For decades, Mobile has had a reputation of being just a few steps behind other cities of its size. Some like it this way; others push for change. But everyone can agree that Mobile is a unique city with immense potential.
The team at Innovation PortAL, an organization that supports startup companies in the central Gulf Coast region, wants to stop talking about potential. Mobile’s time to shine, they say, isn’t sometime in the future — it’s right now. And they believe one of the Port City’s strongest assets is the ecosystem they’ve developed to encourage Gulf Coast entrepreneurs to thrive.
Mobile: Showing Up and Shining Strong
Michelle Parvinrouh, Mobile native and daughter of entrepreneur Nasser Parvinrouh of Nasser Gymnastics, moved back to Mobile and began her tenure as Innovation PortAL’s executive director in December 2019. Parvinrouh, who spent a decade working in Denver’s economic development sector, says Mobile’s recent economic progress, specifically centered around startup companies, is impressive on a national scale.
“Mobilians who haven’t left Mobile often have a negative narrative about it and what it doesn’t have, but in this domain, I’m telling you, Mobile is showing up and shining strong,” she says. “I tell my contacts about the momentum in this city, and they’re all very impressed. Potential is used as a bad word here, but Mobile is killing it, and we need to be talking about that.”
Creating a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem
Innovation PortAL was created in 2016 as a joint project of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, the City of Mobile, Mobile County and the University of South Alabama.
Its purpose is to create an economic ecosystem that allows early stage, high growth startup companies to succeed in the Port City and along the central Gulf Coast.
“When we talk about early stage, high growth companies, we typically mean those that are going to grow outside of their local and domestic reach quickly,” Parvinrouh says. “Think about companies with hundreds of thousands of users and a national or global reach. This obviously lends itself to tech-based companies, but also includes product-based companies with business models like Dollar Shave Club.”
In the past three years, Innovation PortAL has served over 90 of these companies by providing free services like direct consulting, partnerships, mentorship and more.
“We call it an incubator, and to understand how it works, it’s helpful to think about a baby incubator,” Parvinrouh says. “That incubator is an environment where babies can be nurtured until they can be self-sustaining. Similarly, we provide those founders who are trying to make it with a workspace, educational and growth resources, mentoring and funding sources. We do all of this by collaborating strongly with other entities in the community where we have overlapping services.”
Trey Byrum, founder of Scottsman Tools and Alabama Pipe Welder’s Academy, has benefitted from time in the Innovation PortAL incubator. Byrum began his welding career in the Navy in 2003 and spent 15 years in the industry before moving back to Mobile to care for his mother. He saw a need for “safer tools and safer schools” and began inventing welding tools in his kitchen.
“He started selling them here and there on eBay, and pretty soon, he developed a whole suite of products,” says Corey James, Innovation PortAL’s director of operations. “He showed up at his first meeting with us with a duffel bag full of inventions.”
Through Innovation PortAL and its partnerships, Byrum received introductions to mentors and investors as well as help with business consulting, product pricing and staffing. Byrum, who currently serves on Innovation PortAL’s board of directors, now has three patented inventions, and his products are sold in over 65 countries. His revenue has more than doubled every year for the past three years.
“The clients of Innovation PortAL made the long days of running a startup nonprofit worth every minute,” says founding executive director Hayley Van Antwerp. “We have entrepreneurs right here in the Gulf Coast with excellent ideas and the potential to scale their ventures as large as they wish. The challenge for Innovation PortAL was to put our entrepreneurs through the paces so they could compete for funding with entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley, New York and other regions abundant in startup resources. While the economic impact of programs like Innovation PortAL can take years to be realized, the needle is starting to move. We have local startups raising millions of dollars — and these are primarily out-of-market dollars coming into our market.”
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau definitively shows the creation of startup companies is essential for an economy to thrive, specifically in the area of job creation, Parvinrouh says. A 2010 Kauffman Foundation study, which analyzed this data going back to 1977, revealed that without startup companies (defined as brand new companies under a year old), there would be no net job growth in the U.S. economy. The data also confirms that even during recessions, job creation through startups remains stable.
Because continual generation of new companies is essential for economic growth and job creation, many cities began startup incubators like Innovation PortAL over a decade ago. Mobile is a bit late to the game, but that can be a good thing, James says.
“Other cities in our market who we’re competing with —Asheville, Greenville, Savannah, Chattanooga — have a head start on investments and entrepreneur ecosystem growth, and that dynamic is in some ways an asset for Mobile,” James says. “We can learn from them and can cherry-pick the best programming to avoid common mistakes.”
James says the big picture of Innovation PortAL’s impact involves a cultural shift.
“We want people to understand that entrepreneurship is a viable career path,” James says. “We want people to say, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to start, but I know I’m going to be an entrepreneur.’
“We want to see the brightest minds in our community feel so supported that they are confident to gravitate toward the thrill and excitement of entrepreneurship even though there is risk involved.”
The 90 startups Innovation PortAL has served over the past three years have raised over $12 million in capital and have created over 70 full-time jobs and 70 part-time jobs. Of those 90, 25 are considered high potential, meaning they have the right idea, team and product in place, along with favorable market conditions. Additionally, almost half of the individuals who have utilized Innovation PortAL’s services are from an underrepresented demographic (specifically, people of color, women or disabled veterans).
“In just a short amount of time, we’ve already seen so much success, which is reflected in these real, measurable metrics,” Parvinrouh says. “That impact will grow exponentially once we get our building open and launch new programs.”
In early summer, Innovation PortAL will finally have its own brick-and-mortar space after three years of operating out of offices at the Fuse Factory and the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce. The new space will allow Innovation PortAL to streamline its efforts and provide everything it offers — community economic development partnerships, direct consulting, office space for startups and more — under one roof.
The 30,000 square-foot building, formerly a Threaded Fasteners warehouse, is located at 358 St. Louis Street. It serves as the flagship property in the effort to develop that area, known as Automobile Alley, into a thriving tech corridor and entertainment district.
“This building is going to give Mobile a place where entrepreneurs can grow and scale their businesses, but it also signifies that we are creating an atmosphere in our community for the type of person we are trying to recruit to move here and stay here,” says Frank Lott III, chairman of Innovation Portal’s Board of Directors. “Incubators serve as a catalyst for retaining and recruiting younger people and making sure people who leave for college have reason to come back. They help revitalize downtowns and promote modern day economic development. This building will be a community center for that movement.”