The ever-expanding use and importance of technology in every facet of our lives—at home, at work, in schools and in government operations—has made the sector one of the fastest-growing and most essential in our economy. In recognition of this, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey established The Alabama Innovation Commission in July 2020. The group is the state’s first to wholly focus on innovation with equal emphasis on entrepreneurship and technology and comprises both private sector leaders and policy makers.
They’ve been tasked with identifying ways to push the state’s tech industry to new heights and boost the state’s appeal to related businesses and then implement them through the passage of new laws and increased funding, as well as broader collaboration. The main goal is to spark and support economic development by showing existing tech companies and the next generation of tech startups that Alabama has what it takes—the skilled workforce, the friendly environment and the creative culture—to advance their visions and their profits.
The commission has enjoyed some early successes, including spearheading the passage of three tech and innovation-related bills in the 2021 session of the Alabama Legislature. Charisse Stokes, Executive Director of the Chamber’s TechMGM, was hand-selected by the governor to serve as co-chair of the Innovate Alabama’s education and corporate committee. She touted the specifics of the group’s recent wins. “We will stand up an Alabama Innovation Corporation that will help to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship across the state. In addition, there’s now a statewide matching fund to provide money for early-stage companies,” she said. “Lastly, a much-needed broadband bill was passed that will help to provide internet to rural communities within the state.”
Stokes played an instrumental role in the commission’s discussions and efforts to provide research, data and input for policies to support its initiatives, all of which will benefit Montgomery directly. She elaborated on the value of her involvement. “This kind of collaboration with our partners in state government makes Montgomery a highly competitive destination for companies and individuals looking to start-up, scale or relocate for growth and success, particularly companies that seek to do business with our DoD partners at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, with programs like BESPIN and the MGMWERX,” she said.
The Montgomery TechLab, one aspect of the Chamber’s TechMGM strategy, which is also led by Stokes, makes the most of the vast pool of talent and tech brain power already in our area—including the talent Stokes listed above—by connecting military assets, higher education institutions, private tech companies and startups. It, in combination with the other pieces of TechMGM, continues to open doors of opportunity that are enhancing the capital city’s already blossoming tech industry.
The most recent addition to TechMGM, The Lab on Dexter, launched in late August. The state-of-the-art innovation facility fronts historic Dexter Avenue downtown and provides a collaborative learning environment for entrepreneurs to create a social and tech innovation ecosystem by featuring tech educational programming, networking, small business suites and co-working spaces for lease as well as tech and entrepreneurial training space. The Lab will further establish Montgomery’s position as a center of innovation, entrepreneurship and excellence for our nation’s defense, and its location on Dexter Avenue is intentional. Pivotal moments in the civil rights struggle played out on this thoroughfare, and the Lab will put emphasis on developing underrepresented talent and companies to fuel sustainable economic prosperity.
Stokes noted one of Montgomery’s major positives that’s driven its progress thus far: the city’s ability to collaborate and create strong public-private partnerships. The ties binding the area’s tech industry and the local military presence are paying off big, according to Stokes. “BESPIN has received more than $25 million in funding to support mobile application development, and MGMWERX continues to support leading-edge technology and entrepreneurship initiatives with Air University [at Maxwell-Gunter AFB].”
Program Executive Officer for Business Enterprise Systems Richard Aldridge echoed Stokes on the significance of the military in Montgomery. According to him, it has provided an abundant fuel source for the city’s tech engine. “The Air Force is the number one employer of IT professionals in the Montgomery area,” he said. But it doesn’t stop with job creation. The Air Force community has also provided tutors, tech-focused mentoring and vital resources for Montgomery-area students. “We provide IT-related scholarships to ASU and AUM as well as education training at Carnegie Mellon University for the robotics teachers from multiple counties within the River Region,” Aldridge said. Thanks to the support they got at home, many of these students return to the area and now work with Aldridge. “Our Director of Engineering grew up in Montgomery, graduated in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech, served honorably in the Air Force, and is now back in Montgomery continuing to serve our country,” he said.
