Scenic 98 Coastal enjoys supporting small businesses and telling their stories. Small business owners bring unique aspects to the area and enrich the community with positive direction. Every small business has to start somewhere; often, a good idea comes to fruition in an incubator program.

In downtown Mobile, one such program is the Innovation Portal on St. Louis Street. I sat down with its Executive Director, Todd Greer, to learn how the program works. The Innovation Portal is more than just a coworking space. It’s a multi-level membership program with services to help entrepreneurs launch ideas into businesses.

Todd is well qualified to lead the program. He was born in Southeast Michigan in a town sandwiched between Toledo, Detroit, and Ann Arbor. His educational background includes attending Defiance College in Ohio, where he earned a degree in Communication Studies, and then Wayne State University, where he earned graduate hours in Organizational Communication.

A career change led him to Theological School at Amridge University in Montgomery, where he earned a Master of Science in Ministerial Leadership. Later, he earned his Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership at Regent University in Virginia Beach. His wife, Chelsea, a counseling psychologist, began her teaching profession at Springhill College in August 2014 and is now at the University of South Alabama as the Training Director for their Counseling Center, where she works with graduate students. 

It is safe to say that education is what makes them tick. Todd tells me, “I love to learn. I like to meet interesting people. I’m curious and enjoy growing my knowledge base through interacting with people, especially from a business perspective.” 

Earlier in his career, he ran a non-profit organization based in Virginia called SynerVision Leadership Foundation, where their team helped nonprofits grow in capacity through their weekly and monthly content channels and location-based seminars.

In the Summer of 2014, when he moved with his wife to Mobile, he began looking for a co-working space to lead his nonprofit remotely.  With no co-working space yet in our area, he connected with commercial realtors John Peebles and Allen Cameron, to discuss the potential of starting such a space, and a year later, they launched Exchange 202 in the former Red Square Advertising and Marketing building on Government Street. 

The Exchange 202 concept results from community interest. Coinciding with the Mobile Chamber’s Leaders Exchange in St. Louis, MO, in 2014, it focused on creating an environment for entrepreneurship to flourish. While there, the team researched fostering entrepreneurship programs through co-working spaces that added business incubation and acceleration services to the equation. 

In 2015, Todd transitioned to managing partner of Exchange 202 co-working space.  He says, “I came to Mobile at the perfect time. With the growing interest in this new world of work and entrepreneurship, the ecosystem here was preparing to take off.” Later, in 2015, a group of people at the Chamber, led by Hayley Van Antwerp, were thinking about launching a full-fledged incubator in Mobile.

That incubator program was later established inside Exchange 202 and was named Innovation Portal. “The pathways to launching a new business were deeply intertwined in the two organizations, and we wanted to help budding entrepreneurs determine if they have a repeatable, scalable business,” says Todd.

The goal is to help good ideas reach the market. The Innovation Portal wants to close the gap in terms of the networks needed to build a business. Three primary questions come into play. First, how can we help entrepreneurs find customers? What is the value proposition? What does a customer want as an outcome?

Staff at the Innovation Portal help people understand what it takes to set up a business, how to institute launch ideas, connect to customers, and determine if the company is feasible. “We help cultivate the process,” says Todd. It all starts with a free intake mentoring session. “We want to understand their venture, what they have done so far, and where they want to go.”

The staff includes Todd, the Program Manager, Nick Hampton, who has a Master’s in Communication & Leadership from the University of Mobile, and Khadeeja Ahmaad, who has a Bachelor's degree in Information Sciences from the University of Alabama. “Together, we assist in building out the methodology of the Innovation Portal, what we do and don’t do, and become partners to help our companies as problem solvers outside of their team,” he says.

In 2023, Innovation Portal became a fully independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization. It continues to partner closely with the Mobile Chamber and many other local entities that helped bring the organization to fruition. 

“This work couldn’t happen in our community without the support of the City of Mobile and Mobile County, as well as numerous other private foundations and partners,” says Todd.  The Portal was also recently designated as a member of the Innovate Alabama Network, the first statewide public/private partnership focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. 

The organization's primary focus is to help our region innovate and grow the start-up business community. The Portal board comprises dedicated community leaders from across the region’s business and civic organizations who care about entrepreneurs and their success.

In 2017, Todd was recruited under a new administration at the University of Mobile to serve as Dean of the Business School. He served as Dean for two years and then became the VP of Academic Affairs for three years. “Much of our focus was on what business students need in the 21st Century. We developed an advisory board of business leaders that helped us think about experiences, outcomes, and connections.”

With his non-traditional background, Todd tells me it made him a good listener. He says he was very curious and enjoyed studying other business schools' operations. “There are a lot of common threads in successful businesses, so we began to understand how to best navigate business opportunities by asking questions: How do you prepare? What is the market looking for? This was a perfect lead into the Innovation Portal.

The Innovation Portal opened its new facility in February 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Todd had been on the board for several years and was asked to be the Executive Director. He left the University of Mobile and started in 2022. “It’s been an incredible experience. Emerging from Covid, there was an explosion of interest in entrepreneurship and new business starts, and maturing our own high-growth companies.”

A few of the Innovation Portal’s success stories include Dropout Bakery, 3rd Realm Creations, a virtual reality company, SCHOOLS, an education technology company,, a subscription cigar company, and Fishing Chaos, a fishing technology platform.

The new facility was created because of an Economic Development Administration grant of $4.8 million led by Mobile’s Chamber of Commerce. The Innovation Portal has over 80 companies in various stages of growth. With support and professional staff, the space also provides conference room hours, office space if needed, or simply a workspace to get things done.

There are several membership levels from which to choose. A “Mailbox Membership starts at $50 per month. A Community Membership is the next step up, and there are 26 private offices available to rent. There is also a company membership for teams to work together, as Rich Sullivan’s GoodGiant utilizes (formally Red Square). 

As the development process for a new business idea comes to fruition, there is first a discovery phase. Who would be the customer? What problem are you solving for the customer? What is the need that is not being met? Then Todd tells me that the startup business comes to a gate. Yes, we continue, or No, let’s try another way to approach the problem. “We usually know within 18 months if a company has what the customer wants, and it’s a viable business.” 

The Innovation Portal also helps educate start-ups regarding legal and financial structures. “We help businesses work through the incubation and early stages of the business. We will connect them with the members and sponsors that will help them grow. We help them understand the financial landscape and how to make appropriate presentations.” 

From 2020 to 2022, Mobile County had the second-highest number of startups among every county in the U.S. “Covid certainly changed the environment of how people work, but it was being re-evaluated way before that,” says Todd. “Across every demographic boundary, the workplace entry barrier has never been lower. It’s still evolving. Technology is a major influence, and it’s readily available all across the globe.”

“The first step is getting started, and often it’s as simple as raising your hand. That’s why we are here: to determine your first step. There is something to be said about being in an environment with like-minded entrepreneurs. We love being Downtown, and it’s a great time to be in Mobile!”

Thank you, Todd. That was both enlightening, encouraging, and inspirational. Best of luck to all the budding entrepreneurs in the Scenic 98 Coastal communities!

Apr 10, 2024
Community Endeavors

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