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November 2018

Spotlight on Cullman County

Known to the world as “Jerusalem in Miniature,” Ave Maria Grotto has 125 miniature reproductions of some of the most famous historic buildings and shrines of the world. Photo courtesy of Alabama Tourism Department/Raphael Tenschert

Lying about halfway between Birmingham and Huntsville along Interstate 65, Cullman County has long been recognized for great schools and beautiful lakefront scenery, but in the past couple of years it has added a kudo envied by many another area of the state — top rankings for economic development.

With 31 economic development projects in 2017 that created 253 jobs and brought in $61,923,438 of capital investment, Cullman ranked No. 1 in the state in total economic development projects, No. 1 in expansion projects and No. 9 in jobs created by expansion projects and capital investment, according to the Alabama Department of Commerce.

Cullman looks to have another banner year with 2018. Auto supplier Topre America Corp. announced plans for a new manufacturing production line, a $78.2 million investment with 98 new jobs. In addition to automotive, other strong sectors include diverse manufacturing and distribution, agribusiness, health care, higher education and aerospace.

Wallace State Community College, for years a major player in workforce development for the region, has received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration to create a technical education center.

The Cullman County Economic Development Agency also is heavily involved in not only commercial, retail and industrial recruitment, but also education. The agency recently was awarded an International Economic Development Council Gold Award for its Educators in Industry program. That program organizes groups of teachers to tour local industry to get an idea of existing technology and industry, says Susan Eller, the agency’s project coordinator. “This helps educators plan to help students learn more about what’s out there.”

Several agencies also have partnered with the University of Alabama to open Technology Village Cullman, a nonprofit center for entrepreneurial small business startups.

The county’s industrial parks are close to capacity. “Our pushing to increase workforce will prove a need for land for two reasons — new or expanding industry and affordable housing,” says Cullman Mayor Woody Jacobs.

Cullman County also is heavily invested in community development and improving quality of life for residents and visitors. Smith Lake has long been a draw. Now, the 650-acre Duck River Reservoir, built as an additional water source for the city, is open, welcoming boats and anglers, and offering miles of biking and hiking trails.

New retail has exploded onto the scene, with shopping centers and downtown getting a real boost with a food court. All of this has come with cooperation, Jacobs says. “The most humbling part about it all has been how the city and county, along with some of the smaller municipalities, have been able to work in a constructive way to ensure success for the entire county.”

The city also is working an extensive plan to improve its parks, with many improvements already finished, Jacobs says. “I think it is important to continue to work with our parks and recreation department so that we may continue to provide for our citizens, all while giving us an opportunity to showcase our town,” he says. “The numerous events and programs provided by Cullman Parks and Recreation also plays a vital role in the recruitment of people into our town and is a consistent generator of revenue that can be reinvested into the community as a whole.”

Residents also welcomed Cullman Regional Medical Center’s recently opened fifth floor vertical expansion, the new Cullman Regional Urgent Care and Imaging Center and urology clinic with robotic surgery. CRMC also acquired majority ownership of The Surgery Center of Cullman LLC outpatient center.


Cullman County is No. 2 in Alabama for total agricultural production. It is the second largest poultry producer in the state, ranking second in broiler production. Cullman ranks first in cattle production, dairy cattle and hay production. It also ranks second in sweet potato acreage.

Local high schools offer agriscience programs, and the county owns an Agriplex to host events and raise awareness of the county’s heritage and future in agriculture.

Beyond the farm, agriculture has attracted several support businesses. GSI Group, a subsidiary of AGCO Corp., produces grain management systems and poultry production equipment. American Proteins, a subsidiary of Tyson Foods, is the largest rendering plant in the world. Golden Rod Feed Mill and Golden Rod Broilers add to Cullman’s large poultry industry cluster.


The automotive sector is a major driver in Cullman County, boasting the top three largest manufacturing employers in the county. Together, they employ more than 2,100 people.

Topre America Corp. announced a new manufacturing production line at its North American headquarters in Cullman, with plans to invest $78 million. The firm opened a distribution and storage facility in 2017.

Met-South, a new automotive supplier, recently located in Hanceville, investing $644,000 and creating 12 jobs.

Higher Education

The county is home to Wallace State Community College, in Hanceville, one of the largest employers in the county, with 300 full-time employees and an enrollment of 6,500 credit and non-credit students. It is ranked one of the best colleges in America for healthcare graduates and offers a wide variety of programs.

WSCC also ranks among the South’s leaders in training for workforce development. Student success rates are among the nation’s highest. The college works with high schools and industries to provide workforce development programs, and with existing industry to meet workforce training needs. WSCC offers a number of apprenticeships with local industries that provide students with on-the-job experience while they continue their education.

The most recent comprehensive economic impact study reports that for every dollar allocated by the state, Wallace State returns 10.2 times that investment to the state’s economy.

Wallace State Community College in Cullman County has landed a $2 million federal grant for a technical education program, expected to create 68 jobs. The grant will establish WSCC’s new technical education center, housing a welding program and business incubator.

Diversified Manufacturing & Distributing

One strength of the industrial base in the county — and a factor in its low unemployment — is the diversity of manufacturing operations. Firms specialize in aerospace, metal stamping, plastic injection molding, robotics, tool and die, woodworking and more.

Locally-grown Zero RPM produces idle mitigation systems used for law enforcement and utility companies. In 2017, Zero RPM was named Corporate Innovator of the Year in the small company category by the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama.

In 2018, Ornametals Manufacturing LLC won the North American Copper in Architecture Award for its ornamental/replication work on a cornice in New York City. This is the firm’s sixth award from the Copper Development Association in the last seven years. The cornice showcased lion heads, fleur-de-lis, leaves and other detailed ornaments. The entire cornice was replaced with copper as well.

Agcor Steel is building a new facility in Good Hope to continue operations and add a roof truss product line. Agcor expects to invest $6.3 million in the new 128,000-square-foot facility. The new building will allow the addition of a steel truss production line and a near doubling of Agcor’s workforce, adding up to 25 new jobs to the existing 28-member staff. It also is expected to generate annual tax revenues for the county and two municipalities of more than $500,000.

Cullman is also home to several distribution centers, including a 1.3 million-square-foot Wal-Mart distribution center. Interstate 65 and several state and U.S. highways provide critical transportation arteries for industry in the area.

Health Care

Cullman Regional Medical Center is the second largest employer in Cullman County, with 1,200 employees, and continues to grow to meet the needs of its patients, both in facilities, equipment and personnel.

According to the Alabama Hospital Association, the hospital has a $215 million overall economic impact on the community. The hospital supports 2,472 jobs directly or indirectly throughout the state of Alabama. Also, the hospital generates $93 million in total labor income to employees, their families, and suppliers.

Cullman Regional provides more than $16 million in total community benefit, including $1.72 million in charity care, $8 million in uncollected amounts and $4.7 million in non-reimbursed cost of care for Medicaid patients. The hospital also gave $1.3 million financial and in-kind support to the Good Samaritan Health Clinic.

The hospital recently added a fifth floor, adding 30 beds, along with an urgent care center and family practice clinic.


With its proximity to Huntsville, Cullman Regional Airport’s Folsom Field is following a five-year plan to improve and grow. The airport recently received an FAA grant to continue work on its north taxiway, says Ben Harrison, airport director. The airport also is seeking other grants to finish that project. In recent years, three new hangars have been built, one of which is a corporate hangar.

Cullman also has some aerospace companies such as General Dynamics, which makes guided missile and space vehicle parts.

Making a Living in Crenshaw County

Eric Dusenbery is a documentary photographer who lives in DeLand, Florida. He is currently at work on a book project called Sidetracked: Travels Across the Undiscovered South. An award-winning journalist, speaker and workshop leader, he is also photographer/author of two books: “Florida Soup: Putting History On the Table,” a chronicle of the Florida fishing industry, and “Volusia Voices,” an account of life in Volusia County, Florida. Emphasizing the traditions of documentary photography as a way of seeing and interpreting cultural life, the project fieldwork is accomplished through the lens of large-format, black-and-white film photography. Dusenbery’s work in this issue of Business Alabama is part of his Sidetracked project, which will include stories from two more Alabama counties.

Michael Barnes
Owner of Michael’s Southern Foods Restaurant

“It was a dream to live in a place like this. You can’t ask for any better place to be. I was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. My parents moved here in 1975. We didn’t know a soul. They wanted to get out of the southern Florida lifestyle. We were growing up so fast, and my father wanted a farm. We were on our way to Missouri, but we stopped here and that was the end of that.