The military also works to strengthen the bonds with River Region businesses, the Chamber, area higher ed institutions and local and state government. In helping the community, the Air Force has helped itself—just another arm of the symbiotic relationship the River Region has long enjoyed with Maxwell Gunter. “One example that has really helped our innovative arm, BESPIN, has been the sharing of public-use space with the Chamber and local governments,” Aldridge said.
He pointed to three recent changes that have allowed the Air Force to execute its programs more effectively. The first was partnering with a small business in the city called Alaska Northstar Resources that has proven expertise in cloud deployments and operations. “Its core competency, particularly in the Air Force’s Cloud One, helps us with capabilities using Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google and Akamai. They’ve been very helpful to us, ensuring much higher probability of delivery success and speed to delivery,” Aldridge said. There are also several mobile app developers now located in Montgomery that are helping BESPIN quickly conceive, build and operate new Air Force mobile capabilities. “Also, MGMWERX in downtown Montgomery has contributed to the incubation of new companies and capabilities, some of which offer capabilities that could help the Air Force,” Aldridge said. “Collectively, these efforts have helped us directly with military and civilian personnel and indirectly by growing the software/IT professional community.”
WIDENING THE NET
As Aldridge stressed, crucial to truly harnessing our area’s talent is not overlooking any of it. This fact is underscored by two of the key factors Stokes says are key to accomplishing all The Alabama Innovation Commission’s goals and that she notes are already hard at work in Montgomery: resiliency and inclusivity. “With the Lab on Dexter, we will have an increased emphasis on developing underrepresented companies. That’s crucial because Black tech entrepreneurs are on the rise, and developing black talent is immensely beneficial. It’s been said that minority women are the most prepared and successful in running sustainable businesses; however, they represent the lowest percentage of tech leaders nationwide.” She praised Montgomery Mayor Steven L. Reed for his guidance in this arena. “He’s been a great leader and encouraged us to develop programs to promote underrepresented business development growth,” Stokes said. “We’ve also discussed incentive programs to attract remote and virtual workers.”
The city has already drawn several minority-owned tech companies from other areas to open offices here, including Fearless and Analog Teams. “Analog Teams is currently hiring for IT professionals to be located in Montgomery,” Stokes said. “They have an office in the Virginia-DC area and after participating in the Montgomery TechLab accelerator program, they are anxious to open here.” Anwar Shahid, owner and founder of Propelled Technologies, is another example, and he sees the local tech industry on the rise. “Montgomery area technology is growing,” he said. “Evidence of this are the many business partners I have that are headquartered locally in this space. There’s always room for improvement, but I believe that will happen in the future, especially with the Air Force’s large cyber presence here.”
All this activity puts the city on a path that local tech-biz owners, like Cheryl Brown with Zeal River Technology, say can remove obstacles and clear the way forward. “The only challenge for future growth in Montgomery’s tech and innovation industry that I can foresee is attracting more technology giants that can help channel this ecosystem into an even more vibrant industry,” Brown said. “We must continue to foster an environment of diversity, STEM education and innovation centered around technology. Further, we need to support our local emerging technology companies that help drive the economy. As our local, small businesses grow and expand their footprints, they will have the resources and relationships to enhance what we already have.”
EXPANDING OPPORTUNITIES & OPTIONS
That’s good news for everyone in the region, as the quality-of-life enhancements that follow a large, dynamic high-tech industry are deep and wide and keep building on themselves, according to Stokes. “Residents are encouraged when they see positive growth and high-tech development infused in their local community,” she said. “Living in an area with great infrastructure, wonderful outdoor recreation programs and a reasonable cost of living all help to attract people to the area.”
There are additional pluses accompanying the growth and diversification of the industry that spread throughout the economy, impacting all residents in positive ways. When additional tech companies see an existing tech industry that’s prosperous, they’re drawn to start, grow and expand in Montgomery, creating jobs and bringing more people here who, in turn, add taxes to the city’s coffers.
It also gets us ready to face future challenges by taking full advantage of the city’s strong network of colleges and universities, allowing us to upskill our workforce and digitize companies. “The pandemic opened the eyes of many to the importance of digital services and skills,” Stokes said. “Several of our local colleges and universities have integrated more coursework to better prepare our students and community for the competitive digital workforce.” Trenholm is now the only community college in the Southeast to offer a cloud technology associate degree with Amazon Web Services. Additionally, Heptagon IT and Zigabyte have both partnered with Alabama State University to provide network and systems engineering internships.
