In contrast to a local history trodden by industry giants, Shoals leaders are focused on cultivating homegrown enterprises built for digital speed.
ABOVE Ashley Morrow developed Alchemy to make jewelry an option for women like herself with sensitive skin. The support from Shoals Shift, specifically Shoals Alabama Launchpad, moved the company from a local business to one with worldwide sales options.
Ninety-six years ago, automobile mogul Henry Ford planned to turn the Shoals area of North Alabama into a thriving metropolis stretching 50 miles along the Tennessee River. The plan fell through.
Now, another plan is in place, this time to make the Shoals a digital technology center. And, while the Shoals Shift plan may not be quite as ambitious as Ford’s, it calls for a change in the Shoals area culture.
“Our job is to build a culture of creativity and innovation with digital technology, for new and existing companies,” says Giles McDaniel, executive director of the Shoals Entrepreneurial Center, a partner in Shoals Shift, with the University of North Alabama, the Shoals Chamber of Commerce and the Florence/Lauderdale Public Library. The project is funded in part through the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization Initiative.
Shoals Shift was created to “effect a cultural change in how economic development is perceived in this area and to get the citizenry, the population of the area, to take another look at what the economy is really like today,” McDaniel says. That includes the jobs of today and the jobs of the future. “If your community is just out there wishing and thinking that it is going to happen, you’re just being displaced. In today’s world, you are either displacing or being displaced.”
The aim is to shift the economy to the future, to a digital economy, according to McDaniel. “This process has been used successfully to create the Charleston Digital Corridor in Charleston, South Carolina,” he says.
“We think of it more as the Shoals Shift project,” says Janyce Fadden, director of strategic engagement at the University of North Alabama, “and we are building this culture or movement to build a digital technology hub here in the Shoals.”
Shoals Shift, developed in the UNA College of Business, is steadily gaining traction. It beat out a record number of applicants last year for the top spot at the University Economic Development Association’s Annual Summit in Roanoke, Virginia. Award recipients were selected by a panel of peers consisting of university and economic development professionals. The UEDA awards are designed to recognize cutting edge initiatives and to encourage their adoption by other universities and communities.
Shoals Shift is based primarily on competitions in which entrepreneurs and innovators pitch their ideas to a panel of judges.
“When people come to the competitions to pitch their ideas,” says Fadden, “they may or may not have the companies formed at that time.”
The Shoals Idea Audition, for example, is an annual event sponsored by the University of North Alabama, Bank Independent and the Shoals Chamber of Commerce. Another competition is the Shoals Alabama Launchpad, a regional competition based on Alabama Launchpad. The events are designed to create new businesses, help entrepreneurs hone their presentation skills and bring participants together with prospective investors.
“We haven’t necessarily counted each company as they have been created,” Fadden says. “As they go along we give them a platform to advance their ideas for a company and to find funding as the company grows.”
One company that McDaniel calls the “poster child” for Shoals Shift is PartCycle Technologies, founded in early 2015 by two tech entrepreneurs with shared passions for automobiles, do-it-yourself repair and technology.
The company is an e-commerce marketplace that uses an on-line platform to connect people who need hard-to-find auto parts with people who have them for sale.
Not every company is building a tech product — instead it may use technology to advance its growth.
One such company is Alchemy, a Florence-based company that grew out of the Shoals Alabama Launchpad competition.
“I invented a product called Alchemy,” says Ashley Morrow, the owner and self-proclaimed “Queen Bee” of the company. “That’s what my business card says.
“I invented a product that you just spray on your jewelry, and when it dries, it creates an invisible barrier that protects the jewelry and your skin.
“Alchemy is a jewelry sealer that keeps costume, sterling or fine jewelry from tarnishing or from turning your skin green or making you itch. My customers have a hard time wearing earrings because the piercing causes their earlobes to swell or itch, or the jewelry they wear tends to discolor their skin for one reason or another.”
Shoals Shift and the Shoals Alabama Launchpad competition were integral in Morrow’s effort to start the company, she says. “I competed in that and I was actually awarded $20,000 for my idea.”
The idea is going very well.
“It is in over 400 stores around the country and HSN, the Home Shopping Network, has picked it up for a Q4 release, and it will be a Christmas offering,” Morrow says.
The idea “came from just sheer necessity,” Morrow says. “My whole life I was always taking clear nail polish and painting my jewelry, because I have very sensitive skin and everything turned me green, everything made me itch, and it was the only way I could wear jewelry. I love jewelry so much it kind of got to the point where there has got to be something better than this and there wasn’t, so I invented it.”
She got a helping hand from her physician father.
“He and I kind of went through some different chemicals that we thought might work, and then we partnered with two different labs to help us make it, because I am not even a baker. You wouldn’t want to eat any brownies that I cook. Luckily, at the second lab that finalized the product, one of the chemists was a silversmith, so she immediately understood the concept.”
The Home Shopping Network connection has been “a big game changer for my company,” Morrow says. “I am a wholesaler; I wholesale to stores or to companies. I have sales reps that go out and sell. The next step would be to increase my offerings with HSN, and my next step for next year is to package Alchemy differently, so that it is more suitable for international distribution. I have a lot of interest abroad in this product.
“There is not really another product on the market that accomplishes what my product does. It’s not a life-changing product, but it sure is a life-enhancing product.”
There are a number of prospective success stories like Morrow’s in the Shoals Shift pipeline.
In the most recent Shoals Idea Audition, held in October, first place and $5,000 went to Vicinidi, a social media notification application that sends messages within a specified zone. Second went to Shoals Take Out, an existing Florence-based food delivery company that auditioned to win funding to expand. Zip Vending won third place with a proposal to develop smarter and more customer-friendly vending machines.
More than 30 competitors entered the preliminary round, and five were chosen to present in a final round.
To help fund some of the initiatives, The Shoals Entrepreneurial Center has led an effort to establish a Florence chapter of the Mane Capital Fund, an angel capital private equity network with operations in nine states.
“Our next step,” McDaniel says, “is to build a talent base that will attract those technology companies from outside.”
And, says Morrow, “If you want to start a business, be sure to utilize the resources in your community. The Shoals community has done a really good job of making sure that we have resources and platforms for entrepreneurs at any level.”
Bill Gerdes and Abraham Rowe are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Gerdes is based in Hoover and Rowe in Florence.