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Aerobotix Reaches Robotic Milestone

Aerobotix F-35 Mobile MIP robot system at Lockheed Martin Aerospace in Fort Worth, Texas.

Robotic integrator Aerobotix, based in Madison, has integrated and installed more than 100 FANUC robots, performing its services in five countries.

Aerobotix specializes in integrating the robots for sanding and painting systems, most of which are involved in aerospace and defense industries. Some of its projects include the F-35 Lightning and B-2 Stealth Bomber, Patriot missiles and hypersonic missile programs.

“The use of robots has drastically reduced the time and cost needed to complete these tasks and creates an ergonomically friendly and less hazardous work environment,” says Keith Pfeifer, engineering manager at Aerobotix.

The privately owned company was founded in 2005 and provides design, build, installation and support services, relying heavily on its own employees rather than contractors.

New Venture Capital Fund Yields Early Returns

Raymond Harbert, a key investor in the Alabama Futures Fund, who believes that it takes a pool of committed capital for early-stage companies to create a robust Alabama economy, according to AFF advisory firm partner Matt Hottle.

Birmingham, along with the rest of Alabama, continues to make inroads in the nation’s entrepreneurship circles, particularly the high-tech sector.

The city received a major boost in September 2018 with the formation of the Alabama Futures Fund, a $25 million early-stage venture capital fund that will fund startup companies based in Alabama or companies that would consider moving to Alabama.

Backers include some of Birmingham’s biggest names — Raymond Harbert, chairman and chief executive officer of Harbert Management Corp.; Auburn and NBA basketball great Charles Barkley; Protective Life Insurance Co.; Hoar Construction; G. Ruffner Page Jr., president of McWane Inc., and businessman Benny LaRussa Jr.

“We were fortunate to have several investors commit to the vision Mr. Harbert fostered and raised a total fund of $25 million,” says Matt Hottle, a partner in AFF’s advisory firm Red Hawk Advisory.

Hottle says Harbert had been considering an Alabama-focused, early-stage venture capital fund for a number of years.

“Mr. Harbert believes that in order to create a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem in the state of Alabama, one of the elements needed is a pool of committed capital to invest in and support early-stage companies,” Hottle says.

Several recent studies show high-tech entrepreneurship is moving from areas like Silicon Valley and the North Carolina Triangle to the middle part of the country. Given that trend, Hottle says, “A fundamental tenet of the Alabama Futures Fund is to foster the Alabama entrepreneurial community and to attract early-stage companies to relocate to Alabama by creating a resident pool of capital to invest in our previously underserved market.”

Like any investment firm, AFF’s goal “is to create positive returns for the investors,” Hottle says. “But we are also taking advantage of the opportunity to work collaboratively with other stakeholders in Alabama’s business and entrepreneurial community to promote the entire spectrum of entrepreneurship and economic development. Whether we invest in a company or not, we try to encourage their success by providing access to a network of professional service providers and community business leaders to help with an array of non-financial support — ranging from executive mentoring to assistance with finding office space. The Fund will help promote the state as a supportive and strategic place for startups who can grow and innovate as effectively here as anywhere in the country.”

Hottle says that while the Alabama Futures Fund encourages early-stage investing and the development of startup communities across the state, Birmingham was a natural fit to serve as the base of operations. He points to Harbert’s strong ties to the institutional investor base in Birmingham and the recent success of several local startup companies.

“Maybe more instructive than any assessment that we made regarding the environment for early-stage companies in Alabama is the success that the Alabama Futures Fund has had in recruiting two of our first three portfolio companies to relocate their headquarters to Birmingham,” Hottle says. “We see this as definitive validation of the strength and attractiveness of Alabama’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

In just over six months, four firms have announced an investment from AFF and a decision to relocate to Birmingham simultaneously:

• In September, TeamingPro — born in Virginia as a software-as-a-service firm helping contractors find federal opportunities and potential partners — accepted capital from AFF and announced plans to move its headquarters from Chesapeake, Virginia, to Huntsville. TeamingPro President and CEO Tim Hagerty praised the Fund leadership for “exceptional investment capabilities” and “strategic business acumen.”  Added Hagerty, “And now, with our move to Huntsville, Alabama, an important federal contracting hub, we expect TeamingPro to grow exponentially.”

• At the end of June, San Francisco startup Prepaid2Cash Holdings Inc. announced that it had received capital from AFF and was relocating. “We are excited to join the burgeoning tech community in Birmingham,” said Peter Vogt, cofounder and CEO of Prepaid2Cash. “We were blown away by the ample resources and support available to a growing business like ours. This gives us confidence in our ability to scale our company and access new customers and tap regional connections.”

