How is Innovation Changing How We Do Business?
HOW IS INNOVATION CHANGING HOW WE DO BUSINESS? WE ASKED EXPERT GREG BARKER
The Frontier Founder Hank Torbert sat down with Greg Barker, president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama and Birmingham-based partner of The Frontier, to discuss industrial innovation and the importance of cross-pollination and adaptability in today’s landscape. We’re grateful for EDPA’s partnership and to Greg for sharing his expertise and offering insights on how cross-sector relationships can help us maximize collaboration.
WHAT DOES “INNOVATION” MEAN TO YOU?
Innovation is the means of implementing new approaches, products, or services to address existing challenges or to realize new opportunities.
THE FRONTIER AIMS TO FOSTER CROSS-POLLINATION AND COLLABORATION AMONG LEADERS ACROSS INDUSTRIES. WHY IS THIS SO IMPORTANT?
Cross-pollination and collaboration are essential to strengthening innovation in industries. By doing so, leaders from across industries can benchmark, which serves as a way to recognize best practices that might not be an exact fit within an industry but are adaptable enough to be impactful. Collaboration is an essential ingredient in innovation to learn from other industries, as they may be addressing similar challenges in a unique way, as a result of a different perspective.
HOW HAVE YOU AND EDPA FOUND VALUE IN CONNECTING WITH OTHER PARTNERS OF THE FRONTIER?
Over our 30-year history, EDPA has long collaborated with partners at the top of their industries in Alabama. We are so proud of our partners like Techstars and Brightstar Capital Partners, true leaders across the country who are bringing a revived sense of energy and inspiration to Alabama. The Frontier has been instrumental as thought leaders in allowing these partnerships to flourish. Our goal is to be connected to the best of the best to make Alabama a stronger home to innovation, and the Frontier is doing a phenomenal job in doing so.
BEFORE YOU TRANSITIONED INTO YOUR ROLE AT EDPA, YOU HELPED WELCOME TECHSTARS ALABAMA AND THE ENERGYTECH ACCELERATOR TO BIRMINGHAM. COULD YOU EXPAND UPON THIS STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP AND HOW THE FRONTIER CONTRIBUTED TO THIS? AND HOW DO YOU HOPE TO SEE PARTNERSHIPS BETWEEN EDPA AND ORGANIZATIONS SUCH AS THE FRONTIER CONTINUE TO ELEVATE ALABAMA’S INNOVATION ECOSYSTEM?
There are numerous examples across the nation that prove that the collision of thought leaders spurs economic development opportunities. For Alabama to continue to benefit from these collaborations, there is no better partner than The Frontier. There’s plenty of examples of leaders looking to innovate, turning to one another, learning, and building on each other’s successes. In 2019, Conserv and Immediate, two Birmingham-based startup companies, shared the stage minutes after announcing their winning pitches in EDPA’s Alabama Launchpad pitch competition. Fast forward to a few weeks ago at the Alabama Launchpad virtual finale, where Immediate Founder and CEO, Matt Pierce, announced Conserv as the winning company pitch once again. People in the innovation community in Alabama are here to work, learn, and grow together. The concept of bringing industry leaders from all over Alabama to collaborate will replicate those collisions that inspire mutual growth.
WHAT DOES ADAPTABILITY LOOK LIKE IN THE CONTEXT OF THE INDUSTRY?
There are two main factors of adaptability in the context of innovation. First, you can adapt your process to make it more efficient or effective. Next, you can adapt your product or service in response to changing market conditions. Ideally, a company or industry wants to be nimble enough to efficiently adapt to either market or process-oriented change. For Alabama, the automotive industry is a shining example of adaptability. Whether it be keeping on top of changes in consumer behavior, introducing elevated levels of creativity in the design process, or approaching new models through a green-tech, sustainable lens, manufacturing within the auto industry in Alabama remains at the cutting edge. Whether product or process, Alabama’s auto industry is ahead of the curve, supporting the innovative trends across our state.
HAVING RECENTLY ENTERED YOUR ROLE AS PRESIDENT OF EPDA, WHAT IS YOUR VISION FOR THE ORGANIZATION? HOW DO YOU SEE EDPA PLAYING A PART IN ALABAMA’S GROWTH IN INNOVATION?
I’ve quickly learned that over the past thirty years, the most important word in EDPA’s name is “Partnership.” We have recently aligned our work within five pillars: lead generation, innovation and entrepreneurship, talent attraction and retention, business intelligence/economic development analytics, and statewide economic development strategy. These are the focal points of the work we do at EDPA, but we surely cannot do the work alone. It’s clear that if we are good partners, and work towards elevating the efforts of those organizations that we work with, Alabama as a whole will be better positioned for success.
WHAT DOES THE INNOVATION LANDSCAPE LOOK LIKE IN ALABAMA? AND WHY IS ALABAMA’S ECOSYSTEM NOTEWORTHY ON A NATIONAL STAGE?
