For most of its industrialized history, Mobile has been known as a city of heavy industry. From imports and exports at the port to shipbuilding to, most recently, the aerospace industry, the city’s focus has always seemed to be on blue-collar jobs.
Increasingly there has been a small shift to more technology-based jobs, which some say has been driven by a need from some of the very manufacturers Mobile has been dependent upon over the years. New co-working spaces and a number of tech-focused incubators are moving a 300-year-old city into the 21st century.
Southern Light, helmed by president and CEO Andy Newton, literally laid some of the groundwork for much of the focus on the high-tech industry. Newton said while his company wasn’t the first to lay down a fiber-optic network in the city, it definitely was one of the first to introduce an all-fiber infrastructure. Before the introduction of fiber-optic cable, the communications infrastructure in the city hadn’t changed in generations.
“It was mostly the copper communications network that had been in place for decades,” Newton said. “It served us well for really what it was meant to be used for, which was phone services and cable TV. Once we started building out that capability increased exponentially — not just ours, but also other fiber providers in the area.”
Newton said Southern Light was founded in 1998, but it really took off in 2001, after investments from some close family friends.
“That’s when things really started growing; once we had the capital to build and we started building in Mobile and Pensacola almost simultaneously,” he said. “We were offering — there’s kind of a buzzword now, the ‘gig cities’ — we were offering that gig network in 2001.”
When they started they weren’t the only network available, Newton said.
“There are several fiber networks in this area and some take on a different focus,” he said. “Most of them supplement a copper network. Ours is, I think, the only pure fiber network in the city. We don’t add copper to our networks at all, so it’s all glass.”
The all-fiber infrastructure allows Southern Light to reduce bottlenecks and provide better service, he said.
“A network is only as fast as its weakest link and if we have all fiber we can be fast everywhere.”
Growth of the tech industry
For years the area was focused on manufacturing, a fact highlighted by high-profile announcements by Austal, Airbus and at the time ThyssenKrupp to bring facilities to Southwest Alabama. These industries, however, are demanding a greater technology footprint and the industry is picking up to accommodate.
The Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce’s focus on the tech industry began with the recruitment of Atlanta-based Rural Sourcing Inc., which has an office on St. Louis Street, Chamber Vice President of Economic Development Troy Wayman said. RSI offers a wide range of highly specialized information technology services, according to its website. Wayman said RSI is currently at 75 employees but plans to ramp up to 100.
“We use RSI as a marketing tool to show the success high-tech businesses are having here,” Wayman said.
High-tech companies and fiber infrastructure can be as important to economic development as water, sewer, gas and power, Wayman said. Technology and manufacturing also work hand-in-hand in many cases.
“Manufacturing is responsible for the growth of the tech industry,” Wayman said.
Newton agrees, saying demand from manufacturers has made the advancement of tech business more important.
“It’s need and demand based,” Newton said. “Industries are driving it, in pockets, but overall I think we’ve had a shift in the last 10 years in how businesses conduct themselves. That technology improvement and the infrastructure improvement has made it where companies can shift to better technologies to make themselves more efficient.”
Todd Hassel, sales manager for local specialty engineering firm Prism Systems, said the shift to a focus on tech-based companies and more technical jobs could prove beneficial as there is very little unemployment in the field compared to other sectors, with the exception of technical fields within the oil and gas industry.
“With technical jobs around the country, if you’re reasonable or better, you’re hired,” he said.
Prism, which focuses on automation, controls and software programs for use in manufacturing, has helped bridge the gap between the tech and manufacturing fields. “[We] straddle both,” Hassel said. Prism currently has 60 employees and recently expanded.
Newton and Hassel agreed that the quality of life and the cost of living here in Mobile is better than other places in the country where tech companies could locate.
Marc Allen, CEO of Momentum IT Services, said there is definitely a need in Mobile for tech companies because of an “optimism of the Mobile economy” and “an emerging new economy,” which is “tech-based and aerospace-based.”
“That’s exciting for people who do what we do,” Allen said. “The challenge for us is managing the workload.”
Newton applauded local school systems and the University of South Alabama for helping to increase the focus on the local tech industry.
“You’re also seeing our school systems improve on our computer science programs,” he said. “You see the University of South Alabama’s engineering and computer science departments are impressive for the country. We’re seeing a talent pool that’s growing in Mobile and with that the demand for technology.
