Editor’s note: This article was originally written in August 2014. Photos are courtesy of Violet Edwards.
Several big names have been coming to Huntsville lately, including Remington, Cabela’s and Whole Foods. However, a local group is encouraging a more home-grown approach to economic development.
The Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship (ICE) Lab is an initiative by the University of Alabama in Huntsville geared toward servicing Huntsville entrepreneurs and inciting local economic development. Created in 2007, it now offers multiple programs and services for both students and the community.
John Whitman, PhD, has led the charge toward revitalizing and expanding the ICE Lab. Whitman serves as the Interim Director of the ICE Lab, in addition to teaching entrepreneurship and leadership classes at UAH.
One of his major initiatives developed from the ICE Lab is Huntsville Open Tech (HOT) Coffee. HOT Coffee is a public forum for those interested in high-tech startups. The bi-weekly meetings help entrepreneurs stay up-to-date with what’s happening with local start-ups.
“One of the principles of HOT Coffee is that as an entrepreneur, you don’t sit around and wait for things to happen,” Whitman said. “You make things happen.”
Whitman has been taking his own advice and HOT Coffee now boasts several ventures to its name, including special interest groups focused on battling social issues, including unemployment, hunger and land loss. Other programs include Rocket City Launch, a Business Button service, competitive coaching for business pitches and start-up research programs. The program had its one year anniversary in September, and it has experienced rapid growth in attendance.
Businesses Inspired by ICE Lab and HOT Coffee
Daniel Tait, one of the leaders of the HOT Coffee Energy Special Interest Group (ESIG), said the response to ESIG was so overwhelming that the leaders were inspired to create the Alabama Center for Sustainable Energy. The center focuses full-time on clean energy solutions and making Alabama a “net 0 energy” state – using only the energy produced itself. Tait credits his motivation to HOT Coffee.
“HOTCoffee has really started to bring back some of the personal energy that the local entrepreneurial scene has been missing for so long,” Tait said.
One of the start-ups benefitted by HOT Coffee is Rocket Hatch, which bills itself as “a creative community that believes in the power of inclusiveness, collaboration, technology and innovation”. Antonio Montoya, founder of Rocket Hatch, believes that HOT Coffee can inspire new start-ups and change the landscape of economic development in Huntsville. Montoya said that he was motivated and empowered through HOT Coffee to quit his corporate job to focus on Rocket Launch full-time.
“I see the ICE Lab, HOT Coffee, Rocket Hatch and many others working together to create a unique and dynamic startup ecosystem in town that helps us diversify our economy, provide opportunities for our young (at heart and age) professionals and create value locally by selling globally in the post-industrial economy.”
While a UAH initiative, the ICE Lab benefits the entire community. UAH’s president, Robert Altenkirch, is proud of the work John Whitman and the ICE Lab have done in recruiting and retaining economic development.
“Economic development is one of the roles of a research university like The University of Alabama in Huntsville,” said Altenkirch. “Universities play an important role in luring new companies and jobs to our community, as well as being a major player in building and sustaining an infrastructure for innovation where entrepreneurs create companies building products or providing services originating from inventions deriving from the greater Huntsville area. The ICE Lab is a prime example of UAH’s effort to assist entrepreneurs to be successful and create jobs and wealth.”
One way the ICE Lab hopes to engage with the community is through their Business Button service. The service provides free, one-stop consulting for start-ups. The concierge service offers essential advice from experts, including legal advice, personnel/payroll advice and form assistance. Business Button is located in the Downtown Self Storage building on Clinton Avenue and Jefferson Street, and the service is open Monday through Friday.
Goals for HOT Coffee’s future include engaging more federal contractors, getting the community behind bringing fiber to Huntsville, starting an energy fund and teaching locals how to make mobile apps. Whitman said he is excited about the future of the Huntsville start-up culture, and he credits Huntsville’s unique qualities as a huge asset.
“The question is not ‘how can Huntsville become the next Chattanooga or Silicon Valley’, but ‘how can Huntsville become the next Huntsville?’” Whitman said.
While his dedication to the Rocket City can’t be denied, Whitman admits that he may have had ulterior motives in coming to the area. When asked what brought him to Huntsville, he confesses that it was a woman.
“It was not a strategic plan,” laughs Whitman. “It wasn’t a plan at all; it’s just how it turned out.”