• In March, Case Status, a company founded in Atlanta to help law firms strengthen relationships with their clients, accepted funding from AFF and announced a move to Birmingham. “We believe the missions of Case Status and the Alabama Futures Fund are very much aligned,” says Case Status CEO and founder Lauren Sturdivant. “From our earliest days, we have focused on building deep, trusted and expansive relationships for the benefit of law firms and their clients. AFF demonstrated their commitment to the same ideals.” Like Vogt of Prepaid2Cash, Sturdivant praised the “Birmingham tech ecosystem,” and says her firm “is excited to be part of it.”

• Last December, Joonko Inc., which helps employers find a diverse pool of job applicants, announced plans to move its headquarters from San Francisco to Birmingham, after accepting AFF funding. “Expanding our operations in the U.S. is an exciting moment, and we couldn’t find a better place than Birmingham,” says Ilit Rax, founder and CEO of Joonko. “Working alongside the Alabama Futures Fund has been incredible from day one. Their support of the business, willingness to make introductions, and belief in the team, product and mission is not something you find in every investor.”

AFF also has invested in the Alabama-born firm VirtualCare LLC and its direct primary care platform, dubbed DoctorWellington, which provides access to virtual care, telemedicine and primary care physician office visits for a monthly subscription fee, without co-pays, deductibles and other traditional insurance.

Several Southeastern communities have well-organized, early-stage investor communities, says Hottle, citing Atlanta, Austin, Raleigh and Nashville, as well as Chattanooga, Tampa and Charlotte. That investment “has helped those communities not only retain their local startup companies, but also attract startups from around the region, including some with Alabama roots.”

Birmingham’s existing entrepreneurial element, embodied in Innovation Depot, welcomes the AFF influence.

“Innovation Depot has been focused on building the tech entrepreneurial community for over a decade, and we are incredibly excited about the added momentum of focused capital sources like the Alabama Futures Fund,” says T. Devon Laney, until recently president and CEO of Innovation Depot. “Being able to attract and support high-growth tech startups is essential to the future of our community and state, and we expect to continue working with partners like the AFF to drive these results moving forward.”

Bill Gerdes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Hoover.

Business School for Scientists — STEM Path to the MBA

Katie Heywood, project manager for HealthSpring in Birmingham. Photo by Cary Norton

When she entered the University of Alabama almost 10 years ago, Katie Heywood knew she wanted to work in health care. Motivated and inspired by a college-level anatomy and physiology class she had in high school in Cincinnati, Heywood planned to eventually practice medicine.

Although her focus of study would be the sciences, Heywood was attracted to a then-new program at UA — the STEM Path to the MBA. The program allows science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors to weave honors business courses into their undergraduate curriculum before completing an MBA in only one additional year of study.

“I knew, no matter what, I was going to need some kind of business knowledge,” Heywood says. “Most undergraduate prerequisites aren’t in accounting or finance, and basic life skills are learned in classes like that. So, I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to need this.’ ”

During her junior year, Heywood realized she no longer wanted to be a doctor. “I couldn’t see doing it the rest of my life,” she says. “I’m one of those who always asks, ‘OK, what’s next?’ I wanted to continue to grow and challenge myself to do different things.”

Rob Morgan, director of the STEM Path to the MBA program at UA, suggested Heywood consider the possibility of working for a health care company as opposed to practicing medicine. She remained in the STEM/MBA program and now is a project manager for HealthSpring in Birmingham.

“If you had asked me as a freshman, I would not have thought I would be working for a health care company as a project manager,” she says. “I thought I was going to be a PA or PT or pharmacist. I looked at everything. But that wasn’t what I enjoyed. When I sat down and really looked at it, I enjoyed learning about the many different aspects of health care. The STEM/MBA program provided an avenue that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

One of Heywood’s classmates in the STEM Path to the MBA program was Samantha Whorton, who now works as an engineer at Alabama Power Co. in Birmingham. At one time, “I was debating on changing majors, when I heard about the STEM Path to the MBA program,” Whorton says.

“I had been interested in business, but I wasn’t sure what segment of business. I didn’t know it was possible to put both technical and business together, but once I learned that it was, there was no looking back for me. The ability to learn more about business skills while working towards my engineering degree was exciting.”

For Los Angeles native Joseph Wolfe, Alabama’s STEM Path to the MBA program “was all about getting school done in one go. I always knew that I wanted an MBA because I wanted to go into engineering management long-term and believed that it would be useful for that career path.

“But I didn’t want to spend an extra two years somewhere down the line either, going back to school full time or taking night/weekend classes. Getting the MBA in just one extra year before entering the workforce was a much more attractive option,” says Wolfe, now a project manager at Adtran in Huntsville.