“When we moved here we were strangers and nobody knew us. But, they took us in like one of their own and have treated us like that ever since. My father died here and is buried at the local cemetery. My grandmother moved here when I was still in high school. She was from Pennsylvania. Both my parents are from the north. Everyone thinks I have a funny accent. When we first moved here, people would ask us, ‘Why in the world did you move to Brantley? Are you in the witness protection program?’ I never see myself moving away from here. I’m stuck.

“When I went to work in the restaurant the first time, it wasn’t because I enjoyed cooking — it was just a job. I don’t think I cooked at all. Now I do everything here from cooking to fixing toilets. Whatever needs to be done.

“I think a lot of our success is because of who we are. We’ve been part of this community. My wife was born and raised here so she’s more entrenched here than I am. I have been assimilated. Resistance is futile. You become part of that or it becomes part of you.

“This is a hard place to eke out an existence. You are at the mercy of the local crowd. But, they’re very faithful. They’ve kept us here and that’s what you’ve got to draw on. It takes a lot of hamburgers to make a bank note and the insurance on this building is huge.

“It’s a love-hate relationship within the restaurant business. I’m going to, hopefully, go back to what I dreamed of in the first place — to do things you can’t get anywhere else in town.”

Billy Davis
Agriculture Business
Crenshaw County

“Back in the day, I would wake up on a Sunday morning and come to town. People were bringing their pickup trucks full of peanuts. The whole town smelled like peanuts. Peanuts were king.

“I can also remember seeing mules and wagons come in from the farms. I’m talking about the mid-1950s. I think a lot of stores in town stayed open to just about midnight because the farmers all came to town. It was a carnival atmosphere.

“There’s not nearly as much agriculture as there was back then. The land is still here. But, there are acres and acres of pastureland and pine trees that used to be row-crop land.

“There are a lot better places to row-crop farm than this area — the land here is just not as conducive. When you see what real agriculture row-crop production looks like — the Midwest, the Delta Mississippi, parts of Florida with rich flat land and huge fields, it makes you wonder why we even tried.

“A friend of mine had a local cotton gin. He’d started a feed business and was moving his cotton seed to the dairy industry in Florida.  He developed it into a viable little business. I had a trucking and agriculture background — well, I liked what he was doing. I started working for him, just driving. Eventually, I was able to buy the business from him.

“We chose to stay in a small, rural area. My wife is college-educated and I’m college-educated but we did not want to move anywhere. We wanted to stay true to our roots. Everything I’ve done, even though it might’ve been with trucking, has been agricultural-related.”

Boyd Berry
Owner of C.L. Berry Mercantile

“As far as any industry — there isn’t anything here, now. I just sit here and run this little store. This building was built, they say, in 1907. When daddy moved in here in 1953, he put in a meat counter.

He butchered up cows in here until 1961, or so. They would do the actual slaughtering up in the woods at a place called the Butcher Pen, right next to a tree. They would bring the carcass here and he’d cut it up. They cut all the meat by hand. I would help wrap the meat. I didn’t do any cutting — I always hated that.

“After they closed down the meat butchering, he kept it as a general store.

“There used to be a mining company here — iron ore. They had a railroad that ran through Glenwood — this place was booming back then. They had the iron ore stockpiled right over there. You couldn’t even see the trees on the other side they were piled so high.

“There were two barber shops. One of the barbers had a shower in the back. Those iron ore men used to come in here and take a shower every Friday night. They would be lined up outside — they could get a haircut and a shower.

“There’s quite a bit of difference between then and today. There’s nothing going on here now. Farming is near about gone. I think they said between 400 and 500 people lived around here at that time. Now there’s probably about 200 people.

“I just go with all the changes that occurred around here. What else are you going to do?”

Wayne Rolling
Owner of Luverne Hardware

“I’ve had the hardware store for 22 years. My customers become my family. It’s special.

“We have a pretty good crowd on Saturday mornings here at the hardware store — we do biscuits. I have a good friend who makes biscuits every Saturday morning and a lot of guys show up to eat sausage and biscuits with me. You always look for something you can do in the retail business to draw your customers closer to you. And, that’s what we did. You might be able to do that in the city, but not likely. It’s very rural here so we’re just a little different.

“We’re all competing with the internet now. The internet side of things is somewhat scary. Thank goodness they just passed the sales tax on the internet. That’s a blessing from our side of things because they had that advantage right off the bat. But now, we’re going to see the playing field level up. I’m proud to see that.  I knew it was being discussed, but I thought the big businesses that have so much to do with the internet would have enough clout to fight it and stop it. But, it’s good to know that it didn’t work.”

Matthew Pippin
Owner of Pippin Family Vineyard and Winery

“Rural is home. I went away to college to play football but I came back and started teaching U.S. history. I eventually transitioned into teaching agriculture.

“Living in rural areas, you feel a connection to history and family. Alabama is agriculture. Muscadines grow wild in rural areas around here and we decided to plant some additional varieties of grapes to see what would happen. When a storm destroyed our poultry farm, we began construction on a winery. We did most of our own construction work — from painting to reclaimed wood carpentry.

“It didn’t happen overnight, but with a lot of research and learning — and a lot of trial and error — we became wine-makers. We produce five different wines and word seems to be getting out that, yes, Alabama can produce good wines.”

Opelika Ponders, Plumbs, Presents Itself

A thriving downtown clusters around Opelika’s railroad tracks. Photo by Julie Bennett

When Leigh Krehling became community relations officer for the City of Opelika two years ago, one of her first priorities was to update the logo and branding for the east Alabama city that over the past few years has reinvented itself.

“It was time for us to maybe get a more progressive look and get into this century, as far as all of our information,” she says.

That coincided with Opelika working with DesignPlace — a program of the nonprofit DesignAlabama — which sends in a team of designers to help a small town with design, planning and community identity assistance.

“They were great to work with and spent quite a bit of time with our people,” Krehling says.

The people — through a series of community meetings — spoke loudly. They wanted Opelika’s new branding to incorporate its history as a railroad town.

“One of the distinct things I heard someone say was, ‘When I hear that railroad whistle, it means I’m home,’” says Angela Stiff, principal and creative director of Montgomery’s Copperwing, who designed the new logo. “That’s pretty powerful.”

A Railroad History

The momentum of that message is Opelika’s reliance on and fascination with trains, which goes back more than 150 years.

Opelika first became an important Alabama railway hub in the 1850s, when the Montgomery and West Point Railroad opened a line that went through the town. Not only was it important to cotton farmers in the state, but it also was an important transport tool during the Civil War.

Eventually, when the Central of Georgia opened up a line through Opelika, the city was served by two major railroads. “Trains were a part of everyday life for anyone who lived, worked and played in Opelika,” according to the documentary “A Rocket in a Railroad Town.”

That 2018 film tells the story of the Rocky Brook Rocket, a miniature train running through Opelika’s Municipal Park. It was front-page news when civic leaders put the money together to buy it in 1955. Recently restored, it’s still giving children a taste of riding the rails.

Big trains still run through town daily, too, and much of Opelika’s recent revival features breweries, restaurants, galleries, festivals and other things that have sprouted around the city’s downtown depot and railroad tracks.

DesignPlace Comes to Town

All of that train history came into play as DesignAlabama brought its DesignPlace team to Opelika two years ago. A couple of years before that, Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller had attended one of DesignAlabama’s design summits. By the way, its 13th summit will be in February, and a mayor must attend for his or her town to qualify for DesignPlace.

“We bring in five mayors from a region in the state to talk about planning or design issues they have, and at that time Mayor Fuller was focused” on revitalizing two of Opelika’s neighborhoods, says Gina Clifford, executive director of DesignAlabama. Her group focuses on all aspects of design, including architecture, engineering, graphic design, industrial design, interior design, landscape architecture and urban design.

DesignPlace, a 2-year-old initiative of DesignAlabama, sprang out of the need for a “next step” for those who attended the mayors’ summit, and Opelika was chosen to be the first community for DesignPlace.

“We brought in a team of designers that we thought would best suit the community,” Clifford says. “A piece of each of our DesignPlaces is the community identity and branding.”

That’s when Stiff and Copperwing came into town to work with Krehling, who was new to her job as community relations officer and was pleased to know the City of Opelika was already in the early stages of the rebranding process.

“We determined that when DesignPlace came in for their weeklong look at the city, we wanted to spend some time on the branding aspect,” Krehling says. “They came in July 2017 for a week, with community come-and-go events at the library. There were big posters put up around the room, and people could put sticky notes up about what they wanted to see happen in various parts of the city. There were other working teams while they were here. Marketing was just one of them.”

