On December 8, the Alabama Economic Development Partnership and the Alabama Power Foundation will host the finals of the latest Alabama Launchpad competition for startup companies. This round of Launchpad is aimed at companies that want to make a positive impact on the community. Ten finalists compete for a total of $75,000 in financial support.
Today’s article highlights two finalists from Alabama: Pearl’s Cafe and Generational Systems.
Asked about the social impact of Pearl’s Café, owner Wendy Lawless pauses to reflect on the decade she spent in the food industry as a young person, followed by 15 years as an employment specialist and job coach for people with disabilities. He sees his restaurant’s mission — training and hiring people with developmental disabilities — as the culmination of those experiences.
I dreamed about it for 20 years,” Lawless said. “Giving people opportunities to reach their full potential brings great benefits to the community.”
Lawless speaks from personal knowledge. Her Birmingham cafe is named after her aunt, Cathy Pearl Wiley. Wiley, who had been kept out of the workforce by a developmental disorder for decades, got her first job at a local Jack’s hamburger franchise at age 58. Lawless was impressed and inspired by the positive impact this work had on her aunt’s life.
“She loved it,” Lawless recalled. “I could see how it affected her. It has so much value.”
Open since October 15, Pearl’s is the food and beverage anchor for the Woodlawn Marketplace retail incubator in the city’s historic Woodlawn neighborhood. The cafe serves breakfast and lunch from 07:00 to 15:00 from Wednesday to Saturday.
The marketplace is located at 5530 First Ave. S. in the Woodlawn business district and offers 11 businesses. Like Pearl’s, the other businesses sharing the brick facility began as street vendors, many at the popular Woodlawn Street Market.
Lawless credits community development nonprofit REV Birmingham for engaging her and other business owners in the discussions that led to the opening of Woodlawn Marketplace. Her vision for Pearl’s eventually includes several locations where the majority of employees have some form of disability. He also hopes to partner with Birmingham City Schools to train special school students in food service. Looking to the future, Lawless sees opportunities for sustainable impact.
“I hope we can be a model for other companies,” Lawless said. “We must respect people with disabilities. They are loyal, take pride in their work, enjoy interacting with customers, and have lower turnover. In today’s labor market, these qualities should be very attractive to employers.”
Learn more on Instagram @pearlscafewoodlawn.
Disrupting the 3D printing industry is the goal of Auburn-based Generational Systems. This means expanding access to the benefits of 3D metal printing technology by reducing costs while achieving faster build times, safer operating conditions and ease of use.
“This democratizes manufacturing,” said Michael Knotts, founder and chief operating officer of Generational Systems. “Whether you’re talking about making custom prosthetics or starting a small business, 3D printing can change lives by taking a product from idea to production.”
Generational Systems did not start as a business idea. It began in 2018 as research for Knotts’ master’s thesis at Auburn University. While researching the possibilities of reducing the cost of 3D metal printing, Knotts realized that his findings could be transferred from an academic setting to a business venture. After delays caused mainly by the COVID-19 pandemic, the company started operations in 2021.
Despite the many benefits that 3D printing has brought, issues of cost, speed, and health and safety risks associated with availability and manufacturing have limited its availability. By addressing these issues, Generational Systems is setting the stage for significant social impact, Knotts said.
“We’re trying to expand access to creative tools. That opens the door to innovation.”
Generational Systems also recognizes the potential impacts of 3D printing on education and skills training. The company wants to help ensure that economic circumstances don’t limit access by “reaching out to as many schools as possible at all levels,” Knotts said.
He noted that Alabama’s growing network of startups and early-stage businesses demonstrates the state’s positive climate for innovation. The Alabama Launchpad Social Impact Competition is another indicator of how Alabama is setting the stage for a brighter future.
“Generational Systems is excited and grateful to be a part of the Alabama Launchpad,” Knotts said. “There is such a strong community here with a level of mentoring that is just fantastic. We are thrilled to be involved in this program.”
Learn more at generationalsystems.tech.
The finals of the Alabama Launchpad Social Impact Competition are Dec. 8 at 5 p.m. in the Pearl River Room at Regions Field, 1401 First Ave. S. in downtown Birmingham. The event is open to the public, but the number of participants is limited. Register to secure your spot here.
To learn more about the Alabama Launchpad, click here. To learn more about the Alabama Power Foundation, visit powerofgood.com.