Meet the new bosses: UAB iLab turbocharges student innovation

Meet the new bosses: UAB iLab turbocharges student innovation

April 13, 2016
By Matt Windsor
Students get expert advice, working space and invaluable networking opportunities as part of the UAB iLab Student Venture Incubation Program.

“There’s a substantial amount of risk in starting a company.”

That’s the first thing that Kathleen Hamrick, director of the UAB Innovation Lab at Innovation Depot, tells applicants for the sought-after slots in the UAB iLab. This incubator-within-an-incubator, a joint venture between the UAB Collat School of Business and Innovation Depot, is designed to accelerate student startups. It also gives students an immersion in entrepreneurship.

“As the home to over 100 startup companies, Innovation Depot is fertile ground for anyone wanting real experience working with and around entrepreneurs,” said Devon Laney, CEO of Innovation Depot. “With our partnership with UAB and the Collat School of Business, we’re working to give students and startup companies an opportunity to engage in a collaborative, real-world environment.”

Students in the UAB iLab are given access to co-working space at Innovation Depot and the chance to hone their skills at advanced workshops. Even more important, they get hands-on mentoring from business experts and plentiful networking opportunities. “We work with students to reduce their risk and improve the likelihood of successful outcomes in business,” said Hamrick. “Our space allows students to apply classroom knowledge in the real-word setting of Birmingham’s epicenter for startups.”

The first steps, Hamrick says, are analysis of the market, application of the product or service in the market and a detailed look at the financials. “You need to know, is it actually going to be a profitable venture for you?” she said. “If you find out that it’s not, stopping before you build it out counts as a success.”

If that initial review shows that the idea has promise, Hamrick and a group of mentors — including Collat faculty and local business leaders — swing into action. “Our mentors, who are industry experts from a myriad of verticals, work closely with our UAB iLab student CEOs,” Hamrick said. “Giving students access to incredible relational resources is a tremendous boon for student business development efforts.”

Student-run startups in the UAB iLab include technology to improve athlete performance while reducing likelihood for injury, a hedge fund, a custom 3-D printing business, Birmingham’s first fashion magazine, a medical supply distributor, retail shopping and healthcare mobile applications, and technology to improve campus security.

In addition to the support provided to students in the UAB iLab Student Venture Incubation Program, the UAB iLab offers students the option to participate in a for-credit rotating entrepreneurship internship with Innovation Depot member companies.

“My learning experience at Icebox thus far has been nothing short of incredible,” said Gary Khodanian, a senior majoring in Industrial Distribution who worked with Depot tenant Icebox Coffee as part of the School of Business's ENT 445 Entrepreneurship Internship, a capstone of the school's Entrepreneurship Certificate program. “From leading data-driven process improvement strategies to taking responsibility as the e-commerce manager for the business, I've grown as a professional and entrepreneur in more ways than I can describe.”

Gary "provided a fresh perspective, where he applied classroom learning with his personal experiences to enhance our company's performance in the e-commerce segment as well as operational efficiencies," said Icebox founder Bebe Goodrich. Just two weeks into his time with Icebox, Khodanian was offered a job running the startup's e-commerce division. "He will essentially start a business from the ground up and measure success and his impact," Goodrich said.

Meet some of the student CEOs and UAB iLab Fellows below:

Jordan Ricks

Jordan Ricks

Company: Mixed Reality (MR) Football

Ricks, who graduated from UAB in fall 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in communications management, is looking to shake up the game of football. He played defensive back for the Blazers in 2014 before an injury sent him to the sidelines. After surgery and rehab, he hopes to be back on the field for the team’s highly anticipated return in 2017. In the meantime, he is a graduate assistant with UAB Football and is pursuing his business idea: Mixed Reality Football.

“Injuries happen a lot in practice,” Ricks said. “Someone can step on your ankle and you’ll be out four or five weeks with a sprain.” Ricks is developing a system that combines virtual reality with plain old reality to safely teach athletes everything from fundamentals to elaborate game plans.

The system will be built around Microsoft’s location-aware Hololens, a self-contained device that allows the wearer to move around in the real world, while interacting with a digital world projected from the unit. “We want to ‘gamify’ on-field activities, and incorporate biofeedback as well,” Ricks said.

The system could be used to teach youth football players the proper way to tackle, for instance. It could also extend learning opportunities for higher-level athletes. “Coaches could send players the new package for next week’s game, and they can go through it by themselves,” Ricks said.

 daniel sanabria

Daniel Sanabria

Company: Sigma93 Capital Management LLC

Sanabria graduated from UAB with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 2004 and went on to become a trader at Birmingham’s Theta Holdings LLC before returning to school to earn an MBA from the Collat School of Business in fall 2015.