History is Important

Eventually, taking things DesignPlace had heard from across the city and ideas from other brainstorming sessions, two major themes bubbled to the surface — Opelika’s lifestyle and its people. “Out of that came out that a lot of history is still important, and we wanted to keep that and maintain that as part of the brand,” Krehling says.

Stiff and Copperwing went to work, trying to incorporate what they learned from the community into typography that Krehling had already designed.

“For the community, the railroad has been integral to the town, to its growth, to its livelihood, its character,” Stiff says. “Through that and building the brand story, we came up with that as a symbol. The typography was already in place. We recommended putting a symbol and a mark with it that was distinctive and that they could use on many different things that would immediately say ‘Opelika’ without spelling it out.”

The result is a distinctive, modern “O” mark that also incorporates railroad tracks, a nod to both Opelika’s present and future, as well as to the railroad history that is so important to its residents.

“You never know how much the history is going to influence the final design, but we always look at the history of a town or organization or company or product or service when we’re working with them,” Stiff says. “You’re looking at their story from all sides — where it is in the moment, where they’ve been and where they want to go. All those things tie together.”

The new logo was approved in January, debuted in March and is already appearing on websites, press releases, signage and other places.

“The community seemed to fall in love with it, and they adopted it fairly quickly,” Clifford says. “As an organization, we were excited to see the work that we’re doing as a nonprofit, and the success of this new program was really tangible immediately.”

It has been a great success from Krehling’s perspective.

“It really lets people know the city’s personality,” she says. “It represents how people think and feel about the city and what it has to offer.”

And because it was a project of DesignAlabama and DesignPlace, the design work itself was free for the city, Krehling adds.

“It would have cost thousands and thousands of dollars to create a new brand story and logo, and we didn’t have to pay anything,” she says.

Alec Harvey and Julie Bennett are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Harvey and Bennett are both based in Auburn.

Meet the New Inductees to the Alabama Business Hall of Fame


Patricia “Sister Schubert” Barnes

Patricia Barnes, also known as “Sister Schubert,” built a company based on her grandmother’s recipe for yeast rolls, and her breads now grace family tables around the world. When Barnes first started selling her rolls for a church fundraiser in 1989, she was surprised at their instant popularity. After selling out of 300 pans of rolls at the 1991 church fundraiser, Barnes decided a bread business was worth pursuing.

She started Sister Schubert’s in her home kitchen and soon moved to a commercial kitchen in Troy before building her own space in Luverne, expanding several times in rapid succession. By 2000, the company was producing revenue of about $20 million annually and attracted the attention of Ohio-based Lancaster Colony Corp. Barnes chose to sell the company to Lancaster because of its “history of buying family-owned businesses, but keeping the family on board to help run the company,” she told East Alabama Living in 2011.

Today, Sister Schubert’s continues to operate from its Luverne headquarters as a subsidiary of Lancaster Colony Corp. The company produces more than 9 million rolls each day, and those rolls are distributed in every state in the country as well as internationally.

Barnes, who attended Troy University, Auburn University and The University of Alabama, sits on the Dean’s Board for the College of Human Sciences at Auburn University, as well as the board of the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.

Jeffrey Bayer

Birmingham residents and visitors may know Jeffrey Bayer best for his company’s signature retail development, The Summit, a 1 million-square-foot, upscale lifestyle center, which opened at the intersection of U.S. Highway 280 and Interstate 459 in 1997. The Summit was one of the retail industry’s first successful outdoor, mixed-use centers. After a successful launch of The Summit in Birmingham, Bayer and his company, Bayer Properties, have built other Summit centers in Kentucky, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

Jeffrey Bayer

Bayer founded Bayer Properties in 1983, and as president and CEO, oversees the strategic and operational direction of the company, which has become known as a trendsetter in the mixed-use property industry. Bayer Properties specializes in developing, leasing, managing and marketing mixed-use real estate properties nationwide. Over the years, Bayer has fostered the organization’s growth from a local property management firm to a national commercial real estate leader with a mixed-use asset portfolio of approximately 10 million square feet.

In addition to leading his own company, Bayer is a leader in Birmingham’s civic and philanthropic communities. He holds board positions with numerous organizations, including the Birmingham Education Foundation, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Leadership Alabama and Leadership Birmingham.

Bayer is also involved in leadership in the mixed-use and commercial real estate industry. A licensed real estate broker, he also holds the designation of Certified Commercial Investment Member, and is an international trustee for the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC). He is also a member of ICSC’s PAC Leadership Advisory Group and has served as state director of the Alabama-Mississippi chapter of ICSC.

A graduate of the University of Alabama Culverhouse College of Business, Bayer sits on the University of Alabama President’s Cabinet, Culverhouse Board of Visitors and the University of Alabama at Birmingham President’s Cabinet executive committee. He also serves as a board member and on the executive committee for the University of Alabama Health Services Foundation.

Don James

Born and raised in Alabama, Don James built a longtime career as a lawyer and businessman who helped fashion one of the state’s largest public companies and has had an impact on the construction industry across the country.

Don James

A native of Russellville, James earned a bachelor’s degree and master of business administration degree at the University of Alabama. He left his home state to attend the University of Virginia School of Law, where he graduated in 1977. James returned to Alabama to begin his career as an attorney in Birmingham, where he worked at Bradley, Arant, Rose and White and eventually became a partner in the firm.

In 1992, James started working at Vulcan Materials Co., which he helped grow into the nation’s largest producer of construction aggregates such as crushed stone, sand and gravel, and a major producer of aggregates-based construction materials including asphalt and ready-mix concrete. These materials are used in nearly all forms of construction, including infrastructure such as roads and bridges, as well as residential and commercial buildings. James served as president of the company from 1996 to 1997, and as CEO from 1997 to 2015, when he retired.

He is a business and civic leader, serving on the boards of Wells Fargo & Co. and Southern Co., and formerly of Protective Life, SouthTrust Bank and Wachovia Bank. Previously, he has served on the boards of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Manufacturers Association, Birmingham Southern College and United Way of Central Alabama. He has also served as chairman of the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Charles McCrary

More than 1.4 million Alabama customers rely on Alabama Power to provide electricity service, and Charles McCrary’s leadership built a stronger company. During his tenure as CEO from 2001 to 2014, the company improved the relationship between management and the electrical labor union, improved working conditions for laborers, and pioneered new communications with customers during power outages.

Charles McCrary

McCrary started working at Alabama Power Co. in 1970, after completing his freshman year at Auburn University. After finishing a degree in mechanical engineering at Auburn, he began his full-time, four-decade career with the company. Over the years, McCrary moved into increasingly responsible roles. Before he was named CEO of Alabama Power, McCrary served as vice president for the company’s Southern Nuclear, president of Southern Company Generation, chief production officer of Southern Co. and president of Southern Power.

Along with leading the state’s largest energy company through a period of transformation, McCrary has been actively involved in the business community. He is a member of the board of Regions Financial Corp., the Auburn University Board of Trustees and the board of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. He also served as chairman of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama and was a member of the boards of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International and Protective Life Corp.

Over the years, McCrary has remained committed to the advancement of his alma mater, participating on the Auburn Alumni Engineering Council, and helping secure funding for the Alabama Power Academic Excellence Program and the Alabama Power Nuclear Power Generation Systems program. In 2015, Auburn established the Charles D. McCrary Institute, which advances the research and development of new energy system technologies. In addition to his bachelor’s degree from Auburn, McCrary also holds a juris doctorate from Birmingham School of Law.

Randy Owen

Growing up on a farm near Fort Payne was the perfect environment for Randy Owen to develop his musical talent and establish the downhome roots that permeate his unique sound. Owen and two of his cousins started playing music together in the 1970s and signed their first recording contract in 1980. For almost 50 years, Owen has been the front man and lead vocalist of their legendary group, Alabama, among the most highly honored and beloved bands in country music history.

Randy Owen

Owen and his band have brought longtime acclaim to the state for which the band is named, releasing more than 20 gold and platinum records, dozens of No. 1 singles, and selling more than 80 million records. Alabama has received more than 250 music industry awards and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006.

Individually, Owen has also worked as a solo performer, releasing his solo debut album in 2008, with two singles hitting the charts. He has also been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Owen spends much of his time on humanitarian effort and launched the St. Jude Country Cares for Kids, an annual radio fundraising event that has raised more than $800 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He received the Ellis Island Award for his charity work with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

A graduate of Jacksonville State University, Owen and his wife, Kelly Owen, continue to live near Fort Payne and have remained involved in the local community over the years. Since 1985, Owen has hosted an annual golf tournament, which has raised more than $1 million to benefit the Alabama Sheriff’s Youth Ranches. The Owens also provided funding for the construction of the Kelly Owen Women’s and Children’s Pavilion at DeKalb Regional Medical Center in Fort Payne.