I am truly encouraged by Alabama’s innovation landscape. We have industries advancing like never before, particularly the agriculture tech, health tech, and advanced manufacturing sectors. These provide immense opportunities for innovators across the state to not only make an impact on the sector itself but also grow the State at the same time. These particular sectors are aided by our high caliber research centers and universities; the world-class research supports incredible application beyond the lab or classroom. More than anything, the level of support dedicated to the innovation ecosystem in Alabama today is unmatched in our state’s history. It’s essential to have leaders across the economic development sphere investing in entrepreneurship. Examples of this progress include the Governor’s Innovation Commission and EDPA’s own Alabama Launchpad program. The Alabama Launchpad program saw a record number of applications for its business pitch competition, welcoming 103 applicants from across the state. The synergy between entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders in Alabama allows for noteworthy progress for our state if we capitalize on it correctly.
GOVERNOR KAY IVEY ESTABLISHED THE ALABAMA INNOVATION COMMISSION EARLIER THIS YEAR. TELL US MORE ABOUT THIS COMMISSION AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE STATE OF ALABAMA AS AN EMERGING LEADER IN THE TECH AND INNOVATION SECTOR.
With the establishment of the Innovation Commission, Governor Ivey tells us loud and clear that innovation is emerging as a central part of our state’s progress and economic development strategy. The Governor did an outstanding job of appointing thoughtful leaders from both the public and private sector, which includes leaders from across the country with ties to Alabama. It has been so encouraging to see these leaders working together to develop strategies and key tactics on how Alabama can realize more growth and a better quality of life for citizens throughout the State. The Innovation Commission spans the continuum of innovation in its entirety. Alabama must uphold the highest standard of research and development, promote entrepreneurship and commercialization, support existing businesses, and attract targeted businesses from outside the state. The Commission allows us to shed light, strategize, and implement change throughout this continuum.
WHEN COMPARED TO AREAS LIKE SEATTLE, SILICON VALLEY, AND BOULDER, COLO., WHAT SETS BIRMINGHAM AND THE STATE OF ALABAMA APART AS AN EMERGING INNOVATION HUB?
I am excited about the emergence of Alabama’s innovation hubs, especially over the past few years. Companies like Shipt and Theranest are pioneers for Alabama and have put us on the map for becoming an emerging innovation hub. . .and these are just two examples. The success of these emerging companies is just the start for Alabama: the combination of the success of Alabama entrepreneurs and the hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsored research executed at universities and research centers across the state make it easy to get excited about Alabama’s economic future. We’re proud at EDPA to play a part in the onset of that trajectory, with having the most active, early-stage seed funding opportunity in Alabama. In its 15-year history, Alabama Launchpad has awarded $5 million in nondilutive funding to 100 companies. That investment has come back to reach $400 million in post-money valuation, creating nearly 700 jobs across the state. This program is at the very beginning of the innovation pipeline but we’re proud to take part in making innovation possible in the state. With mentorship and the nature of the community in Birmingham and Alabama, the power of people comes into play. Networking and getting to the expertise you need is far less than six degrees of separation, which truly makes Alabama an ideal emerging innovation hub.
WHY IS ALABAMA THE IDEAL SETTING FOR THE FRONTIER CONFERENCE?
Alabama hosts a cross-section of thriving industries, from forestry, chemical, and steel, to automotive and aerospace. It’s truly a “who’s who” of industrial segments and vertical sectors. We are proud of how many of these leading companies call Alabama home. With both so much progress and so much potential, Alabama is the ideal setting for The Frontier Conference.
INDUSTRY 4.0 IS CHANGING HOW WE DO BUSINESS. WHAT INDUSTRIES ARE INNOVATING THE MOST?
Industries need to prioritize continuity, the ones that are positioned for sustained success are innovating the most. Innovation is only as strong as the perpetuity of its progress. Fortunately for Alabama, there are industries in every segment that are taking this approach to long-term success.
HOW CAN THESE INDUSTRIES CREATE OPPORTUNITIES/JOBS FOR LOCAL ECONOMIES?
It is not enough to have innovative companies, we need companies with sustainable jobs. Innovative products are being developed all over, be it in steel, specialty chemicals, or the likes. Some industries require capital-intensive innovations compared to labor-intensive innovations: it’s essential to have both. Sponsored research being conducted in our research centers and universities creates hundreds of jobs in Alabama, with opportunities like technicians, researchers, and clinicians. Other industries, like the construction industry, are much more labor-intensive but are a sector that has seen tremendous job growth in our state over the past decade or so. 80% of job growth comes from existing businesses, so investing in the growth of companies, both large and small, ensures that we have a healthy job market in Alabama.
WHAT INDUSTRIES SHOULD INVESTORS BE FOCUSED ON IN THE GULF REGION AND CONNECTING WITH OTHER ECO-SYSTEMS (E.G., SILICON VALLEY)?
I believe in the growth of agriculture tech, health tech, education tech: these are industries that have so much potential for our state. I’m also encouraged by the Techstars program and its focus on energy tech. With partners like Alabama Power in our state, there is an incredible opportunity to grow that sector. Another strength of Alabama has been advanced manufacturing, which I hope to centralize as a continued strong suit for our state.
To read more about the Frontier Conference, go to: https://www.thefrontier.co/