Sanabria developed an idea for an innovative futures trading strategy and he and a team from the School of Business used it to win second place out of 503 teams (and first among U.S. universities) in the 2015 CME Group Trading Challenge.

Sanabria’s trading strategy “looks at changes in the volatility regime of precious metal, energy and agricultural commodities,” he said. “The model uses a series of proprietary indicators to forecast future price direction based on trading volatility over the preceding three days, and is designed to directionally trade futures while managing risk on a systematic basis. The trading program capitalizes on both, intraday market volatility and longer term market movements. Trade signals and risk controls are generated based on historical statistical data.” 

“I used our accomplishment in the CME Group Trading Challenge as a source of inspiration to finally go out on my own and develop this strategy,” Sanabria said. “I met with Kathleen in June of last year, and she’s been just instrumental. I started out with $125,000, and right now we have over a million dollars of capital trading under this strategy. So far we’ve been able to substantially outperform our benchmarks.”

In order for the business to be self-sustaining, “we have to have about $3 million under management,” Sanabria said. “The goal is to get to that level within the first year of operation.” He started out raising money from family and friends. “To reach the next level, I need to‎ appeal to a broader group of investors, and that is why the UAB iLab has been so instrumental,” Sanabria said. “Here I am provided with a professional environment for me to build my business – a great alternative to working out of the basement of my house. Trying to get people to write you a $100,000 check when you’re operating from a garage is a little bit more complicated. I also have great mentors at the UAB iLab, who have introduced me to a wide range of successful and interesting people. I'm proud to say that some of them are now clients, or will be soon.”

 robert james

Robert James | Junior, UAB Collat School of Business

Company: Rover

James, who is majoring in marketing, is developing a mobile app that will allow shoppers to search inventory at local stores and purchase products on their phones. “You can go to the store and scan a product and check out on your phone, avoiding the checkout lines,” he explained.

The idea came to James while he was studying abroad in fall 2015. “I came up with this idea, and then I came to the Innovation Lab in mid-January and we just ran with it,” he said. Working with UAB iLab director Kathleen Hamrick and several mentors, “we’ve made several different versions of my business plan and really developed the idea,” he said.

James is now working with software developers to begin building the Rover app and has entered it into startup competitions.

alex mckeown 

Alex McKeown | MBA student, Collat School of Business

Postdoctoral fellow, UAB School of Optometry

Fellow, UAB iLab

When he isn’t conducting vision research in the lab of Lawrence Sincich, Ph.D., in the UAB School of Optometry, McKeown is rotating through various companies at Innovation Depot to learn the business side of science. “I’m thinking of moving away from the traditional academic career,” he said. “I’m interested in becoming a medical science liaison, and to do that, I knew I needed some business experience. I’ve learned a lot by seeing how businesses actually run, from accounting to marketing.”

linaa rohman 

Linaa Rohman | Junior economics/information systems student, Collat School of Business

Fellow, UAB iLab

Rohman is helping to spread the news about the UAB iLab around UAB, and providing marketing assistance to Innovation Depot tenants. “There is so much positive energy here,” Rohman said. “My goal is to get students involved and raise awareness. Experiential learning is key in discovering what I want to do after I graduate – the start-up companies, student ventures and companies located here give me the opportunity to apply the skill set I learn through my classes into real-life applications. The UAB iLab has equipped me with the tools to enhance my marketing skills, through graphic design, networking opportunities and more.”

“It’s very important to spread the word about all that we have to offer in the UAB iLab,” Hamrick said. “Linaa is really great at helping us extend our reach on campus.”

“There is so much to contribute here,” Rohman added. “The best part is that any student in any area of study is welcome and encouraged to be involved.” 


Success: By the Numbers

  • 75 percent of the students participating in the UAB iLab's ongoing collaboration with BBVA Compass and Singular moved into paid positions with those companies.

  • Students taking part in the UAB iLab Fellowship program, the ENT 445 Entrepreneurship Internship course and innovation challenges facilitated by the iLab regularly move into paid positions with participating companies.

  • 100+ events and educational workshops were hosted in UAB iLab in 2015.

  • 14+ resource organizations supported students in the UAB iLab in 2015.

  • 45 UAB iLab Fellows and student CEOs have spoken to students at UAB, community groups, and students at schools in Birmingham.