James Pursell

In 1956, James T. “Jimmy” Pursell joined Parker Fertilizer, which was owned by his father-in-law, Howard Parker, and had been started in 1904 by Howard’s father, DeWitt Parker. With a longtime focus on fertilizers for farms as well as golf courses, nurseries and consumers, the company benefited from Pursell’s interest in new technologies and approaches. In 1964, Pursell became president of the company and began to redirect the company away from traditional manure fertilizer to focus on newer specialty products, such as slow-release fertilizers.

James Pursell

In the 1980s, when new technologies were developed that improved the slow-release process, Pursell took the bold step of building a manufacturing plant focused on utilizing the new technology. The plant used a special coating known as sulfur-coated urea (SCU), which allowed the fertilizer to be released over a longer period of time, meaning fertilizers didn’t have to be applied as often and could provide essential nutrients for turf growth, color and disease resistance. In 1986, when the new plant opened to produce Pursell’s SulfurKote®, it was one of only four SCU plants in the world and brought national and international attention to the company, now known as Pursell Agri-Tech.

In 1997, Pursell and his son, David Pursell, relocated the company headquarters to the family farm. They also established Pursell Farms in Sylacauga, which has since transitioned into one of Alabama’s premier resorts, spanning 3,500 acres and featuring FarmLinks golf course.

Pursell attended Auburn University and supports a large number of initiatives at Auburn, including the Center for Organizational Cultures in the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, endowed chairs and programs for student athletes. He has served as chairman of the State of Alabama Ethics Commission.

John Rhoads

A graduate of the University of Alabama, John L. Rhoads was well-known for applying his brilliance and technical skills in helping Alabama entrepreneurs launch their businesses as a partner at accounting firm Ernst & Ernst. In 1989, Ernst & Ernst merged with Arthur Young & Co. to become Ernst & Young.

John Rhoads

Rhoads was a longtime executive committee member of the Jefferson County chapter of the University of Alabama National Alumni Association. He served as the organization’s vice president and treasurer for more than 20 years. He also served as council chairman of the State Society for the Alabama Society of Certified Public Accountants.

Rhoads was an ardent supporter of Alabama’s educational institutions, either by his service to the University of Alabama at Birmingham as an adjunct faculty member or through scholarship and programmatic support. In 2000, the University of Alabama built the John and Ann Rhoads Softball Stadium with support from the Rhoads family. Rhoads passed away in 2001, and his philanthropic support of Alabama educational institutions is kept ongoing by his widow, Ann.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a Birmingham-based freelance writer for Business Alabama.

Family Dinner on Demand

Nourish Foods partners Mary Drennen, left, and Tiffany Vickers Davis. Photo by Rob Culpepper

Mary Drennen remembers well the joys of the family dinner. Long an important tradition, this evening gathering was guaranteed to be the one time each day when busy lives were put aside in exchange for simple togetherness.

Alas, somewhere along the way dinner became merely another task to quickly check off the daily to-do list, lumped unceremoniously in with the business meetings, soccer practices and doctor appointments of today’s hectic family lifestyle. There never seems to be enough time to cook a real meal — and besides, a fast-food place is always nearby.

The problem is, hitting the drive-thru as you are rushing from one activity to the next is not exactly a bonding moment, or a nutritious one. While the family dinner is about more than just the food, you still need tasty food to have a truly enjoyable meal.

“My mother made a point every day that no matter what else we were doing, we sat around the table and ate dinner together,” says Drennen, a native of Birmingham. “That’s something I grew up with, and there’s real value in it.

“But those kinds of dinners are rare now. With all of the stuff we have to juggle, it’s extremely hard to get everybody around the table anymore. We don’t have the time or energy to create the meal that pulls the family together.”

Drennen and business partner Tiffany Vickers Davis are attempting to make things at least a bit easier with their company Nourish Foods, which provides home delivery of fully prepared, handmade meals that are easy to heat and serve. Operating out of a 5,000-square-foot space located above a nightclub in Birmingham’s Lakeview entertainment district, Nourish Foods is crafting about 4,000 to 6,000 meals each week and shipping them to 38 states.

The company’s target customers are people just like Drennen and Davis: working parents who struggle to find enough time to feed the family healthy meals.

“As moms, we needed to have something like this for us,” Davis says. “We want to provide meals for people who are busy and have that anxiety of leaving the office and wondering what in the world are they going to do for dinner for their family. We are here specifically for the purpose of easing that.”

Drennen and Davis met more than a decade ago while working in the Birmingham test kitchen for Cooking Light magazine, which Drennen says, “really laid the foundation for what we’re doing now” in terms of creating recipes. In 2007, they started a side business called In Good Taste, an events catering company that helped them learn the business side of the food industry.

Development of recipes and packaging began with work for delivering pre-prepared meals for the Birmingham-based fitness chain Iron Tribe Fitness. “That helped us figure out a lot of the pieces and the parts that led to Nourish,” says Drennen. Photo by Stephen Devries

Drennen eventually left Cooking Light and began working as a freelance recipe developer for several different companies. During this time she was hired by Iron Tribe Fitness to develop healthy, pre-prepared meals that could be delivered to its members. “That helped us figure out a lot of the pieces and the parts that led to Nourish,” Drennen says.

In 2014, Drennen convinced Davis to leave Cooking Light and work with her full time to start Nourish Foods. Davis had been with the magazine for 14 years and admits she was hesitant to depart, but also was intrigued by the idea of building a business that basically allowed her to play with her food.

“My mother is German, and she’d cook things like crepes for dinner and all these scratch-made soups,” Davis says. “Her stuff was delicious, and she never thought about how she made it. She just did it. That has always resonated with me, and it was something I wanted to do.”

In an effort to differentiate themselves from other meal-delivery services, Drennen and Davis wanted to emphasize their Southern roots (Davis is from North Carolina and worked at a restaurant in Charleston) while also creating healthy dishes. Of course, Southern food is not always associated with healthy eating. This has resulted in some creative substitutions, such as using cauliflower grits for their shrimp-and-grits meal.

“We try to take away some of things that are a little heavier, like butter,” Davis says. “We find ways to mimic the same flavors and textures of things that people are familiar with, but without the familiar impact. Because if it’s not nutritious, you might as well just go to fast food instead. That’s also fully cooked food, and it’s convenient. But we’re trying to move beyond that.”

The concept has proven to be popular so far. Nourish Foods began with three employees and did $250,000 in revenue during its first year, and nearly all the customers were in the Birmingham area. The company now has 25 employees and is on track for $2.5 million in revenue this year, with approximately 80 percent of the deliveries being sent outside of Birmingham.

“They’re a great company run by two wonderful women, and I think they’re going to surpass all their goals,” says Bebe Goodrich, founder of Icebox Coffee and current director of liquid product innovation for Royal Cup Coffee, who originally met Drennen at a forum for women business owners.

“The food industry is a competitive landscape, but they have been successful because they haven’t gotten distracted by what other people are doing. They just stay focused on what they’re doing. Foundationally they are so solid. The car is so well-built that growth for them is just a matter of turning on the key.”

With projections that the company’s revenue will double in the next few years, Drennen and Davis are looking for a larger space. And they acknowledge that it will become increasingly difficult to maintain the handmade aspect of their meals if they start producing 10,000-plus each week.

For now, however, Nourish Foods wants to continue creating healthy, handmade meals that help bring the family back together for dinner.

“Nobody cooks everyday anymore. There’s always going to be some eating out, or times when you have cereal for dinner,” Davis says. “But with us, people can at least have some sort of anchor meal three or four times a week. That’s what our goal is. We’re not trying to be the only food you eat. We’re trying to be a healthy solution for several nights.”

Cary Estes is a Birmingham-based freelancer writer for Business Alabama.

Scanning the Social Media Minefield

The Social Media 23 team, from left: Denise Medders, Andrea Hutchings, Alison Duncan and Alan Medders. Photo by Dennis Keim

Alan Medders is no stranger to the exhaustive vetting process that goes into hiring candidates for administrative and faculty positions. After all, he served 25 years as an administrator at public and private universities and colleges, as well as a stint working for Myers McRae, a firm based in Macon, Georgia, that performs searches for administrative and faculty positions for academic institutions across the country.

In early 2017, while working at Myers McRae, Medders had just completed a search for a university, and the candidate was introduced to the campus. “And, of course, when a new administrative staff or faculty member is announced, the first thing people do is Google the person,” says Medders. When that inevitably happened with the newly hired employee, a Facebook profile surfaced that falsely indicated he was a pedophile. The account was fake and quickly removed; fires were put out.

