and perhaps they are. However, it comes across as a complaint, rather than a suggestion. I would be interested in seeing what steps were taken to point out the challenges to those that can help with the change.
    Perhaps the objective was to point out that that there are issues, and he doesn’t know where to go next. I did not see that, but I could have missed it.

  4. If you have children, graduating from UAB, BHAM Southern , AU, Bama or other institutions, ask yourself one question. Where Do These Children Live? Think about the answer….

    1. My son is a young neurologist at UAB who just moved from Avondale. He could have gone anywhere and chose to remain in Birmingham.
      Developer led gentrification has, I believe, driven rents and property prices beyond the reach or ordinary workers and the less well to do in Avondale and the community is fast becoming an example of this stifling trend. If allowed to continue Avondale will become stale and unrecognizable. Even as the new residents hobnob within their socioeconomic class they will tend lose touch with the broader community.
      We, broadly, are allowing a few to define the social parameters of our city. Maybe Birmingham could implement some methodology designed to maintain a more diverse socioeconomic, humane fabric that both allows and encourages everyday folks to participate in defining who and what Birmingham is.
      I would like to hear or read thoughts on this subject from the folks who serve in Birmingham’s Department of Planning and Engineering. I am out of the loop these days. However, Birmingham has been fortunate to have some outstanding individuals serve in Planning and Engineering in past years and I expect the same is true today.

    2. I apologize for commenting on an article over eight months old but I only encountered it today when I decided to dig into “back issues” of David’s site.

      Mine’s right here. We have three more working for us. They had options to go elsewhere. I’ve been hiring graduates from in and out of state for many years. What point are you trying to make with this question or is the intent to spark some discussion? My alma mater, Alabama, is less recognizable to me today because it’s gotten to the point where there are almost two non-residents for every in-state. I struggle with whether that’s faithful to a state university’s mission, especially when it’s the flagship institution.

      While I celebrate the outstanding contribution to the economy of Tuscaloosa and Alabama (and we owe an enormous debt to that “ridiculous” contract Mal Moore gave to Coach Saban – exponentially returned), I wonder about the motivation. For the school, money, expansion, prestige, and academic reputation are obvious. I had a Faculty Senate member relate that private discussions internally illuminate a desire of the broader membership to radically reshape the politics of the state by encouraging an influx of more “enlightened” residents. When I was an undergraduate in the 1980’s there were less than 19,000 altogether. Now, the goal seems to be closer to 40,000. I can assure you it’s unlikely I would have chosen it back then at the current size. The other institutions I considered were Tulane, Hampden-Sydney, W&L, Sewanee, and Samford. Maybe a couple more, Cornell offered me something but, as my father said, “That’s not a scholarship, it’s a small discount.”

      I don’t want to see my university chasing Ohio State levels of enrollment. I’ve lived in Nashville and Houston (I still adore that town and my wife hasn’t forgiven me for taking her out of Texas – we may be Alabama natives but we feel like Texas expats in outlook). There are lots of negatives that go with growth for growth’s sake: starting with mind-numbingly high levels of congestion. Though what I wouldn’t give for an EZ-PASS and toll road system like Texas!

      I may pretend to be an old Luddite and I recognize that politically I look like a combination of Alexander Hamilton and Yosef Stalin next to David but I am actually a Neanderthal conservative willing to listen and consider other arguments. I’m also a student of history fond of pointing out the unintended consequences to both sides.

      So that’s why I pose some questions. What’s the point of your post, William? What do you want? Is it substantive or merely snark? Help me understand, please.

  5. I have trouble getting through this post due to: disjointed structure, horrible grammar, and several references that are not fleshed out. I’m all for reading people’s opinions, but they need to be competently communicated. Is the takeaway that UAB has more onerous patent ownership rules than other universities? I do not understand how rents going up (as they have in most of the U.S.) impedes innovation?

  6. I commented elsewhere, though it’s not showing up so, for all I know, I wasted an hour of passion for it to disappear into the ether. So I will apologize again for commenting on an eight month old article I encountered reading David’s “back” issues.

    I commend the author for his hard work and success. Congratulations on your patents. Engineering is a hard and merciless field of study with few gray areas. Good luck going forward.

    That said, the tone is troubling, like one of my daughters whining about normal obstacles and the lack of perfection she dreamed up. I work with a lot of engineers in your current town. The hurdles in Boston are just as real as Birmingham’s, they’re just of a different nature. You’re fortunate that they fit your path, by all means stay there and hope they don’t eventually disappoint you. Meanwhile, as someone that’s spent a lot of time in Boston, don’t blow smoke up my *** about how life is less expensive. I have written the bailout checks for similar contentions.

    Wonder why I don’t agree and support you regarding this long lament? I have liberal arts degrees. I’ve spent 26 years of my career working in a field that normally attracts engineers (which means I’m a crotchety old man). My training is self-acquired in the key areas for what I do from on-the-job and a lot of reading. It’s not sexy, it’s for dinosaurs. Most Alabama folks think the industry is dead despite the fact that we’re the third largest producer in the US (well, we were a few years back when I had time for statistical analysis), but alive and well and growing.

    We need a moonshot, Kennedyesque call to education in this area of expertise (thank you Hoover, Bevill, MikeRoweworks, Go Build Alabama, Shades Valley High School, and others). We need vocational training for all these unfilled, high-paying jobs. Young folks, you don’t have to take on stifling debt to find lucrative employment. Start now in a trade. We’re begging you to consider it.

    I came home to help a struggling, eight-year-old company that was providing 30 plus positions to a neglected, forgotten community. Five years in and we’re expanding and moving to a new site near Carver High and likely to triple our employees. Our business is essential to the health of our nation and we BUILD THINGS. It’s heartening to me to see how many Birmingham manufacturing businesses are thriving after their quiet determination during the downcycles. Their health supports so many ancillary industries that fly under the radar and escape any notice, it gives people jobs and hope.

    It enriches all of us.

    Yes, there were a lot of obstacles, though I have to give kudos to the city for helping us through them. Our ownership is entirely made up of Alabama natives that believe in Birmingham and revel in its strengths. No way you stick your neck out this much if you don’t love this place.

    Here’s the thing: we’re not engineers. Yet this is precisely the kind of business an astute engineer could’ve built, Karim. Find the opportunity where it’s available. Don’t follow the mainstream. You personally have a specialized field and a healthy one, because biotech and devices will only grow. And I can’t imagine that it’s as bleak in Alabama as described in your piece. I know, I’ve seen two, firsthand, outstanding successes in your industry. When you finish your degree take another very hard look before you make a final judgment. You might decide Birmingham’s worth consideration.

    But guess what? A healthy economy needs a balance and opportunities are available in numerous other sectors that can create a powerhouse. It’s not just about tech, the dinosaurs are still awake. Some of your contemporaries; likely civil, metallurgical, and mechanical engineers; can still find work in steel down here. The rest of us have a job to do restoring the infrastructure so you can get to work every day. For instance, Birmingham companies like us are vital to rebuilding the T in Boston; I have a truck headed your way on Thursday with 40 tons of Alabama and BESSEMER painted on the side.

  7. if you have children, graduating from UAB, BHAM Southern, AU, Bama or different establishments, ask your self one query. where Do these children stay? think about the answer…

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