FLORENCE — Using technology to create connections was the pervasive theme of the second Shoals Big Idea competition Thursday night.
The community category winner brought together two farmers and a web developer with the goal of connecting consumers with locally grown foods through a smartphone app that allows farmers to input available products and send alerts to consumers.
Jason Strayhorn, of Hog on the Range, and Hope Lowery, of Cottonwood Farm, teamed with tech developer Brian Williams to solve the supply chain disconnect between consumers who want locally sourced foods and farmers.
“The problem is most farmers, like myself, are really good farmers and really good at raising hogs and stuff like that, but the problem is we are not sales people and we are not marketers,” Strayhorn said. “People need to know what we have available and where you can actually get it.”
The app would close that gap by providing a routine update of products and allow consumers to purchase products using the app and set up a pick up time that works for both sides.
“You’re going to get better quality food,” Strayhorn said. “Hopefully we are going to be able to get better prices for our farmers so they can continue doing what they do and (consumers) will have reliable information about what is available every single week.”
UNA student Isabella Roland did not look far to find a problem she could solve using technology. Roland pitched “smart parking” to solve the parking congestion at UNA. She said most UNA students who commute to campus drive the same circuit to look for parking spots.
Smart parking would involve a sensor in parking spots that detects when a vehicle is present and transmit the location to an app. Drivers could use the app to locate available parking spots.
Roland said the app would provide a continuous stream of parking data the university could use to make improvements to the parking system.
“I think we could implement it at the university first, but it does have value in downtown, too,” Roland said.
The winner in the middle school and high school category went to the event’s youngest participant. Ben Hillis, a fifth-grader at Hibbett Middle School, said Florence needs a group of electric bikes that can be rented for a small fee and used to tour and move about the city.
Hillis suggested to start with 20 bikes with lithium batteries at two solar-powered docking stations to ease traffic and parking congestion, promote healthy living and provide a new way for locals and visitors to see Florence.
The competition gives innovators and entrepreneurs the platform to pitch ideas that could transform the Shoals into a digital technology hub.
Brandon Gillis, co-owner of Florence-based start up PartCycle, said now is a pivotal point in digital innovation.
Gillis said the need for highly trained and skilled tech savvy workers is outpacing the availability of those workers and said the Shoals needs to take advantage of that disparity to train, recruit and support that segment of the workforce.
Gillis said in the coming year towns will be separated into those that in 2015 and 2016 took advantage of the rise of digital innovation and those that didn’t.