This particular situation was extreme, but not unfamiliar to Medders, who, during his tenure in academia, and increasingly in the last decade, had to terminate employees for content they posted on social media platforms that was viewed as problematic for their institutions. He had also witnessed multiple instances of people being denied employment because of their social media activities. As younger candidates with larger social media footprints enter the job market, manually vetting their profiles has become increasingly time-consuming. Medders wondered why there wasn’t an automated process, similar to standard employment background checks, already in place.

In June 2017, Medders teamed with his wife, Denise, to start their own academic headhunting firm, Higher Education Leadership Search, based in his hometown of Anniston. He contacted his daughter, Alison Duncan, a security analyst for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, and asked whether any software was available for his company to use for social media screening. There was, but nothing as comprehensive and accessible as Medders had in mind. He set out to see if a solution could be developed.

“I wanted to reach out to a research university and knew the quality of the computer science program at [the University of Alabama in Huntsville] and the work they’ve done with numerous companies in the Huntsville area and beyond,” says Medders.

He contacted Kannan Grant, director of the Office of Technology Commercialization at UAH, to see if the university had any interest in partnering with HELS. Grant, in turn, contacted computer science professors Harry Delugach and Haeyong Chung, and William “Ivey” MacKenzie, a human resources specialist from the College of Business. They met with Medders, who offered to provide funding for the research and formally agreed to move forward in creating a software program that would analyze the social DNA of a job candidate. Social Media 23 — alluding to 23 chromosomes — was born.

Over a period of about 18 months, the team of UAH faculty, along with two computer science graduate research assistants, worked on developing software that can automate the process of examining a potential employee’s profile on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Duncan and Medder’s other daughter, Andrea Hutchings, who currently performs this service manually for HELS clients, says it typically takes them at least an hour per candidate to perform a social media background check. The Social Media 23 software reduces that process to one to two minutes.

The idea is that a candidate will consent to the vetting process, just as they would for a background check, allowing Social Media 23 temporary access to their accounts and profiles. “So they’re aware that we’re in there, looking at their pages, and we do it for a set period of time,” explains Medders.

The software then screens for five criteria: language, actions or affiliation with groups that discriminate based on race, religion or gender; obscene language or content in posts; use or abuse of controlled or illegal substances; and sexual harassment. More broadly, it also checks personal disposition, looking for language that expresses depression, anger or anxiety. The categories can be customized to suit a particular institution’s needs.

“Of course, all of the results will be examined to determine the nature of comments made in any of the five categories, whether obvious or requiring further analysis as to whether they are positive or negative when examined in context,” Medders explains. “Such as, ‘I am anxious about my test’ or ‘I am anxious about my interview.’  This is where algorithms in the software code and machine learning come into play that help provide an initial analysis.”

As the development took off, so did the UAH team’s enthusiasm for the software’s potential market.

“When we first started talking to them, we were simply talking about needing something for Higher Education Leadership Search,” says Medders. As the software progressed, the UAH team encouraged Medders to look beyond his own company. “They’re the ones who created the excitement and buzz well beyond what we were thinking about at the beginning of this process.”

Duncan and Hutchings, who have both been heavily involved in the development of Social Media 23, are also impressed with the level of enthusiasm and support they’ve received from the UAH team.

“You take two graduate students with their background in coding — and now they’re sending us information that we didn’t know about or didn’t understand how we could apply it — it’s inspiring. Having the conversations over dinner at our parents’ house to where we are today has been an amazing transformation,” says Duncan.

Medders says, “So it’s been an extremely positive experience, as I thought it would, because I understand higher ed, and I understand the research component of what they do.”

Kannan Grant agrees. “I think this is exactly one of the things UAH needs to be doing for people with ideas on the outside — help them develop it and give it back to them and say, ‘Go make a business out of this.’ This was exciting for UAH. The graduate students that worked on this project were exposed to real-world problems, and I think that’s a very valuable thing for our students, as well as our faculty.”

Social Media 23 entered the beta test phase in early September, with a handful of universities that have volunteered as subjects. The software platform is scheduled to roll out to clients in January 2019.

Katherine MacGilvray and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.

Can You Really Teach Innovation?

Weida Tan (left) is now CEO of Fledging, working with business partners COO Steven Robbins (center) and Research Assistant Daniel Bolus. Photo by Joe De Sciose

Weida Tan was born in China and arrived in Pell City 10 years ago as a 17-year-old high school exchange student. He is now a doctoral student in computer science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), having already earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

But he also is chief executive officer of a start-up company called Fledging, which makes software/hardware solid-state drive replacement solutions for MacBook users. The company came through the UAB Commercialization Accelerator and into Innovation Depot, and his company is now bringing in $65,000 a month and is developing another product.

The Commercialization Accelerator is an initiative of the Bill L. Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UAB, which is now housed, along with the Collat School of Business, in a brand new, $37.5 million, 108,000-square-foot building. The new building, which had its ribbon cutting in August, was designed with input from students and community business leaders and features breakout rooms, an innovation lab, classrooms designed for team-based learning, a high-tech finance lab, sales role-playing rooms, a three-story atrium, an auditorium, a career center and quiet study spaces.

UAB is one of many universities across the country that have established learning facilities billed as innovation/incubator/design centers — focused on multi-    disciplinary inquiry, fostering partnerships with industry and bringing in available grants and funding for projects and research. Tan and his company are one example of what can result.

But questions are being raised about whether innovation or “design thinking” can be taught, and articles have appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education lately questioning whether innovation centers are worth the money. The folks at UAB think they are.

Being an innovator requires a certain mindset, says Tan — one where success requires learning “how to be persevering, how to be humble, how to be observing.” Photo by Joe De Sciose

“It is not just can it be taught, it should be taught much more on a deeper and broader scale,” Tan says. “As an entrepreneur who put my invention through the entire commercialization cycle and making revenue and growth out of it, I have seen so many other peers that have ideas no less disruptive or less profitable with potential businesses, but they didn’t put it through. They could be a fellow engineering student who came up with a design for a new cup holder for a car, it could be an art student that came up with this idea for decorative accessories, it could be a computer science student who came up with this software idea, but none of them put their time or effort or resources into it to make it happen, to push it through the way I did. It is not their fault, because those resources are not that accessible.

“It definitely could be taught, because starting a start-up is not a difficult thing. It is the same experience, and there are a lot of commonalities that could be taught and should be taught. There is no need to invent the wheel over and over again.”

Molly Wasko is associate dean for research, innovation, entrepreneurship and faculty success at the Collat School of Business at UAB. She agrees with Tan that innovation can be taught.

“Of course innovation can be taught,” she says.

“If you look at the organizations that have successfully innovated and succeeded over time, it’s been because they actually have a business process for innovation,” she says. Wasko says the business process UAB focuses on is the one developed by Stanford University’s business school, which is called design thinking and has four different stages.

“When we teach innovation, we teach the model, and the different twist to it is that we actually start teams with a design challenge, so they learn it by doing it. So, for instance, we did a program with McWane Science Center where executives could sign up for a series of four Sunday afternoons,” she says. “They have to actually understand the users they are trying to design for. We have them go out into the museum and do observations and interviews and get to know the actual users, what they like about the museum, what they would like to see differently. So that is step one, actually understanding the museum from a user’s point of view.”

Step two, she says, is defining the problem you are trying to solve, followed by brainstorming or ideation. “That has a whole series of processes as well. Most organizations actually have no idea how to brainstorm. Brainstorming involves trying to generate as many ideas as is possible in a fixed amount of time and considering what resources are available.”

And when talking about innovation, entrepreneurship is usually part of the conversation.

Patrick J. Murphy, Ph.D., was recently named the inaugural Goodrich Endowed Chair in Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Collat School of Business.

Murphy has been an entrepreneurship professor for more than 15 years and is well versed in cutting-edge entrepreneurship training and the enhancement of entrepreneurship education through outreach to entrepreneurial ventures, community engagement and program development.

“I would contrast innovation and entrepreneurship in the following way. Innovation is the most early stage part of the process that you can imagine. You have peoples’ experience, peoples’ knowledge, peoples’ activities, peoples’ thinking styles combined with different technologies that are not yet ready for market and different programming languages and different coding and all of the information that goes into that almost like art,” Murphy says.

“After that whirlwind of activity that defines innovation, we have what I call kind of a valley of death that you have to get through before whatever you innovated is ready to take to the market. And then when we think about taking it into the market, we are getting into the realm of entrepreneurship.”

Murphy agrees with colleague Wasko that innovation and entrepreneurship can both be taught. “I like to think of these areas as kind of a discipline, and, like any discipline, it can be learned. And so with innovation, and entrepreneurship for that matter, one of the big things that we focus on when we teach people how to do these things is not be afraid to make mistakes.”

