When you think of tech hubs – places with all of the resources to support innovative IT companies – you think of Silicon Valley, of course, and perhaps Austin, Boston and New York City. Would it surprise you to learn that an up-and-coming city in the southeastern part of the U.S. is also working hard to join those ranks?
When I say “Alabama,” what comes to mind? Lynyrd Skynyrd’s famous song “Sweet Home Alabama”? Definitely. Big burly football players and four NCAA national championships in a row? For sure. Silicon Valley of the Southeast? Wait, what?
Unless you live near Birmingham, Alabama, that last reference probably wouldn’t cross your mind, but that is definitely an aspiration for the greater Birmingham region. I recently spent a few days touring the business hubs of that charming southern city and I can tell you that Birmingham has more to offer than sweet tea, southern rock and football.
The city’s business leaders are purposefully diversifying their manufacturing base, expanding into a tight-knit community focused on R&D, medicine, banking and information technology. My visit let me explore what’s developing in the IT sector, and I like what I saw.
My tour started at The Edge of Chaos (TEOC), a University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) think tank designed to exploit the creativity, innovation and intellectual capacity of the university. The Edge of Chaos brings together the major disciplines on campus – medical, IT, engineering and business – to capture cross-discipline interaction and spur new ideas and projects. The belief is that bright people from all of those areas are necessary to create advanced solutions for complex problems. Among the projects coming from TEOC are:
• Brain Mapping – a collaboration of neurology, electrical engineering and IT to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease
• Medical Device Forum – cross collaboration to develop new medical devices and processes
• Equipment Safety – new testing methods and standards for sports and safety equipment, specifically football helmets that can sense excessive forces
While The Edge of Chaos is a think tank that spurs ideas and projects, the value of ideas comes to fruition through smart execution. This is where Birmingham’s Innovation Depot steps in with support to bring new companies to market. Innovation Depot is a business incubation facility and program that focuses on the development of emerging biotechnology/life science, information technology and service businesses, operating in partnership with the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Innovation Depot currently has more than 90 businesses in the incubation stage. They are housed together in an enormous facility that used to be a large retail store. The hulking building sat empty for two decades before the community turned it into a nationally recognized showcase of business creativity. Innovation Depot has had a billion dollar-plus economic impact on the greater Birmingham region in the past 5 years.
Some of the startups that have gone though development at Innovation Depot include:
• Malcovery Security – A provider of actionable cybersecurity intelligence and forensic analysis, delivered through software and services that target cyber criminals and their activities. The company’s technology provides the ability to identify the root sources of cybercrime attacks (servers, perpetrators, locations, etc.), delivering rich intelligence information about cross-brand attacks and targeted attacks, as well as advanced notification of emerging e-mail-based threats. Malcovery’s security solutions provide the unique intelligence required to respond effectively to attacks on your brand, to disrupt phishing activities and to successfully prosecute cybercriminals.
Malcovery’s early technology was developed by students and faculty at UAB. The university provided investment funds to spin the technology off for business use.
• 2B Solutions, Inc. – This company specializes in Microsoft Dynamics Customer Relationship Management (CRM), iOS development, and mobile applications that give organizations the ability to respond to their customers and critical events from anywhere. Dynamics CRM offerings include deployment and customizations for businesses of all sizes in industries of finance, health services, education, retail, distribution, warehousing, and government. 2B Solutions also has developed mobile applications for product inventory and store management, mobile sales, asset tracking, and event tracking among others.
• VIPARR – This company enables remote experts and team members to interactively collaborate within their workspace to diagnose and solve the most pressing and complex problems in real time. Picture a pair of leading surgeons working in different cities to solve a complex case in real time. Imagine a leading explosives expert providing hands-on experience via remote link to a conflict area at a moment’s notice. VIPAAR’s mission is to increase the efficiency and accuracy of problem solving and be the definitive provider of shared first person virtual interactive solutions.
Following my tour of Innovation Depot – which included a great demonstration from Malcovery Security, details to come in a future article – my hosts from the Birmingham Business Alliance took me to the National Computer Forensics Institute (NCFI) in nearby Hoover, Alabama. NCFI was established in 2007 to provide training to federal, state and local law enforcement officers to conduct basic electronic crimes investigations, respond to network intrusion incidents, and conduct computer forensics examinations. State and local prosecutors and judges also receive training so they can understand how to appropriately present and evaluate digital evidence in court.
The NCFI facility in Alabama is the only one of its kind in the country. It is supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the United States Secret Service. Since 2008, more than 2,600 law enforcement officials, prosecutors and judges have gone through the training, and the wait list to get into the various courses is four times as long as the list of those trained.
Deputy Director of the center Barry Page explains why there is a dire need for such training. “If you think about it, there’s digital evidence in almost every crime today. For instance, it’s possible to use cell phone records to determine someone’s whereabouts at a given time—or at least where their phone was. This can help establish an alibi or show that the phone was near the scene of the crime. In some cases, a suspect’s PC might contain evidence of web searches on crime-related topics, or inappropriate materials such as child pornography. Increasingly this type of evidence is being used in trials, and the legal community must understand how to collect, handle, present and evaluate it to obtain convictions.”
A regional field office of the Electronic Crimes Task Force, part of the Secret Service, is housed at the same facility. This group of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies investigates sophisticated cyber crimes that threaten financial systems.
All in all, the business and tech communities of greater Birmingham are pulling together to make this rebirthed city a hub for innovative companies and well educated people. The hope is that large established IT companies will notice the wealth of resources and low cost of living and open regional sales offices, customer call centers and even R&D labs in sweet home Alabama.
Linda Musthaler (LMusthaler@essential-iws.com) is a Principal Analyst with Essential Solutions Corp. which researches the practical value of information technology and how it can make individual workers and entire organizations more productive. Essential Solutions offers consulting services to computer industry and corporate clients to help define and fulfill the potential of IT.