Members of Birmingham’s startup community, innovation economy and tech-based companies gathered at Sloss Tech and made it emphatically clear that the tech ecosystem in the Magic City is, well, magical.
Even Mayor Randall Woodfin likened what is happening in the innovation economy in Birmingham today to the steel industry boom that gave the city its nickname more than a century ago.
“I’m putting the whole innovative and tech space on your shoulders, but I’m pushing you and cheering you on the entire way because the city of Birmingham needs you,” Woodfin told the sold-out audience at the Lyric Theatre on Aug. 2.
Woodfin said Birmingham’s economy emerged from one based on steel to a diversified one in health care, financial services and manufacturing. Today, Woodfin said technology is disrupting all those industries and it’s important that Birmingham learn how to marry the two.
“You all are the disruptors, in a positive way, for the trajectory of the way we need to take the city of Birmingham,” he said.
For instance, he said Birmingham needs to “double-down and triple-down” on biotech, biomedicine and personalized medicine enabled by technology and innovation. The same is true for manufacturing, using the assets the city has – in particular, its unparalleled transportation infrastructure – to enhance that industry.
Woodfin talked about his own stumbles – failing the bar before becoming a lawyer and losing his first run for elected office before eventually becoming mayor of Birmingham – before encouraging those at Sloss Tech.
“As it relates to the economy of this city, you all in this room are responsible for this city’s future,” he said. “There will be stumbles. You will fail. You will lose. But you will get back up because the city of Birmingham needs you.”
Woodfin’s address ended up being the perfect scene-setter for a day when Birmingham’s tech leaders celebrated successes, launched startups and spoke frankly about shortcomings.
Successes celebrated included Wyndy, the babysitting app Tommy Mayfield founded in 2017 to make it easier for parents to find, hire and pay a trusted babysitter. Mayfield said the company has received another round of funding that will enable it to add staff and expand its geographic footprint.
Mayfield was on the startup panel that talked about what Birmingham is doing right and what it could be doing better to support startups. For instance, offering its thousands of employees access to the Wyndy app or babysitting credits would be a great benefit to the employees and directly support a local startup, he said.
A trio of Shipt employees used Sloss Tech to launch their new company, Linq. The company allows people to digitally share business card information through their phones without having to download an app.
Elliott Potter, one of the co-founders, said they were inspired by Sloss Tech a year ago to have a new product ready by this year’s event. He said they never dreamed they would have their own panel to help kick off this year’s Sloss Tech.
“We’ve gotten the best business feedback we’ve ever gotten,” Potter said. “This was our public debut. All of the feedback we’ve gotten today is absolutely crucial.”
Potter said the team will make adjustments to the program based on the feedback they received.
“It’s been an awesome journey and a lot of fun,” he said.
The three continue to work at Shipt, which supports them as they pursue their own startup plans. It’s an example of how the Birmingham tech economy is perpetuating itself by fostering new startups.
“The tech ecosystem in Birmingham in general is very much supportive; collaborative and synergistic,” Potter said. “We’re just happy to be riding the wave.”
Sloss Tech did make it clear, however, that more can be done to ensure everyone who wants to ride that wave can do so. The women in technology panel was real and raw in highlighting that Birmingham, like other cities, can do more to be inclusive, especially when it comes to women.
Deon Gordon, president of TechBirmingham, said Birmingham is a city that has proved it may not get inclusion right the first time, but it has the wherewithal to keep working at it until it does.
TechBirmingham is using a grant from the National Center for Women and Information Technology to recruit, retain and advance women from K-12 and higher education through industry and entrepreneurial careers.
Organizations like TechBirmingham are sowing other seeds to address the city’s future needs in the tech economy.
Gordon pointed to a new coding initiative TechBirmingham is rolling out in 12 city schools this year. It will include professional development for teachers, access to equipment and curriculum for students and the creation of an Advanced Placement program for those who excel in the program.
“Those three things right there, research tells us, can really not just help move needles, but start to move mountains in terms of kids and their proficiency and their self-efficacy,” Gordon said. “Do they believe they can do this? Do they believe that they have a future in STEM and in coding?”
Gordon said it’s important to let young people know there are futures in the industry that don’t require programming or even coding skills.
“Everybody has a role to play in this and to the degree that we can illuminate those various roles and how they tie into this larger tech ecosystem, we will be much better for it,” he said.
Sloss Tech offered much to take in, which keynote speaker Alexis Ohanian pointed out. He said one of the key traits he looks for in a startup’s founder is relentlessness because that speaks to the drive and understanding he or she has for what it is they are undertaking.
The co-founder of Reddit and now an avid investor in startups said there is much to like about what is happening in Birmingham today. He said Birmingham seems to be a place that has talent, a lower cost of living, a high quality of life and a place that could foster startups on a grand scale.
“It’s a very good time for the tech community here to be starting to thrive,” Ohanian told Alabama NewsCenter in an interview.
He said tech-enabled entrepreneurship is a powerful force in the world today that can help bring about important change.
“I do think talent is universally distributed, it’s just opportunity has not always been,” Ohanian said. “I think you can already see that starting to change in tech hubs like Birmingham.”