Failure is a recurring theme when talking about innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Errors and mistakes are a big part of the process,” Murphy says. “In fact, just like in the biological or the natural world, where error is like fuel for the ecosystem, that is how it works here. And by error in the natural world, I mean like leaves falling off of trees and snakes shedding their skins, all of which in essence becomes fertilizer for the overall ecosystem. In the entrepreneurial and innovation realms, these sorts of mistakes fulfill the same function and some of our strongest game-breaking innovations have been the most profitable mistakes.”

But, Murphy cautions, “You have to put boundaries around that, because it can get out of hand.”

Tan says becoming an innovator or an entrepreneur requires a certain mindset. “From my personal perspective, it is about how to be persevering, how to be humble, how to be observing.”

Add to that, Tan says, you need a problem-solving mindset and the willingness to take risks. “For example, most of my peers consider their destination is to land a job to live a life that the world expects them to. You don’t have to be that way. If a situation is not good, change it.”

Tan says he thinks a start-up “is a string of failures. Whether we can resurrect ourselves, that is the make it-break it factor. It takes hard work and strong will. Things happen all the time. It is just a matter of how you deal with it. Road blocks are for people who don’t want it enough.”

That philosophy appears to be working for Tan.

“Business is going great. We reached a monthly revenue of $65,000 last month, and, in the primary market, we are on eBay. We are at about 22 percent market share of this $3 million market. We are launching our second product soon, and we are expanding our team. Right now it is five people.”

The late Peter Drucker, a leader in the development of management education, is credited with saying “Innovation is the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.”

Alabama may have the resources, but it is number 30 out of the 50 states in innovation and entrepreneurship, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

“Our organizations have to innovate,” Wasko says. “My experience here in Alabama is that we don’t have a culture that naturally embraces innovation, like Silicon Valley or Stanford. So we need to learn some new behaviors, and engaging in workshops or different types of opportunities around design thinking where we can learn some new skills, or learn how to change the culture, I think would make a huge difference.

“So, for employers, it is good to recognize that this incoming group of new hires they are going to have is going to be trained in design thinking and naturally be innovative, and how can we help prepare our organizations to embrace innovation and not kill it.”

Bill Gerdes and Joe De Sciose are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Gerdes is based in Hoover and De Sciose in Birmingham.

Career Notes, November 2018

Morgan McDaniel


Morgan McDaniel and Brooklyn McNeese have joined Russell Thompson Butler & Houston as staff accountants.


Anne Toulouse has been named interim senior vice president of communications at Boeing Co., succeeding Phil Musser.


At Bryant Bank, Bland Morris has been promoted to vice president, commercial loan officer; Lisa Hastings to vice president, relationship manager, and Donna Finch to branch manager of the Foley office. The bank has hired Sandy Cazabat as assistant vice president; Laura Hastings as training and development director; David Kindred as vice president, commercial lender; Herman Stubbs as vice president, commercial loan officer, and Jerry Warren as vice president, treasury management.

Karen Grahn has been promoted to senior vice president, credit card division manager at ServisFirst Bank.

Chris Harrelson has joined SunSouth Bank as assistant vice president of commercial banking.


Lucas Gambino was named general counsel and vice president of Coca-Cola Bottling Company United Inc.

Michael Schilleci, president of Supreme Beverage Co. in Tanner, has been elected as chairman of the National Beer Wholesalers Association.


The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama announced the Tuscaloosa County Civil Hall of Fame inductees for 2018, who are Bert Bank, Jordan Plaster, Gene “Poodgie” Poole, Malcolm Portera, Kenneth Ward Swindle, Harrison Taylor and Yvonne Wells.

Economic Development

Jeff Traywick, Birmingham Business Alliance vice president of economic development, has been named one of the top 50 economic developers in North America by Consultant Connect.


After 37 years as president, Gary Branch is retiring from Coastal Alabama Community College.

Chuck Ernst has been appointed to lead Alabama Robotics Technology Park.

Phillip Mann has been named the new Alabama Community College System director of promotion and economic development for the Alabama Center for the Arts, located in Decatur.


Children’s of Alabama has endowed chairs in the name of several long-time board members. They are: Ralph Frohsin Jr., Susan Nabers Haskell, Virginia Walker Jones, Phillippe Lathrop, L. Gwaltney McCollum Jr. and Benjamin Russell.

Michael Chang has been named chief medical officer for USA Health and associate vice president for medical affairs and professor of surgery at the USA College of Medicine. In addition, Dan Howard has been named chief information officer for USA Health.


Melvin “Trey” Harris, Allison Kelman and Alex Espana have been hired by One Club Gulf Shores. Harris and Kelman will serve as food and beverage managers, while Espana will head up golf course and tournament programs.


L. Dickerson Fountain has been appointed Huntsville market executive of  S.S. Nesbitt.

Marie Lackey has been appointed senior regional sales director for the Southeastern region of Boston Mutual Life Insurance Co.


Christina May Bolin, Helen Alford and Gabrielle Reeves, of Alford Bolin LLC, have joined Christian & Small LLP.

Maynard Cooper & Gale hired Erica Williamson Barnes, Noah “Chip” Hicks and Robert Jones as shareholders.

Jonathan Skeeters has been named chairman and managing partner of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP. Dawn Helms Sharff, who has been serving as interim chair, was named office managing partner for the firm’s Birmingham office. Also, Edward Sledge IV, a partner in the Birmingham office, has been appointed to the board of directors of the International Association of Defense Counsel Foundation. In addition, E. Mabry Rogers, a partner in the Birmingham office, has been named president of the Construction Lawyers Society of America.

Randall McClanahan, of Butler Snow, has been appointed to a three-year term to the National Conference of Lawyers and Certified Public Accountants.


At UAB, Rett Grover has been named CEO of Callahan Eye Hospital & Clinics. David Standaert, M.D., Ph.D., has been chosen to lead the Udall Center of Excellence in Parkinson’s Disease Research.

Real Estate

The Shopping Center Group has named Ray Jones operating partner, Gulf States region, Gary Shanks senior leasing advisor and Michelle Spora A/P accountant.

Josie Russell Young has been hired by New Waters Realty Co. for sales and marketing.


Donna Pardue-Griffith, a service manager at LongHorn Steakhouse in Hoover, has been presented the company’s Manager of the Year award.

Auburn Invests in Native Invention

Peter Panizzi, a professor at Auburn’s Harrison School of Pharmacy, is working to develop, test and market “Clot-in-a-Can,” an agent that quickly stops bleeding and can be carried in a first aid kit. Photo by Julie Bennett

In 2017, Bernhard Kaltenboeck was at a crossroads with research he had been doing since about 2009.

He had just about perfected an additive to replace antibiotics in animal feed — resulting in larger animals and lower food costs — but he had one more big step.

“We were missing a larger scale swine trial,” says Kaltenboeck, professor and director of the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory in Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “That would show this works and that the cost is low enough that there is a profit to be made.”

So Kaltenboeck turned to a program at Auburn called Launch: The Fund for Research and Innovation. Launch gave Kaltenboeck the money he needed for the study, which was successful, and now, a year later, his product has jumped a big hurdle and is closer to commercialization.

Should that happen, it will mean money for both Kaltenboeck and Auburn, exactly what Launch has been trying to do with nearly $300,000 in grants given since its inception in 2016.

“The whole program was created to address what researchers referred to as the ‘valley of death,’” says Cary Chandler, director of business development and startups for Auburn’s Office of Innovation Advancement & Commercialization. “It’s when research funding has run out but they’re not quite at the commercialization stage.”

Via Launch, researchers can apply for funding to help bridge that gap between the end of testing and the beginning of commercialization. In return, Auburn will own part of the licensing and will benefit when these projects are commercialized.

About $100,000 in funding is in place for each of the next two years, Chandler says, and the hope is to find new sources of funding after that.

It’s a program that folds in nicely with Auburn President Steven Leath’s goal to take Auburn to new levels of research.

“Our Launch program advances innovative ideas of Auburn researchers into products and services that benefit our communities, strengthen the state’s economy and move our nation forward,” he says. “It’s through real-world solutions to complex issues that Auburn is inspiring and innovating for the greater good.”

Already, Launch has given money to 10 research projects, including three in 2018 that feature advances in chemical engineering, mechanical engineering and healthcare.

Here’s a look at the three programs that received Launch grants in 2018.

Improving first-aid kits

Peter Panizzi is looking to update first-aid kits around the world.

