Growth Strategy

The University of North Alabama reinvigorates the local economy by promoting an entrepreneurial mindset.
Growth Strategy

THE REGION AROUND Muscle Shoals, Alabama, had a problem. The small rural community had long relied on manufacturing jobs to bolster its economy, but those jobs were disappearing as regional factories closed down. New business graduates had no incentives for starting ventures in the community; more seasoned business owners were looking for better opportunities elsewhere.

“Business and community leaders started saying, ‘We need a different future. We need opportunities for the students who desire to stay here, and we need them to contribute to the knowledge economy,’” says Janyce Fadden, director of strategic engagement at the University of North Alabama’s College of Business in Florence.

The school’s vision statement emphasizes its commitment to the mid-south region, so in 2013, newly appointed dean Gregory Carnes started looking for ways to get the College of Business more deeply involved in the local business community. Fadden, who had just joined the school, began meeting with colleagues at the chamber of commerce, the local business incubator, the economic development office, and the manufacturing extension partnership. They were all interested in boosting businesses in the area known as The Shoals, which consists of the cities of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, and Sheffield, as well as nearby counties.

From this group emerged what Fadden calls a “core team” of like-minded community leaders who began meeting regularly to discuss how to move the region forward. They didn’t—and still don’t—have a formal structure or a chairperson, and even though some of the original members have been replaced by new ones, the group still meets every four to six weeks. “We didn’t know in September of 2013 where we would be today,” says Fadden. “But we started a conversation.”

That conversation led to the Shoals Shift Project, a series of initiatives designed to support entrepreneurship and enhance the digital literacy of students and residents. At the beginning, the core team members didn’t set out articulated goals; they just tried new ideas and stuck with the ones that were teaching students critical skills or having an impact on businesses in the region. The team annually raised about US$150,000 from a combination of federal grants, university funding, private investors, and community sponsors.

The new curriculum is devoted to innovation and entrepreneurship.

That informal approach changed about 18 months into the loose collaboration. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) was allocated a significant amount of money through a program called Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce Economic Revitalization (POWER). The Shoals Business Incubator applied for a grant and received almost US$1 million, to be disbursed over three years. Some of the money went to the university, some to other projects.

“At that point we did have to set some goals,” says Fadden. “We had to articulate how many businesses we would serve, how many jobs we would create, and how much leverage we would secure for private investment. We’re going to exceed every goal we set.”

CREATING THE SHIFT

Six years into its existence, the Shoals Shift Project can point to a series of successful initiatives that have boosted entrepreneurship—and the economy—in the region. They fall into four categories:

Curricular enhancements at the College of Business. By the summer of 2014, the school had introduced a new curriculum devoted to innovation and entrepreneurship; it had also created a number of related minors, including one on human/computer interaction, designed to prepare students to work in tech-oriented businesses. At the same time, the university developed the UNA-NASA Patent Partnership, in which students conduct market analyses and determine commercialization potential for NASA patents.

Co-curricular investments. These included SmartStart, currently a day-and-a-half long event in which teams of university and high school students learn how to make pitches to local investors. While there are no cash prizes, a few of the investors—who act as mentors and judges—have chosen to back student startups. SmartStart was originally offered every spring, but the school is now planning to offer it every semester in order to serve smaller groups more often.

The school also launched the Generator, a student incubator, makerspace, and meeting place; the Project Founder, a funding source for students that gives out awards of between $500 and $2,500; and the Human-Computer Interaction Accelerator, which pairs businesses with students who can design software projects for them, such as mobile apps.

The Generator at the University of North Alabama

The Generator is the University of North Alabama’s student incubator for students who want to start
businesses or get help commercializing their innovations. The Generator is open to all UNA students
regardless of concentration. Photo courtesy of the University of North Alabama.

 

To create a focal point for much of the unfolding activity, the university created the Institute for Innovation and Economic Development in 2016, bringing on board three faculty and staff members. The institute focuses on economic development, corporate consulting, strategy facilitation, and business innovation initiatives.

Finally, the school launched the Institute Fellows consultancy program, which matches students with companies that need help in areas such as marketing, accounting, or data analysis. The university provides funding to pay students $2,500 for their consultancy work. To date, nearly 50 students have acted as fellows. “This piece has been measurably impactful, because not only have the companies benefited from the students’ work, but several of the students were hired by the companies they worked for,” says Fadden.