Heywood, Whorton and Wolfe all agree that communication skills attained through experiential learning were the most important part of the STEM/MBA program. Much of that came from doing innovative problem solving in teams.

Says Heywood: “I think it’s great to do well in the classroom when you’re in college, but in the STEM program and all the MBA classes, they force you to work with people on projects from day one, whether you want to or not. That’s more real world, more applicable to the work force, as opposed to just sitting behind your computer getting straight A’s by yourself.

“You’re having to collaborate with people from different backgrounds. And you’re graded as a team. You’re not graded as me, Katie. You’re graded as Katie and whoever else is on your team.”

Working in teams taught those in the STEM/MBA program communication skills both for presenting before a group and for communicating with other team members. Assignments for those teams range from executing projects for companies to addressing various issues in Alabama — food scarcity, for example.

“As an incoming freshman, I was not the most outgoing person,” Heywood says. “I had ideas but never shared them. I was a follower, not a leader. Well, in the STEM program, you had to lead the team. That taught me public speaking skills that I never would have attained outside the program. Now I speak in front of hospital systems, physicians, you name it, and I don’t bat an eye. It does not bother me one bit. But if you had asked me to do that as a freshman, that would have been my worst nightmare.”

The program also emphasized persuasion skills in dealing with others. “It taught you to realize that sometimes you put your pride aside and admit you’re not always right,” Heywood says. “Especially in the STEM program, you’re with a lot of very, very high-achieving, high-performing students who aren’t used to not being liked, not used to somebody else having an idea that might be better than theirs.

“It takes a bit of humility to be in class with a bunch of people who are so incredibly intelligent, some of the smartest, brightest people I’ve ever met in my entire life, and yet I’m sitting in their classroom with them, learning beside them, and there were times when they would say, ‘You know what, you’re right.’”

The first STEM Path to the MBA class started in 2011, with 46 students, and its various offerings have come to include team studies abroad in China, India, Europe and other locations. Three years ago, UA started a companion program — the CREATE Path to the MBA — and today the two programs have a combined 1,100 students. Both require a 28 ACT score or equivalent and a 3.5 high school GPA.

“The CREATE Path is for students who chose to go into journalism, advertising, dance or music, apparel/textile design, theater or disciplines we consider to be highly creative,” says Morgan, Phifer Fellow and professor of marketing in UA’s Culverhouse College of Commerce. “We mixed those students in with STEM students, and that’s been a real positive for both sides.”

Roughly 75 percent of students in the two programs are from out of state, and about half of those who finish the MBA portion of the program are female. Of those who start the program, roughly 30 percent complete the MBA portion.

Morgan travels the middle of the road when asked about differences between the STEM and CREATE students. “They’re all just so bright,” he says. “I’m not sure there is really much of a difference between them,” he says.

Charlie Ingram and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

AEgis Recapitalized; New CEO with Intel Creds

AEgis headquarters in Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park

AEgis Technologies, one of Alabama’s leading technology and defense companies, announced on Oct. 23 that it has a new majority shareholder and a new CEO.

Private equity firm Arlington Capital Partners, based in Washington D.C., invested an undisclosed amount in AEgis that makes it a majority stakeholder.

Jonathan Moneymaker

The new CEO is Jonathan Moneymaker, a manager whose background includes a concentration in technological services with intelligence applications.

AEgis, founded in 1989, is privately held and specializes in modeling and simulation technology and virtual and augmented reality simulators for training, especially military training.

“We have found a partner in Arlington that will remain committed to this mission as the company enters its next phase of growth,” said AEgis co-founder Steve Hill, whom Moneymaker will replace as CEO. Hill will remain a substantial shareholder in AEgis and a member of the board of directors.

Moneymaker was most recently president of Altamira Technologies, a contractor with defense and intelligence customers. Prior to that, he was general manager of the Intelligence Systems Group at Boeing, where he was responsible for more than 1,000 employees providing services to intelligence and special operations customers.

Arlington expects its investment to accelerate AEgis’ growth “by investing in internal research and development, as well as pursuing strategic acquisition opportunities,” said Henry Albers, an Arlington vice president.

AEgis employs more than 350 workers. Besides its Huntsville headquarters, it has facilities in New Mexico, Florida, Colorado, Virginia, Rhode Island and Texas.

The First Voice-Initiated Application Process Just Came Online

The Golden Arches can be seen in communities throughout the world and are often run by independent franchises that provide jobs to almost 2 million people. Many a youth has listed McDonald’s as the first job on an application, and the application process just got an upgrade.

