Regions all around the South are trying to foster their startup ecosystems, and nowhere is that more evident than in North Alabama. Anchored by Huntsville, population 680,000, the area is already home to lots of established industries, including aerospace, defense, manufacturing and biotechnology. In fact, one of the biggest names in genome discovery, the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology, is located in the massive Cummings Research Park, which looking at land mass alone, is second only to North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. If nothing else, that shows huge potential for growth.
Support organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County and RocketHatch, a startup community for the region that was founded in 2014, among others, see this potential and are helping infuse the area with a variety of programs designed to support entrepreneurs.
Pammie Jimmar, small business and events director for the chamber, says one of its most popular programs is the quarterly Ignite Forum, which features local entrepreneurs who candidly share their experiences and insight into starting and growing a business. This past weekend, RocketHatch held the inaugural 24Hour Generator in Huntsville, which placed 40+ students from the region and beyond on teams with mentors and facilitators to propose entrepreneurial solutions to pressing problems from businesses and organizations in the community. During the event, participants and audience members also got the chance to hear from Brandon Kruse, a Huntsville entrepreneur who in 2014 bought and old public school building and turned it into Huntsville West, a hip coworking space and business incubator.
Other RocketHatch resources for startups include Co.Starters, a nationwide program that walks creative small-business owners through lean, effective business modeling methods in a simple and intuitive way, and with the help of a supportive community, Investor Day, which gives local entrepreneurs a chance to test their pitch with real investors. Last year, RocketHatch announced a clean-energy accelerator program, but it has yet to get off the ground.
Meanwhile, the University of Alabama Huntsville continues to receive federal backing for its Invention to Innovation Center, which will provide physical facilities, activities and services to support inventors, entrepreneurs, high-tech companies and partners in the innovation process. After winning a $3 million grant last year, it picked up another $500,000 last month. The $9 million center is scheduled to break ground next year.
Antonio Montoya, RocketHatch’s CEO, says the region is primed for entrepreneurial growth, in large part due to its high percentage of people in “prime entrepreneurial age.” He says millennials make up about 20 percent of the population, while Generation Xers make up another 16 percent.