Skip to Content


| Newsletters


Miller Girvin maps the growth of Birmingham’s start-up economy—and the ways you can support its expansion.


What happens when a start-up stops?

The answer reveals a lot about a city’s rise as a high-tech, idea-driven, entrepreneurial business hub, says Miller Girvin (’19). If there are plenty of other early stage companies around to hire the defunct start-up’s employees — and if there are other entrepreneurs who stand ready to take risks — then the impact of one failure will be minimal, she says. It also means the local innovation economy is healthy and robust.

And Girvin has good news about the state of start-ups in Birmingham. For six years, she has closely followed the region’s trajectory, initially as CEO of the Alabama Capital Network and now as executive vice president for innovation and entrepreneurship at the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA). Birmingham’s “innovation ecosystem” is “blooming,” she says. “Especially over the last six to eight years, there’s been a tremendous growth in the number of companies people are starting.” Here, she provides an overview of the city’s tech transformation:

Neighborhood of ideas: An innovation ecosystem includes local start-ups and high-tech companies plus the web of organizations providing them with investment, training, and more. Girvin credits the increase in Birmingham start-ups to the development of support organizations that spark their growth. As examples, she points to the emergence of multiple accelerator programs, such as the Prosper HealthTech Accelerator and the Techstars Alabama Energy Tech Accelerator, which provide fledgling companies with seed funding, mentorship, and access to other resources.

Rising returns: An increase in venture activity — investment in innovative, early stage companies — is creating economic ripple effects. For instance, in its 16 years, EDPA’s Alabama Launchpad program has made capital investments of a little more than $6 million into 112 emerging Alabama companies. Today, those businesses “now represent more than $1 billion in post-money valuation” and have directly or indirectly contributed to the creation of 1,300 jobs, Girvin says. “With a small investment by some forward-thinking people, you’re looking at some companies that are worth a lot of money now.” Birmingham’s start-up community also has garnered headlines and additional investor attention through Target’s $500-million purchase of Shipt in 2017, KKR’s $1.2-billion deal for Therapy Brands in 2021, and Quest Diagnostics’ 2022 acquisition of Pack Health, among others.

Advancing an idea: What’s the best way to bring a big idea to life in Birmingham? Girvin recommends that entrepreneurs tap into local support systems:

  • Review a resource guide: Launched a few years ago, lists resources — from support organizations and funding opportunities to office spaces and more — to help entrepreneurs chart their course at every stage. Innovate Alabama, a new public-private partnership, currently is building a statewide one-stop resource guide.
  • Visit Innovation Depot: Take the free, online Vision ID course to learn the basics of developing a start-up. Then explore tech-related concepts from every angle through the six-week Voltage idea-incubator program. Girvin says these programs help entrepreneurs think through product and customer development and other crucial components that lay the groundwork for a viable business.
  • Connect with mentors: Three times a year, EDPA’s Alabama Launchpad pairs entrepreneurs with expert advisors who provide invaluable mentorship and feedback. Participants also compete to win nondilutive funding — up to $25,000 for concept-stage businesses and $50,000 for seed-stage ones.

Girvin counsels entrepreneurs to be patient throughout the process. Building a start-up from scratch “always takes longer than you think it will,” she says. “And it’s always more expensive than you think it’ll be.”

“Communities that have really strong start-up scenes tend to be ones that are rapidly growing, where young people are moving”

-Miller Girvin

Goals for growth: Girvin believes that expansion of Birmingham’s innovation economy depends upon inclusivity, scalability, and increasing the revenue that flows into Alabama. Potential entrepreneurs are in every community, which means “we need more equitable access to the ability to start a company,” she explains. And the focus should be scalable companies — businesses with the capability to expand easily as demand rises for their products or services. (Shipt is a prime example.) Such companies have the potential to draw “tradable jobs to Alabama, which means we’re bringing in additional revenue from outside our borders instead of moving money around the region or state.”

At EDPA, Girvin works to energize this kind of growth. One focus area includes talent attraction/retention initiatives to encourage Alabama college students — many of whom come from out of state — to remain here after graduation to work in, or potentially launch, high-tech businesses. She is especially excited about the new Fuel Alabama initiative, a partnership between EDPA and Innovate Alabama, which introduces a select number of college students to communities throughout the state where they live and work for a summer. “This is an impact-minded generation,” Girvin says. “They get opportunities to learn, socialize, and serve so they can see what the community needs from them.”

Become an innovation advocate: As key decision makers in their organizations, Leadership Birmingham alumni can help solve a crucial problem for promising young businesses. “There is a risk aversion to using early stage companies among established companies,” Girvin says. “But the fastest way for that new company to grow is by earning customer revenue. Just saying ‘no’ doesn’t help them learn anything.” She suggests a few ways to help start-ups get on their feet:

  • Take time to talk with the start-up’s leaders and describe how the business could become a future vendor. “Explain what you need and what hoops they need to jump through to get there. That teaches them how to serve you as a customer and is an incredible opportunity for growth.”
  • Offer the start-up some “small bites,” like a pilot project or beta test, to see if they can help your company solve a problem it’s facing.
  • “Open your Rolodex and make introductions,” Girvin says. “And be willing to mentor people and share your own experiences.” Gaining behind-the-scenes insights from local leaders, hearing new-to-her perspectives, and finding common ground were some of the most valuable aspects of her Leadership Birmingham year, she recalls. “When you go through difficult things, or even just have difficult conversations, with a group of people, your bond strengthens,” she says. Sharing your knowledge with emerging entrepreneurs is a way to pay that forward — and ultimately brings about an innovation-based economic boost that benefits everyone.