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‘Accelerating Alabama’ panel looks to the state’s economic present – and future

Accelerator programs are seen as key to Alabama’s ongoing emergence as a growth center for technology, innovation and entrepreneurialism. Their role and contributions – facilitating access to investors, mentors, services and other critical support for startup and early-stage companies – was the subject of “Accelerating Alabama: The Rise of Accelerator Programs,” a panel discussion hosted by the Alabama Collective on Oct. 6.

The discussion was presented as part of the Alabama Collective’s “All Access” programming in conjunction with the Morehouse Tuskegee Classic football game Oct. 8 at Birmingham’s historic Legion Field. It is the latest of several events and activities hosted by the organization, which was launched in 2021 to strengthen the partnership between diverse tech, innovation, and entrepreneurial ventures and initiatives in Birmingham and Montgomery.

“We are bringing a genuine focus on elevating minority technology talent and supporting and encouraging entrepreneurs,” said Charise Stokes, executive director of TechMGM, in introductory remarks at the panel discussion in Birmingham. Along with TechBirmingham, TechMGM led the formation of the Alabama Collective to help build a collaborative approach to positioning the central Alabama region as a major innovation hub in the Southeast. Accelerators are a critical element.

“We see the power of accelerators in an ecosystem of tech entrepreneurship,” Stokes said to the crowd of about 60 at the Wine Loft in downtown Birmingham. “They really are the fuel for what we’re accomplishing from a standpoint of technology and innovation.”

Panelists for “Accelerating Alabama” were Lindsay Edwards, chief investment officer of Opportunity Alabama; Brooke Gillis, program manager for TechStars Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator; Charles Jackson, program director at Montgomery TechLab; Nikki Johnson, director of the Bronze Valley Accelerator; and Douglas Watson, managing director of the health tech accelerator for Prosper.

Tony Smoke, senior vice president of Marketing and Economic Development at Alabama Power, moderated the panel. Smoke said Alabama Power and public and private sector partners across the state see expanding economic opportunity as the key to Alabama’s future and are collaborating to make it happen.

“The catalyst to make Alabama a better state is in this room,” said Smoke. “Supporting this ecosystem is the best thing we can do for the future of Alabama and its people.”

The discussion focused on the variety of accelerator programs in Alabama and why they are instrumental in efforts to attract startups, diversify local and state economies, and foster the startup and growth of minority and women-owned businesses. Among the topics were retaining technical and creative talent in Alabama; eliminating opportunity gaps in education and employment by investing time and resources in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs); using innovation to create new opportunities across business sectors; and the deliberateness of efforts to help startups thrive.

“In larger cities,” Watson said, “founders don’t get the individual, ‘concierge’ service and attention they get here. The people and organizations that support founders in Birmingham and Montgomery are doing it to build a community. That attitude attracts people and makes them want to stay.”

Smoke referred to collaboration as “the magic sauce” for ensuring immediate and long-term growth and progress in Alabama. The panel agreed that collaborative efforts already beginning to bear fruit bode well for the future.

“We’re accomplishing more by collaborating,” said Gillis. “We’re better together.”

The panel was also asked to predict what Alabama’s tech and innovation ecosystem will look like in 10 years. Answers envisioned the impacts of continued growth and recruitment of local and outside sources of capital, effectively targeted investments in education and training, and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“In 10 years, we want to see larger and more frequent exits by founders,” said Edwards. “We’ll also be seeing the real impact of Opportunity Zones, including how investments in Opportunity Zones have been used to leverage things like historic tax credits to help rehab existing buildings.”

“We’ll be successful in introducing entrepreneurship to students as an option for their future,” Johnson predicted.

Following the discussion, Smoke reflected on Alabama Power’s rationale for supporting the Alabama Collective and facilitating the panel discussion – and on the company’s overall effort to enhance the climate for growth in technology, innovation and entrepreneurialism.

“These are the industries that will carry Alabama into the future,” Smoke said. “Having the opportunity to support these businesses and grow Alabama’s economy is what’s important for us. That’s why we’re spending time and effort in this space.”

Tony Smoke on the importance of Alabama accelerator programs from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.