All this tech and education activity energizes the area’s broader startup community, too, a trend the Chamber has championed and advanced with the Montgomery TechLab. “It was really the catalyst to growing engagement with the startup community,” Stokes said. “We had a phenomenal Demo Day the end of April that brought lots of visibility to the tech and innovation entrepreneurial startup scene. The growth of this acceleration program compliments the work being done by the Alabama Innovation Commission. These initiatives show how we can provide resources and programming to the startup community.” She shared proof of the TechLab’s achievements thus far. “At Ease Rentals, a startup sparked in the TechLab, has joined forces with Faulkner University to provide student internships,” she said.
As the industry experiences expansion, we’re seeing the term “tech industry” itself balloon beyond its conventional borders. “We’re not just talking about ‘traditional’ IT careers anymore,” Stokes said. “There’s a clear intersection of tech, innovation and the arts.” She sees evidence of and organic collaboration between the local creative community and the local tech community as they both get bigger.
Brown commented on the benefits a growing tech industry provides for the future of the city, the students of the present. “The sprouting tech industry in Montgomery continues to have a profound effect on our city, and this effect is most observable amongst our youth,” she said. “Technology and innovation have created career paths that are certainly contributing to success. Our youth have a productive way to not only explore their interests, but to also develop valuable skills that differentiate them within a professional work environment.”
Today, the tech industry in the city is poised for accelerated progress, and Stokes is excited about what she sees ahead and thrilled to help ensure Montgomery is top-of-mind when others around Alabama, the South and the nation think “tech.” “With the creation of two military-related innovation centers, MGMWERX and BESPIN, and The Lab on Dexter coming online, we’re growing by leaps and bounds,” she said, “and this is a GREAT time to educate stakeholders from across the state to better understand the dynamic activities happening in our capital.”
Simpatico with the mission of The Alabama Innovation Commission, Reignite AL is a pitch competition hosted by a statewide initiative called Launchpad Alabama that helps entrepreneurs get needed funds and includes some of Montgomery’s top educators in its ranks. Dr. Kennedy Wekesa, Vice Provost at Alabama State University, explained why its work is crucial to the local innovation ecosystem. “One of the biggest challenges entrepreneurs face is access to capital. Early seed funding supports startup stages such as research and development, market research and product finalizations,” Wekesa said. “Without these funds, many entrepreneurs will never successfully launch their innovative ideas.” Wekesa went on to emphasize how innovation is contagious. “Their ideas spark innovation leading to new products and new markets, and the success of an entrepreneur not only has a positive impact on the business launch and individual profits, but can positively impact the economy and provide innovative solutions to social issues faced by global communities.” That expansion includes increased diversity, something Aldridge highlights with pride. “There is no unit in the entire Air Force with more Black Americans in technology, engineering, contracting, cyber and leadership positions than our team at the Gunter Annex of Maxwell AFB. We also know it is cascading into other area companies,” he said.
BRAND NEW: The most recent addition to TechMGM, The Lab on Dexter, launched in late August. The state-of-the-art innovation facility fronts historic Dexter Avenue downtown and provides a collaborative learning environment for entrepreneurs to create a social and tech innovation ecosystem by featuring tech educational programming, networking, small business suites and co-working spaces for lease as well as tech and entrepreneurial training space.
THE LAB ON DEXTER:
Dr. Nichole Thompson
- Title Executive Director, The Lab on Dexter
- Role: Thompson serves as the Executive Director of The Lab on Dexter, which includes the oversight of day-to-day operations and the execution of the Lab’s mission to expand the tech, entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem within the River Region.
- Vision: “The River Region has unlimited economic growth potential with a large part of our success dependent upon the growth, development and innovation of small businesses. The Lab on Dexter will be a conduit for small and minority businesses through providing education, collaborative activities and incubation to contribute to the economic growth of the region.”