“I am designing a new hemostatic agent that can rapidly stop bleeding, as a means to save lives following acute injuries,” says Panizzi, associate professor in the Department of Drug Discovery and Development in the Harrison School of Pharmacy. “It is a very cool application and an extraordinarily practical one. It is my ultimate hope that it will be added to all first-aid kits in the future.”

Panizzi was awarded a $35,700 grant “to explore this product idea and to generate sufficient data to support future testing.”

Launch offered money where others haven’t in the past.

“This idea of a new hemostatic agent has been knocked around for years, but there were no funds to pursue it,” Panizzi says. “In science, these types of ideas come and go but are largely left on the back burner, because they are not fundable in the classical sense of the word.”

He’s already putting his Launch money to work on his project, called “Clot-in-a-Can.”

“We are getting in, probably any day now, a new fermentation system that will give us the ability to make grams of the active agent for stability testing and other key trials,” Panizzi says. “From there, we will test in a real-world agriculture setting to validate our agent’s ability to rapidly stop bleeding following cattle dehorning. This is a great test for us, as we will work with local farmers to spray our agent on freshly-cut horns, thereby sealing the wounds and preventing additional blood loss and subsequent infections.”

Launch is giving money and attention to projects that might not flourish otherwise, Panizzi says.

“There are a ton of great ideas at Auburn University, and it is nice to see a few of them get the opportunity to develop,” he says.

Creating versatile 3D printers for the home market

3D printers aren’t the stuff of science fiction anymore. They are used widely in manufacturing, and one Auburn researcher is working on one that might be used at home, creating a technology that will allow metals other than aluminum to be printed.

“My research is an effort to create a new method of metal additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, that is faster and more feasible than current systems and cheap enough that home use would even be possible,” says Michael Knotts, graduate research assistant in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Knotts turned to the Launch program to help complete his research, and a $6,400 grant allowed him to do it.

“I applied for the grant after talking to the Office of Commercialization about potentially patenting the technology I was working on,” he says. “They explained what it was and that it could be used to help bring my idea to commercialization.”

Since receiving the grant, Knotts has been able to perfect his initial product.

“It has allowed me to take an earlier prototype that demonstrated proof-of-concept into a functional commercial machine that we are hoping to debut soon,” he says. “We are still undergoing testing on it, but it is now close to being a fully marketable product.”

That might not have happened without Launch, Knotts says.

“The Launch grant is a fantastic opportunity for Auburn researchers,” he says. “It allows for a good idea to transition out of the research realm into a commercial product. This funding has been a huge help to me in finalizing this printer, and I am very grateful for it.”


Barry Yeh and Tareq Anani are looking to make healthcare safer for some patient populations unable to receive optimum care.

That’s the crux of the research conducted by the two recent doctoral graduates of Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering’s Department of Chemical Engineering. Along with Professor Allan David, their project is “Gadolinium-free MRI and MRA contrast agents.”

“The core technology, labeled diffusive magnetic fractionation (DMF), enables the explicit control of the properties of magnetic nanomaterials,” Yeh says. What this technology means for the patient is that it reduces potential toxic effects of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and MRA (magnetic resonance angiography).

Both MRIs and MRAs are noninvasive and painless diagnostic tools in wide use around the world. Yeh and Anani’s technology will make these technologies safer for patients, specifically those who might react poorly to gadolinium, the contrast material used with these tools.

“The lead products consist of iron-based nanomaterials engineered to offer contrast enhancement in MRI and MRA for patients with poor kidney function,” Yeh says. “These patients are currently unable to take gadolinium-based contrast agents, and it is also important to minimize gadolinium exposure for patients who undergo multiple, periodic MRI scans.”

With their $56,000 Launch grant, Yeh and Anani were able to continue studies on their potentially groundbreaking technology. “We successfully completed our initial studies on synthesizing and characterizing our developed agents with the help of the Launch grant,” Yeh says.

“We are now forming our own company, NanoXort, and preparing National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research applications based on the results from our initial studies.”

The Launch program has been a big part of that.

“The Launch Innovation Grant is a great program for commercializing technologies developed at Auburn University,” Yeh says. “It accelerates our product development and enables us to apply for governmental support.”

Alec Harvey and Julie Bennett are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Auburn.

Entrepreneur Alchemy

Leadership at 525 Solutions, from left, Julia Shamshina, CEO Gabriela Gurau and President/Founder Robin Rogers.  Photo by Joe De Sciose

Universities, with resources of raw talent and costly high-tech equipment, are the ideal venue to incubate ideas. At the University of Alabama’s AIME (Alabama Innovation and Mentoring of Entrepreneurs) Center, students and professors can take their inventions a step further by exploring the opportunity to move their intellectual property to the marketplace. And UA has the success stories to prove the formula works.

No matter the sector for a prototype, AIME helps inventors make the transition to entrepreneurship. First, it provides access to work space and to high-tech, high-cost equipment. Second, it assists with obtaining grants to research scalable feasibility.

Dan Daly, executive director of the program, came to the university from a background in industry, where he knew the processes for evaluating steps for the intellectual process for patents.

The National Science Foundation I-Corps Site became part of the program in 2015 to foster entrepreneurship that will lead to the commercialization of technology. The methodology pivoted to helping with customer discovery. When the patent is disclosed, the program helps make sure a customer base exists for the invention, providing infrastructure, advice, resources, networking opportunities and training.

“The I-Corps process answers the question for us by going out and talking to potential customers and getting good feedback from the customers,” Daly says. “Of the teams we teach, 70 percent are student ideas. What we really try to focus on is more of the higher technical and intellectual properties of the University of Alabama.”

Daly says finding the right idea or the next great thing is only the beginning. It’s having the business acumen to make a company a success that is difficult, and the University of Alabama program closes the gap between germinating the idea seed and taking it to mass production. UA is also teaching other universities how to implement similar programs.

“It’s exciting to see the potential,” Daly says. “One thing that is really encouraging is when students finally get the concept, to see the enthusiasm in them escalate. You can see the potential and learn the skills to take an idea and move it into commerce. We’re seeing more and more success stories.”

Potential Disruptor for $654-Billion Plastics Industry

The University’s AIME program’s full methodology is embodied in 525 Solutions, an entity that began in the incubator’s early days and has undergone a sea change with its growth and spin off of Mari Signum, an independent Virginia-based company taking this technological breakthrough and its multiple applications to real-world use.

President, owner and founder of 525 Solutions Inc., Robin D. Rogers has been a faculty member at the University of Alabama since 1982. From his work in ionic liquids, Rogers became fascinated with green industry and the concept of sustainability. The name 525 Solutions was derived from the 525-nanometer wavelength for green light.

In 2004, Rogers, along with a graduate student and other partners, came up with 525 Solutions to take results beyond what had been done in the academic lab to the market.

As the project grew, developing bio-renewable sorbents from shrimp shells for the extraction of uranium from seawater, so too did its potential to diversify. 525 Solutions received a $1.6 million award (2014-2017) to continue its work, and formed a joint venture, Mari Signum Limited (MSL), with Global Blue Technologies, a zero-waste shrimp farm. MSL raised $25 million and built the first chitin production facility in North America, based on a technology developed by Rogers.

Gabriela Gurau, now CEO and co-owner of 525 Solutions, and Julia Shamshina, chief technology officer of Mari Signum Limited, were both post-doctoral students of Rogers. AIME “not only generates technologies and companies but generates entrepreneurs — people able to take this forward. Julia and Gabby are both responsible for doing the work on the scale-up of chitin to the 1.5 million phase,” says Rogers. “That was the origin of 525, and chitin is the latest iteration of the concept — how to get technology from a university setting to a corporate setting.”

In the early days of AIME, Rogers helped recruit Dan Daly to mentor faculty and entrepreneurs starting a company.

“If you’re a chemist or engineer, you’ve never had training (in business),” Rogers says. “The goal behind AIME was to facilitate prototyping and facilitate teaching what people need to know to start a company. We wanted people to be able to learn to write a research plan, in addition to working on research.”

Rogers says that access to university resources was critical in 525 Solutions’ accomplishments, becoming a poster child for the AIME program.

“The more money you get, the more you can do,” Rogers says. “With the first SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research), we were able to do the chemistry. With Phase II, we were able to scale up the engineering work. That’s how 525 evolved. Without the AIME facilities, we would never have been able to afford it.”

Shamshina says there were important steps along the way: “While at 525, seeking for funding to scale up chitin production, we turned our attention to the USDOE Nuclear Energy program, aimed at the extraction of uranium from seawater. While we focused on delivery of product to government-designated mining companies, we at the same time proposed leveraging the USDOE resources to generate a sustainable business around chitin products. (There) was no existing industry base for extraction of uranium from seawater, and the entry decision thus revolved more about how to build a successful business around this opportunity.