In its drive to hire thousands worldwide, including more than 5,000 here in Alabama, McDonald’s Corp. is now working with Alexa and Google Assistant to streamline the world’s first voice-initiated application process called McDonald’s Apply Thru.

“We must continue to innovate and think of creative, and in this case, groundbreaking ways to meet potential job seekers on devices they are already using, like Alexa,” said McDonald’s Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer David Fairhurst.

To get started with Alexa, job seekers simply say “Alexa, help me get a job at McDonald’s.” The voice experience is available on Alexa and Google Assistant devices in the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K., and is expected to roll out to other countries in the coming months. After opening McDonald’s Apply Thru, all users will answer a few basic questions, including job area of interest and location. Potential applicants will receive a text message shortly thereafter with a link to continue their application process.

The move is part of McDonald’s larger Made at McDonald’s campaign, which highlights the opportunities available at the fast-food chain, from a first job, part-time jobs or lifelong careers. The campaign underscores the ways jobs at McDonald’s restaurants build skills, education and relationships that translates to new experiences.

There are more than 38,000 McDonald’s locations in over 100 countries, approximately 93 percent of which are owned and operated by independent local businessmen and women.

Houston County Schools Weigh Cybersecurity Contract

The Houston County School System began considering a cyberscurity contract proposal Monday, in response to a major malware attack in July that delayed school openings and required reprograming and replacement of hardware.

“We’re losing the cyber war, and Southern schools are a target, because they know our systems aren’t up-to-date,” The Dothan Eagle reported a company officer told the school board. “It is the current state of culture. Schools are a major target,” said Brent Panell, CEO and co-founder for ControlAltProtect, based in Birmingham.

School Superintendent David Sewell said the cyber attack did not include ransomware but was costly, owing to loss of equipment and overtime in working on servers and computers.

Board Chairman Vince Wade told the Eagle the board will have to find funding if it decides to adopt the cybersecurity firm’s proposal.

“We are on a mission to change what’s happening in Alabama, because frankly, our cyber security sucks,” Panell told board members.

Panell presented a quote for a 24-month contract for $10,800 per month for phase I and $2,000 per month for phase II.

He told the Eagle his company’s intention was to offer “a low-cost introductory offer to the schools is to get its foot in the door to cater to schools statewide, and get the attention of the Alabama State Department of Education.”

Turning Off Your Devices Might Be a Good Idea

“For sensitive conversations, it might be a good idea to put your phone away or turn it off,” is the most telling tip the computer science professors at the University of Alabama at Birmingham offer in a recent article by UAB writer Yvonne Taunton, “Shh…Your devices may be listening to you.”

Like the background noise of everything we think we already knew, the cautions of professors Ragib Hasan and Nitesh Saxena — PhDs in the UAB Department of Computer Science — seem bothersome.

Better bother, they say. The threat is not just from smart speakers — the first spies to be reported on in the internet of things.

Uncomfortably laughable as it seemed, the idea that Alexa can be bugging your home is among the most obvious of the problems out there.

“Here, the user has installed a device in his home or office, and this device has a microphone that receives and understands users’ vocal commands,” says Saxena. “Ideally, the speaker system should wake up only when the user issues a wake phrase like “OK, Google,” but there is nothing that prevents it from recording the audio at will on regular user conversations. Also, it is likely that, as the speaker listens to our commands, which are often stored on the cloud servers of these companies, the audio could contain sensitive information spoken in the background — music and TV programs played in the background — that may be of interest to some malicious actors.”

Far more pervasive than smart speakers are smart phones and tablet devices, and the threats proliferate as well, say the professors.

“Unfortunately, the smart devices of today are equipped with many different types of sensors that may be listening in on our conversations,” reports Taunton — sensors such as “accelerometers, GPS, gyroscopes and more.” Those particular sensors, besides what they’re supposed to do (an accelerometer is supposed to tell your phone where it is in space), can also track you like a gumshoe.

Just like in the movies, there are good shamuses and nasty, noir ones.

“In reality, we have threats from two directions — malicious apps that hijack the phone sensors to spy on us, and otherwise benign apps secretly listening to or sensing our activities, and then sending the data ‘home’ for advertising and other activities,” says Hasan.

“Researchers have also demonstrated side channel attacks in which a malicious app can exploit benign-looking resources — motion sensors such as accelerometer or gyroscope or power consumption readings — for which the Android OS does not explicitly ask any user permission prior to granting access,” reports Taunton. Consequences of such bad actors could be:

  • Stealing your PIN code based on vibrations of your finger taps
  • Mimicking your voice characteristics from listening to you
  • Tracking your car from vibrations from your phone in the vehicle
  • Tracking your car from variation in cell tower transmissions

Saxena says, “Some recent research studies have demonstrated that many apps in the Android ecosystem have actually been exploiting Android’s permission model to learn sensitive information, such as the device’s IMEI, MAC address or geolocation information to track the device/user, and even exploiting and exfiltrating audio and video data.”