- Title: Executive Director, TechMGM
- Role: The primary mission of Stokes’ work is to facilitate the growth of Montgomery’s tech and innovation ecosystem.
- Vision: “Our goal is to leverage the Montgomery community’s valued assets to create a vibrant, attractive and sustainable tech, innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Executive Director of TechMGM Charisse Stokes highlighted the Chamber’s part in the River Region’s recent tech industry surge, noting the organization’s strategic support and the establishment of long-range priorities that continue to drive progress and pay dividends.
MBJ: WHAT ARE THE CHAMBER’S PRIORITIES WHEN IT COMES TO THE TECH INDUSTRY?
STOKES: To assist with public-private partnerships in making it all happen. This means:
- Bringing the right players to the table to enhance our tech and innovation ecosystem.
- Marketing the city and community to attract tech talent and companies to the area.
- Leveraging technology to improve the visitor experience to the area.
- Developing Montgomery’s tech and innovation sectors by addressing the need for physical infrastructure (office space, collaborative space, development space), establishing an innovation district or center in the downtown area, expanding existing tech and innovation programs (such as MGMWERX, BESPIN, MGM TechLab) and developing new programs to support continued workforce development and certification programs, and recruiting new firms.
- Developing programs to support entrepreneurship and startups and focusing on small business support and growth, pursuing grant programs and relevant partnerships to create a business incubation and acceleration program, and engaging with public sector partners to streamline regulatory processes with the goal of creating a more business-friendly environment in Montgomery.
NEED TO KNOW: Latest Tech Industry Trends
Today, no matter the size, service or scope, every business relies on technology to some extent. We asked local tech leader Anwar Shahid, owner of Propelled Technologies, to home in on the trends that are impacting business now.
What are some of the biggest and latest trends in the tech industry? Some of the latest trends would be a new blockchain technology called Non-Fungible Token (NFTs) and an encryption called CoreVue. At a very high level, NFTs allow an owner of a rate painting to create a NFT for it and every time that painting is sold the original owner gets a cut based on the block chain. For example, the NBA officially made a NFT marketplace called Top Shots where fans can buy, sell and trade NBA moments, which are packaged highlight clips that operate like trading cards. Top Shots recently sold a Lebron James highlight for more than $300,000.
CoreVUE is a lightweight, yet extremely powerful new application for providing robust data security to your network, regardless of hardware or operating system.
What’s the latest news that small businesses need to know about cyber security and data protection? Ransomware. Small businesses need to understand they can also be a target of this threat. I recommend they always download updates, ensure third party vendors are also secure and have an incident response plan already in place in case their business becomes a victim.
What is the latest news regarding tech-related regulations that affect businesses? The Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC). This regulation is mandatory for all contractors and subcontractors that do business with the Department of Defense (DoD) and is widely being adopted by other areas and organizations too. Once this goes into effect, every small business that does business with the DoD and certain federal agencies will be required to have this certification. A certified third party assessor will review all your cybersecurity processes and procedures to ensure you are meeting the standards.
ASK THE EXPERT - Q: What one technology trend should small businesses be aware of?
“Small businesses need to prepare to adapt to today’s world of technology. Using virtual and cloud tools is the new way to do business.” - Eugene Tinker, CEO, Certified Technical Experts
“The most significant trend we are seeing in technology is the need to secure data and systems that small businesses rely on for their continued operations. In addition to protecting the company from losses tied to attacks on systems and data breaches, there is also a growing need for these organizations to be able to show an information security posture to meet federal and state regulations, cyber insurance requirements and even requirements from their own client’s vendor management programs. Fortunately, we are also seeing a next generation of information security solutions that are now available to small businesses. These security solutions are more affordable today and provide technical and administrative safeguards to assist in combating the threats and in governing information security.” - Brian Driskill, Senior Manager, Jackson Thornton
“Technologies that support a mobile workforce. With COVID-19 still very much a reality, small businesses need to have the right technologies to enable work-from-home employees, tools like VoIP phone systems, collaboration tools like Teams, Slack and Zoom, cloud computing platforms. Last spring, we rushed to support businesses sending employees home to work; today, it has become the new normal for some companies.” - Michael Lange, Managing Partner, ABS Technology