“The ultimate goal of this project was collecting the industrial process parameters, conducting reliable economic estimates, and, ultimately, a generation of data for the full-scale operating plant design. This project resulted in a fully engineered system, development of key engineering data and diagrams, as well as an assessment of the equipment needed in a full-scale operating plant.”

Mari Signum Mid-Atlantic was formed as a chitin materials production company. The ultimate goal of Mari Signum Mid-Atlantic is to become a sustainable source of high-quality chitin, as well as chitin-based products developed in-house.

“Mari Signum utilizes a proprietary extraction process to produce premium-quality chitin and chitin derivatives, which have the potential to impact the world in numerous, beneficial ways,” Shamshina says.

“We are continuing to innovate new chitin-based products — for instance, textiles and drug delivery,” Rogers says. “The other half of what we are doing is herbicide, cellulose-based textiles, and we are trying to do pharmaceuticals. 525 is where we incubate our ideas to bring them to commercialization.”

The 525 team has the products, including bandages used by the military and with the capacity to heal diabetic wounds, but it’s a matter of waiting for the finances to move projects forward, including producing a sustainable alternative to plastics — a project that would require a tremendous influx of dollars. It’s something Rogers hopes to see in his lifetime.

“You never know when the right confluence of investment and government interest will come together,” Rogers says. “Using our technology, we can use polymers that come from nature to replace virtually any plastic device known. The problem is no one knows how to do it yet.”

The name Mari Signum comes from the Latin, “sign of the sea,” or, Rogers says, “miracle from the ocean.” The true miracle will be Rogers’ dream of seeing alternatives to plastics, an expensive challenge in the face of a $654 billion plastics industry.

“We’ve built a plant based upon this technology, and we’re building a research company that should be a sustainable company from the University of Alabama,” says Rogers. “This is technology invented at the University of Alabama, developed by 525, an incubated company at the University of Alabama, and now graduated into a joint venture.”

Gurau says the company founded in 2004 went to the next step in commercialization with technology developed in 2010. Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the chitin extraction were smaller scale research taking the invention from the laboratory on the scale of 1 milliliter to the two-liter scale.

“We have all the engineering data necessary to scale this technology further to at least the 500-liter scale,” Gurau says.

“There are no other chitin products in North America,” she says. “We are using a solvent, ionic solution, table salt in a liquid form. It’s something you can compare to vinegar. That tells people it’s not a harsh chemical. It’s something you find in everybody’s kitchen.”

The solvent dissolves chitin from the shrimp shell, and after the extraction, it can be further manipulated. “You can modify the surface with chemicals that act like a magnet to attract uranium,” Gurau says. “It will take some time for the technology to get to a commercial level.

“Chitin can be used in other metal extractions. Water purification for us is very important because it has medical applications. We can show that we can make composite fiber using chitin and alginate and make bandages to cure diabetic ulcers.”

Chitin has antimicrobial properties to keep a wound clean while forming a seal.

“Chitin has many applications from low end to high end and biomedical applications considered to be high end, very expensive,” Gurau says. “If you look at medical-grade chitin, you would pay up to $50,000 per kilogram.”

Gurau says chitin imported from Asia uses harsh chemicals, while the University of Alabama alternative does not. The chitin can be used in medications and cosmetics.

“There are a myriad of applications,” Gurau says.

The industrial applications proposed for chitin are overwhelming. Chitin is used in animal feed as a dietary supplement to promote animal growth, improve adsorption of nutrients and inhibit the effect of harmful microorganisms, and as an ideal material for use in agriculture as a fertilizer, fungicide and pesticide, as an agent to improve seed quality, and as a plant growth stimulator.

The absence of an environmentally sound chitin extraction technology that produces consistent quality product was holding back the whole chitin industry, but now these University of Alabama professionals have opened new vistas for the technology.

“Mari Signum’s ability to produce not only chitin itself, but also products from chitin gives us a competitive advantage to diversify the range of our products and enter several profitable specialized markets,” Shamshina says.

Revolutionary Catalyst for Smokestack Industries

ThruPore Technologies has been one of the super success stories to emerge from the chemistry department at the University of Alabama. The company, with its tag line of “make more, use less,” illustrates how the program should and did work for Franchessa Sayler, Ph.D., president & CEO, and her partner, Professor Martin Bakker.

Sayler was a graduate student when ThruPore Technologies began developing commercial applications for a structured carbon catalyst support. The technology uses highly porous synthetic carbon pellets, combined with precious metals, to create faster reactions in the refinery processes. The more efficient process creates less waste and uses fewer precious metals and has the potential to revolutionize industry by reducing the refiner’s carbon footprint, while also significantly reducing the cost of the process.

Sayler was looking at the technology for a completely different application when she realized it would be effective for catalyst support.

“This particular catalyst is a carbon-supported catalyst,” Sayler explains. “We make it porous so we can put the metal throughout so it sparks. We’re able to use as little as 1/6 of the precious metal. It’s cleaner and weighs a lot less. It also works longer. We have been able to demonstrate sometimes it works as long as four times longer.”

The carbon pellets are used in the production of chemicals and have the potential for automotive applications and cleaner-burning fuel.

In the lab at ThruPore, researchers Trupti Kotbagi (left) and Endre Mihaly. Photo by Joe De Sciose

Sayler’s involvement began when a staff scientist at the university said he was having difficulties developing a catalyst. He asked her, because of her material science background, to take a look at the process. She immediately identified the need for more porous structures.

“I think a lot of scientists find that when they see a solution to a difficult problem, they wonder why no one else thought of that,” Sayler says. “But putting an idea into practice is harder than it looks.”

When the idea went to the AIME program, it was an immediate hit, leading to National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grants, as well as two smaller grants for commercialization exploration. The research funding for the development totaled $1.2 million from 2014 through 2017.

“They said it was great, and we got to be a cohort of the I-Corps program,” says Sayler.

ThruPore, co-founded with Martin Bakker, found a market for the product and licensed the patent for it, which was owned by the University of Alabama.

“I took complete leadership of the company, and it has been exciting,” Sayler says. “We had one employee at the time, and now we have five. I moved the company headquarters to Delaware to run the business side of things in an area with a lot of chemical industry, but we still have the manufacturing and R&D in Tuscaloosa.”

With her training in chemistry, Sayler never anticipated she would be a business owner.

“I wanted to go into product development, so I’m still doing pretty much the same thing,” she says. “I’m just not in the lab as much anymore.”

The development actually involves two patents, both owned by the university — one for putting the catalyst onto a porous carbon and the other for being able to scale the porous materials, making massive quantities of material.

“We took the material from the lab, less than a pound at a time, and now through a partnership with Inventure Renewables, a company that grew out of University of Alabama, ThruPore can make 100 tons a year,” Sayler says.

Partnering with Inventure Renewables was key to scaling up the manufacturing process, but the work of the university was the true catalyst for success. It’s not hand-holding but more a sturdy clasp and boost through AIME that gives potential businesses the incentive and know-how they need to develop ideas and launch companies.

“We would absolutely not have been able to get off the ground without university support,” Sayler says. “The reason we still have labs and manufacturing in Alabama is because of the support system they have created. The people at University of Alabama and in Tuscaloosa have been phenomenal. The university has so many things to access that we need scientifically. You don’t have to buy them. You can just rent time on them.”

The idea seemed counterintuitive at first — a porous structure roughly the size of a pencil eraser would not seem to have the crush strength of a denser material — particularly when the pellets needed to be stacked for the process. But the essence of science is summed up as let’s find out.

“You would think when you packed them in, the crush strength would not be high, and that might have stopped us from pursuing it industrially,” Sayler says. “If you don’t make the material, you don’t know the answer to the question. Once we made it in bulk quantities, we learned the crush strength was actually higher. If you don’t pursue an idea, you’ll never know.”

ThruPore’s big break came through an I-Corps grant program in 2014. A Phase II grant, totaling $750,000, allowed the company to scale up the technology with a larger amount of catalyst for customers.

“That’s where the difficulty was — scalability, proving it could be applied at the scale of a real smokestack industry,” Sayler says.

“Once we proved that, we went to private investment,” Sayler says. “We just closed on a total of $856,500. We also have applied for another grant to match that funding, for another $250,000 from a phase IB supplement grant.”

Sayler projects exponential growth for the company in the next five years, with the pellets shipping direct to customers from Tuscaloosa.

“It feels like we’re sitting on the next big thing,” she says. “Within three years, we’re achieving large scale goals production-wise, and from there, we want to continue duplicating what we’ve accomplished.”

Cara Clark and Joe De Sciose are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

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