Being careful about what permissions you give to the apps you install is the first thing to do, but it’s no sure bet, and there are ways around it.

“Disable apps from recording and maintaining users’ location history — Google Maps, Facebook,” is another basic recommendation from the professors.

But the most cautionary, if not alarming, thing they recommend is the one we started with: “For sensitive conversations, it might be a good idea to put your phone away or turn it off.”

USA Health Podcast Aims to Demystify Cancer

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For many cancer patients, talking about the disease is at times as difficult as dealing with its many treatment paths, complications, side effects and risk factors.

A new podcast from USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute, called “The Cancering Show,” aims to break down barriers that confront patients and demystify the disease.

“We’re going to discuss every aspect of the cancering journey, from people trying to prevent cancer in their families all the way to families that are coping with an imminent loss,” says Jennifer Young Pierce, M.D., M.P.H., host of the podcast.

Pierce serves as a gynecologic oncologist and leader of cancer control and prevention at the Mitchell Cancer Institute.

For all those credentials, on the air she is simply known as “JYP.”

“We want the listener to think of cancer as not just a moment in time — a moment of being better than you were before, living better, turning cancer from a negative into a positive for not just the patient, but the whole community,” Pierce says.

The podcast offers interviews with cancer survivors, family members, physicians and scientists who share their stories and offer hope. Listeners are invited to share theirs.

“Cancer is just something that we all have to recognize, acknowledge, cope with, live with, struggle with, rage upon, crush, and even thrive with,” JYP tells listeners. “This show is more than knowing and fighting or beating cancer. It’s more than just relaying science, hope and technology. It’s a platform for knowledge, stories, coping advice, life tips, inspiration, humor, jokes and even smiles.”

The first three episodes of The Cancering Show Season 1 can be found on Spotify, YouTube, iTunes and wherever podcasts can be found. Listeners can subscribe to receive new episodes in their inbox and find the show on Facebook @canceringshow.

Tuskegee Researchers Find Promising Way of Capturing Carbon Dioxide

Donald White (left) is an engineering doctoral student at Tuskegee University, working with Dr. Michael Curry, associate professor of chemistry.

Scientists working at Tuskegee University have found a bio-based material that shows promise for capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — a more immediate solution to climate change than revamping land and forestry usage or geo-engineering.

Dr. Michael Curry, an assistant professor of chemistry, and engineering doctoral student Donald White are working in a National Science Foundation-funded project with nanocellulose derived from agriculture waste products.

“Nanocellulose is a natural material that can be found in abundance on this planet,” says Curry. “Using this material to develop new technologies for the capture and storage of carbon dioxide will only push the boundaries of science toward the development of new systems that promote a cleaner and cooler atmosphere.”

Curry and White’s process uses “naturally occurring plant-based materials as filters to remove dangerous carbon dioxide build up in the atmosphere,” the university reports.

Noting that carbon dioxide levels have risen dramatically ever since the Industrial Revolution, Curry links that rise to increasing global temperatures and the frequency of extreme weather events.

“We made this problem,” Curry says, “but by developing and employing the appropriate technology to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we can also make a better, healthier plant for centuries to come.”

Sen. Doug Jones to Keynote Israeli Tech Partnership Event

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, will give keynote remarks next week at a conference on creating technology partnerships between Alabama and Israeli businesses.

“Opportunities for Technology Partnerships Between Alabama and Israeli Businesses” is set for Tuesday, Aug. 20 from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Alabama Power Co. Auditorium, 600 18th Street North.

The event is being put on by the Birmingham Business Alliance, Conexx: America Israel Business Connector, the Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation and Alabama Power Co. It will include an overview of Israel’s technology ecosystem and a panel of business leaders on doing business in Israel.

According to Conexx’s Barry Swartz, Israel is home to more start-ups than the entire European Union and is second only to Silicon Valley in terms of the volume of start-ups it produces. Technology like Waze, a GPS navigation software app now owned by Google, and Mobileye, which was purchased by Intel for $15.3 billion in 2017, were created in Israel. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and others all have a major presence in the country.

Swartz says there will be individuals on hand to facilitate a relationship between Israel and Alabama companies looking to explore Israel’s innovation and technology, as well as possible mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures and alliances.

The event is free but does require registration.

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