When you think of the biotech and medical device manufacturing industries in the United States, California's Silicon Valley, Massachusetts's high-tech clusters, and Minnesota's LifeScience Alley immediately come to mind. It is unlikely, however, that you’ll give much thought to Birmingham, AL. At least I didn’t before visiting the area in May as part of a press tour organized by the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA).
Unbeknown to many, however, Alabama’s largest city is an important and up-and-coming hub for a variety of medtech-related companies, university research efforts, incubator activities, and government research expenditures. Among the city’s seven key economic sectors, high-tech jobs, specifically those in the biological and medical technology fields, are targeted for expansion under Blueprint Birmingham, BBA’s strategic plan for the region.
Birmingham is home to nearly 800 technology-based companies, making it one of the largest technology hubs in the United States. This concentration of technology-oriented enterprises is rooted both in the past and the present. Following the Civil War, Birmingham became known as the “Magic City,” boasting a steel manufacturing sector rivaling steel centers in the North such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland, remarks Brian Hilson, president and CEO of BBA. When hard times hit in the 1970s, however, Birmingham—like its Northern brethren—had trouble growing beyond its industrial origins.
“At that point, a period of reset began,” Hilson notes. "The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and University Hospital were founded, opening the door to medical research and helping to fill the jobs lost in the area’s coal and steel industries.” Today, UAB is the single-largest anchor for the Birmingham business district, employing upwards of 21,000 people. Of the hundreds of technology companies in the area, approximately 50 grew out of UAB. BBA, Hilson adds, has established a formal partnership with the university with the goal of growing the region’s economy. “We want it to be a bit noisier than it is now.”
One of UAB’s specialties consists of melding the activities of engineering and business students to developing business plans for transferring technologies from University Blvd. to Main St., Hilson says. Thus, the university offers a course in which students build a medical device prototype and develop a viable business plan to guide the device along the path of commercialization. “Designed to mentor students interested in converting business plans into concrete plans, this program in life sciences entrepreneurship is unique to UAB,” Hilson adds. A living embodiment of the nexus between research and entrepreneurship is the Innovation Depot, Birmingham’s technology incubator.
While Birmingham’s goal of developing a vibrant medtech sector is slowly putting the region on the map, its technology-driven activities are not taking place in a vacuum. In addition to fostering the growth of companies that design and manufacture products for a host of medical device applications, the region is home to manufacturing facilities operated by some of the world’s largest companies, including Mercedes, Honda, and Hyundai. And 260 miles to the south, the ThyssenKrupp steel concern and Airbus are building facilities in Mobile, promising to expand technology and industry in the Deep South.
When all is said and done, Birmingham may yet develop into a rising medtech star next to California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. To see why, check out the following slides detailing a variety of medical device technologies emerging from UAB and the Innovation Depot. —Bob Michaels
- Innovation Depot
- In Ortho Implants, Diamonds Are a Coating’s Best Friend
- Ortho Implants: Replacing Polyethylene on Metal with Diamond on Diamond
- Creating Nanodiamond Grains
- Smoothing the Way for Diamond-Based Medical Device Coatings
- Nanodiamond Coating on Metal Substrates
- Nanofiber Stent Coating Encourages Arterial Healing
- Preventing Arterial Narrowing and Clotting