“I think you’re seeing a city that’s ripe for the growth of technology companies,” he added.
Wayman and Newton agreed growth in the tech industry could reduce the number of talented workers who leave for other areas, known as “brain drain.” In fact, that’s one of the reasons Newton said he started Southern Light.
“I wanted to improve our city,” he said. “I just really liked the area and I like to see people from Mobile, talented people from Mobile, stay here.”
While some in the local tech industry believe local education is right where it should be in terms of churning out future tech employees and entrepreneurs, other business leaders say it’s lagging behind.
Hassle said Alabama, in general, needs to focus more on education in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
“More of a focus on STEM is important to continue the momentum in the tech industry,” he said.
Allen said the long-time focus on manufacturing makes finding skilled technicians harder.
“Our skill set is a little different,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but in general there’s a little bit of a gap in the workforce.”
Companies like Newton’s don’t necessarily start big; they can grow from a single idea. In the case of Southern Light, Newton said it started with four employees in 2001 and grew to 235 full-time employees now. Growth was pretty steady and not always smooth, he said, as the company currently has offices in six buildings around downtown.
Newton said the company has leased seven floors of downtown’s Trustmark building and will be moving there soon.
“We’re trying to consolidate everyone into one building,” he said.
For others looking for a foray into the world of tech entrepreneurship, there are now several options in Mobile.
Some local industry leaders said startup culture was slow to begin in Mobile compared to other parts of the state and country, but that may be changing.
Nik Martin, who heads a company that provides cloud-based, mobile patient reports to emergency medical services professionals called NitroPCR, opened his business in 2015. He recently won a $75,000 grant from Alabama Launchpad, which he called the state’s version of “Shark Tank.” He won the money after pitching his business to a group of investors and used it to hire a second employee.
Martin said Mobile is an “old money” city that has been slow to see investors take risks on ideas from the tech industry.
“Investors here in Mobile … want stability,” he said.
Hassle agreed, adding that startup opportunities are just beginning to receive support from investors and the broader business community.
“I’m really looking forward to what will happen with some of these smaller companies,” Hassle said. “There are more resources here than there have been since I’ve been here.”
Some of those resources include a number of co-working spaces, like Exchange 202 on Government Street in downtown Mobile, which allow a new company or a single person to rent a workspace in a shared building.
Recently, however, these co-working spaces have taken on more of a focus on tech incubation. For instance, with an investment from local business owner Jim Walker, a co-working space and incubator called The Round House is set to open in July. Martin is signed on to be one of the office’s first tenants.
Walker pushed for a local office for The Round House after touring its Opelika facility with CEO Kyle Sandler.
“We walked in and I felt the energy and saw the dynamic of how it worked,” Walker said. “I started talking to Kyle … I told him Mobile was starving for this.”
Two weeks later, Sandler agreed to come down to Mobile and scout out locations. The group picked a building at 550 Church St. downtown and are currently in the process of remodeling it. The Round House takes a 21 percent stake in each of the startups it incubates, Sandler said.
Sandler, who spent seven years at Google, started The Round House about two and a half years ago because he said he was “too young to retire.” He has since generated roughly $50 million in “exits” — the value of a company when they leave an incubator — in Opelika, a city of just over 26,000 people. The goal here, he said, will be to take things as early as the idea stage, or post-seed money and figure out the company’s needs. Sandler said success for the Round House in Mobile could be close to 10 times that of the Opelika Round House, strictly based on population.
Round House LA spokeswoman Robin Rolison said the co-working and incubator space would be mixed use, although technology is their “sweet spot.” Rent at the facility runs from $99 to $225 per month based on needs.
The Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce is also currently taking applications for its incubator called The Innovation PortAL, which will be located on St. Louis Street. The chamber’s incubator is a little different, Executive Director Hayley Van Antwerp said. While its focus will be on companies based in technology and innovation within the manufacturing sector, it will be mixed use. The Innovation PortAL currently has space in the Exchange, while the building is being renovated.
As Lagniappe’s Ron Sivak reported last week, a trio of investors including Stacy Wellborn, Johnny Gwin and Taylor Atchison will soon open the Container Yard at Marine Street Lofts, a collaborative, creative, co-working space intended to help entrepreneurs from all fields get their ideas to market.