Innovation has moved to the top of the Birmingham Business Alliance’s economic development priorities as officials seek to capitalize on an opportunity one expert says is “totally doable” in the Magic City.
The metro area’s leading economic development organization held its 2016 Chairman’s Luncheon today. Dr. Ray Watts, president of UAB, is the current BBA chairman and announced in December he will serve a second year in the position through 2017.
A big reason for Watts remaining in the seat is UAB’s role in Innovation Birmingham, Innovation Depot and the creation of a new Innovation District – three elements that are central to innovation becoming a primary focus for BBA’s business growth efforts.
“We envision this changing the future of Birmingham,” Watts said of the collective focus on the Innovation District.
Innovation has been an ongoing area of emphasis for BBA but the focus grew more intense after Bruce Katz, inaugural centennial scholar at Brookings Institution, visited Birmingham last year and suggested the opportunity the city had for creating an Innovation District.
The year since has seen a collective effort to do just that. Katz, who delivered the keynote at today’s luncheon, said the momentum now is palpable.
“I think you’ve got a great platform. You’ve got the University of Alabama Birmingham, you’ve got Southern Research, you’ve got an incredible downtown, an incubator with Innovation Depot – so you’ve got the geography that essentially is tailor-made for the 21st century,” he said in an interview with Alabama NewsCenter. “Proximity, density, vitality, authenticity and you’re beginning to see entrepreneurial startups, scale-ups either off of research from the universities or people just want to be here.”
A $6 million grant the city is using to train workers for innovation jobs – known as Innovate Birmingham – is another step in the right direction, Katz said.
“Innovate Birmingham is the right initiative,” he said. “There is a smart, strategic, regional workforce effort underway. My sense is you’ve got a whole bunch of students throughout the Southeast who are about to discover Birmingham because it is such a high quality of life and it’s such a distinctive place and you can come here, start a business and solve social issues all at the same time.”
BBA CEO Brian Hilson said the organization will continue to recruit, retain and expand key industries in the metro area but innovation is getting its due.
“The opportunity to nurture and grow young companies – in particular technology-based companies, and especially those that are in some way located here and connected to our key economic assets, starting with UAB – is very important to Birmingham’s future,” Hilson said. “It may look like this has only been a short time in coming, but if you think about how Birmingham has grown – largely because of UAB – and then the opportunity to grow an Innovation District that would be physically close to UAB is a natural for Birmingham. It’s something we’re very, very excited about.”
Katz pointed to the work taking place at downtown’s Innovation Depot as a key component to the initiative.
“Innovation Depot, I think, is one of the most creative incubators in the United States today and it is strategically located to basically help companies start but then help them find their next piece of real estate as they begin to grow and expand their business,” Katz said.
Devon Laney, CEO of Innovation Depot, said that’s music to his ears.
“We’re so excited at Innovation Depot because I feel like we’re kind of ground zero for all of that activity. We’re the epicenter,” he said. “We have such a great partnership with UAB and with the city and the community and all of our partners. For us, it’s great to see the focus really being how do we elevate? How do we continue to drive innovation as a community going forward?”
Katz said he can even envision Birmingham’s Civil Rights District having an innovation component.
“I think the designation of a Civil Rights District and the notion that Birmingham has a special place in American history actually could be a platform for new kinds of innovation,” he said. “Entrepreneurs who want to deal with some of the disadvantaged neighborhoods, the poverty, some of the school issues that exist – this is about innovation at the end of the day. I think the marriage of the Civil Rights Institute and Innovation Depot is a marriage made in heaven.”
Laney said he envisions the Innovation District stretching beyond physical boundaries.
“It’s a mindset. It’s a culture. It’s a message, both internally and externally, that Birmingham is a place for innovation, a place where you can come and grow your business and really thrive in doing that,” he said.
The Innovation District going forward will seek community input and feedback, followed by messaging and branding along with announcements about infrastructure and development.
“All of these things are happening and they are all part of this initiative,” he said. “There will be some additional pieces that will roll out in the coming months.”
Hilson said as with any other economic development initiative, project announcements are crucial to driving and measuring success.
“We look for activity and successes to be occurring very, very soon,” Hilson said. “As this gains traction and there is momentum around that and it becomes better known as a No. 1 economic development opportunity and ongoing process for Birmingham, I think it will continue to fuel itself.”
Laney said everyone is pushing to make things happen.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am about the community’s alignment and support behind this effort,” Laney said.
Katz said when he comes back next year, he expects to see Birmingham taking advantage of something that “is totally in your grasp.”
“My sense is you’re at the shallow end of the pool of what can be accomplished here with a little more intentionality and purpose,” he said. “I think this is going to be the gift that keeps on giving and what we’re going to begin to see is the revival of the entire core of this region.”