New UAB Accelerator to power startup growth

A new effort at the University of Alabama at Birmingham seeks to provide critical support for startups when they are in the earliest stages of development.

The UAB Commercialization Accelerator will officially launch next week during Innovation Week Birmingham, an annual event that spotlights new technologies and inventions, along with the entrepreneurs behind them.

The accelerator, a program of UAB’s Bill L. Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, will offer an organized, streamlined process for students and faculty members who have an idea they want to turn into a business, said Kathy Nugent, executive director of the Harbert Institute.

Historically, UAB has done well in licensing and commercializing the research and discoveries from its labs, she said. But the university, an economic development engine for Alabama, needs a support structure that will help startups flourish on campus and beyond.

“One of the things we have to focus on, in this era of innovation and entrepreneurship that we live in, is how we can better provide a pipeline that will be true economic development in the state,” Nugent said.

“We can do that by having more startups, and the accelerator will address that.”

Fostering innovation and supporting entrepreneurship are key objectives of the state’s evolving economic development growth strategy, said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“Our overarching goal is to create robust opportunities for the citizens of Alabama, and an important step on the path to achieving that is to strengthen the state’s innovation economy,” Canfield said. “Initiatives like the UAB Commercialization Accelerator will help us do that.”

The UAB Commercialization Accelerator is meant to be a complement to Innovation Depot, the successful business incubator in Birmingham. (Contributed)

Ideas funnel

For UAB, the goal isn’t just more startups. The accelerator will have two separate advisory groups that will act as a filter to funnel the ideas with the most commercial potential faster through the pipeline.

“If someone has an idea for a company, we want to give them an easy path forward,” Nugent said. “We may not always say yes, but we will have a process that allows us to adequately vet ideas and determine which ones are going to best lend themselves to a startup.”

Nugent added that the accelerator will be a complement to the successful downtown Birmingham business incubator Innovation Depot and its roster of biotech businesses and other firms.

“What we’re doing at the accelerator is pre-incubating these companies,” she said. “Once they’re ready to be a startup, we’ll spin them out and hopefully they’ll go reside at Innovation Depot or somewhere else in Alabama. We’re hopeful that this thoughtfulness from the beginning will make them much more successful once they are spun out.”

“We want these companies to stay here, grow here and create jobs here.”

The accelerator’s two advisory groups include one made up of representatives from across the UAB campus.

“We’re utilizing all of our resources in a very interdisciplinary way,” Nugent said. “It’s not just the people in my office. We’re also using the business school faculty, the engineering department and content experts from all different disciplines to come together and help us vet these business ideas and create a model of how to take them forward.”

The other advisory committee is composed of community business leaders.

“Instead of inviting them to come in at the end and asking them to fund something, we want them to be part of it from the beginning, so they understand it better,” Nugent said.

“The more people who know about all the different areas of expertise we have and all of the exciting things going on in innovation and entrepreneurship, the better.”

Noted Parkinson’s researcher Andrew West, associate professor of neurology, works n the neurology laboratory at UAB. (Contributed)

Growth potential

Nugent, a senior biotechnology executive with more than 20 years of experience in the health care industry, also serves as president of BioAlabama, which represents life sciences companies across the state.

The industry is one of Alabama’s top business strengths and primed for even more growth, she said.

According to Alabama Department of Commerce data, the state’s life sciences industry has more than 800 establishments, 14,000 jobs and a job growth rate that is increasing twice as fast as the overall private sector.

UAB is a major player in U.S. medical research, with awards of more than $1 billion in National Institutes of Health funding over the past five years. Other key hubs of the state industry are Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Birmingham’s Southern Research and the Mitchell Cancer Institute at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.

“When you talk to institutional investors focused on the life sciences arena, they don’t think of Alabama at first,” Nugent said. “But when you get them here and show them, they pay attention. For the next few years, you’re going to see that more and more, especially as you see UAB accelerating the process of innovation and startup activity.”

UAB will launch the accelerator on Monday, part of a full slate of Innovation Week activities that highlight Birmingham’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.

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