Community engagement. A number of community-based initiatives also were created to boost the local economy:

  • Shoals Idea Audition. For this three-minute pitch contest, participants don’t write business plans; they simply describe their ideas. Those who need help formulating their ideas can receive advance training from the Shoals Shift team. The audition is open to everyone— students or community members—who compete for $8,000 in prizes.
  • Shoals Spark. This annual challenge asks participants to share ideas that would make the Shoals a better place to live. About 30 ideas are presented every year, including some that have been turned into active projects, such as solar-powered charging stations and a local producers’ market. The cash prizes, which range from $125 to $500, are funded by a local credit union. Shoals Spark was recently expanded to include middle school and high school competitors. “These students are one or two generations away from running the community, and they’re saying what they want to see in the future,” says Fadden. “It’s really fun.”
  • Innovation Week. To spur innovation and entrepreneurship throughout the community, the organizers collaboratively plan public events that all take place during one week in spring. Events like SmartStart weekend are part of the festivities.
  • Strategic Doing workshops. See “Collaborating Strategically" below.

New venture funding. To make sure new entrepreneurial ventures have a chance at succeeding, the Shoals Shift partners developed two sources of seed and angel funding. The Shoals Alabama Launchpad is a regional pre-seed competition that is a spinoff of a statewide competition. It’s hosted by the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA) and led by UNA’s Institute for Innovation and Economic Development, the Shoals Chamber of Commerce, and the Shoals Business Incubator. In the original version of the competition, teams went through several rounds of pitch competitions as they vied for awards totaling about $100,000. Half of the prize money is raised from local businesses and half comes from EDPA.

This initiative, once the most expensive of the Shoals Shift projects, has recently been reimagined as a new event called Liftoff Shoals. “It’s a pre-seed challenge with a $25,000 prize. Participants have to write business plans, and the experience prepares them to apply to other pre-seed challenges like Alabama Launchpad,” Fadden says.

By contrast, the Mane Capital Fund is an angel fund for local startups; it was established in 2016 with $1 million contributed by private investors. Additional grant money for the startup of the fund was provided by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Since the Shoals Shift Project began, 17 student-led startups have been founded and ten LLCs have been launched; in addition, 14 entrepreneurs have participated in Shoals Alabama Launchpad, which has resulted in the creation of ten jobs. And the community has turned out in significant numbers to take part in other initiatives as well.

SHIFTING THE FUTURE

While one goal of the Shoals Shift team is to improve the local economy, another is to help the community rely more on promoting local entrepreneurship and less on attracting outside business to the region. One way the team has tried to create that change in attitude is by bringing in outside experts to expose business leaders to new ways of thinking. For instance, former Atlanta Fed advisor Will Lambe gave a presentation discussing community resiliency.

Another way is by asking local businesspeople to act as mentors and judges for the competitions, which has created “a community of business leaders who understand that this is one of the ways we can build the future,” says Fadden. “Local leaders would still like us to attract businesses to the region, but they want to see a balance.”

In addition to building entrepreneurial skills among residents, the Shoals Shift team is promoting digital literacy. The university is offering more minors related to computer science and information systems. The chamber of commerce and the Shoals Economic Development Authority launched a project called Remote Shoals, designed to attract workers who live in the area but work virtually for organizations located elsewhere. “Part of that strategy is to try to build a big enough base of knowledge workers that we could attract a knowledge-based company here,” Fadden explains.

Education is a huge piece of that puzzle. While only 20 percent of the residents in the Shoals have college degrees, that figure is 44 percent in nearby Huntsville. “This is a reflection of the types of jobs that are available in the two different communities,” Fadden says. “We need to change the types of jobs available here if we’re going to change the educational content of the people. It’s a long game. But we have to start.”

It’s plain to Fadden why it’s critical for the university to participate in these strategies. “Eighty percent of our students come from within 100 miles of our campus. If we’re not helping the community, there’s no future for the university,” she says.

She adds, “The question we’re really trying to answer is: How do you bring the university, the institutions, and the civic structures together with private market firms? We want to build this civic market interface so we have a robust economy.”

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