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They didn’t—and still don’t—have a formal structure or a chairperson, and even though some of the original members have been replaced by new ones, the group still meets every four to six weeks.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
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 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
- 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
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