Meet the startups in the Alabama Launchpad Social Impact Competition: Pearl’s Café and Generational Systems

On December 8th, the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama and the Alabama Power Foundation will host the finals for the latest Alabama Launchpad competition for startup companies. This round of the launchpad focuses on companies that want to make a positive impact on the community. Ten finalists compete for total funding of $75,000.

Today’s article highlights two of the Alabama-based finalists: Pearl’s Cafe and Generational Systems.

Pearls coffee shop

When asked about the social impact of Pearl’s Café, owner Wendy Lawless pauses to reflect on the decade she spent in the hospitality industry as a young person, followed by 15 years as an employment specialist and job coach for people with disabilities. She sees her restaurant’s mission—educating and hiring people with intellectual disabilities—as the culmination of those experiences.

It’s been a dream of mine for 20 years,” Lawless said. “There are so many benefits to the community in empowering people to reach their full potential.”

Wendy Lawless and Cathy Pearl Wiley (Mark Kelly/Alabama NewsCenter)

Lawless speaks from personal experience. Her café in Birmingham is named after her aunt, Cathy Pearl Wiley. Kept out of the workforce for decades due to a developmental disability, Wiley landed her first job at a local Jack’s hamburger franchise at age 58. Lawless was impressed and inspired by the positive impact the job had on her aunt’s life.

“She loved it,” Lawless recalled. “I saw how it affected her. There is so much value in that.”

Open since October 15, Pearl’s is a food and beverage anchor for retail incubator Woodlawn Marketplace in the city’s historic Woodlawn district. The café serves breakfast and lunch from Wednesday to Saturday from 7am to 3pm.

The marketplace is located at 5530 First Ave. S. in the Woodlawn Business District and includes 11 companies. Like Pearl’s, the other businesses that shared the brick and mortar facility began as street vendors, many at the popular Woodlawn Street Market.

Lawless credits the nonprofit community development organization REV Birmingham with being involved with discussions that led to the opening of the Woodlawn Marketplace. Ultimately, her vision for Pearl’s includes multiple locations where the majority of employees have some form of disability. She also hopes to work with Birmingham City Schools to train special needs students in catering. Looking ahead, Lawless sees opportunities to make a lasting impact.

“I hope we can be a model for other companies,” Lawless said. “We need to value people with disabilities. They are loyal, they take pride in their work, enjoy dealing with customers and have less turnover. In today’s job market, these qualities should be very attractive to employers.”

Find out more on Instagram @pearlscafewoodlawn.

generation systems

Disrupting the 3D printing industry is the goal of Auburn-based Generational Systems. That means expanding access to the benefits of metal 3D printing technology by reducing costs while achieving faster build times, safer operating conditions and greater ease of use.

“It democratizes manufacturing,” said Michael Knotts, founder and chief operating officer of Generational Systems. “3D printing can transform lives, whether you’re talking about manufacturing custom prosthetics or starting a small business, taking a product from idea to manufacturing.”

The Generational Systems team: CEO Jerry Knotts, Founder/Chief Operating Officer Michael Knotts, Chief Technology Officer Travis Thompson and Vice President of Business Development Jack Hudon. (Contribution)

Generational Systems didn’t start as a business idea. It began in 2018 as research for Knotts’ master’s thesis at Auburn University. Knotts explored ways to reduce the cost of metal 3D printing and realized his learnings from academia could be translated into a business venture. After delays mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company launched in 2021.

Despite the many benefits that have resulted from 3D printing, issues arising from cost, speed, and health and safety risks associated with accessibility and production have limited accessibility. By addressing these issues, Generational Systems sets the stage for significant social impact, Knotts said.

“We’re trying to improve access to creative tools. That opens doors for innovations.”

Generational Systems also recognizes the potential impact of 3D printing on education and training. The company wants to help ensure that economic circumstances don’t limit access by “reaching as many schools at all levels as possible,” Knotts said.

He noted that Alabama’s growing network of startups and early-stage ventures demonstrates the state’s positive climate for innovation. The Alabama Launchpad social impact competition is another indicator of how Alabama is laying the groundwork for a brighter future.

“Generational Systems is thrilled and grateful to be a part of the Alabama Launchpad,” said Knotts. “There is such a strong community here with a fantastic level of mentoring. We are thrilled to be involved in this program.”

Learn more at

The finals of the Alabama Launchpad Social Impact Competition will be held December 8 at 5 p.m. in the Pearl River Room at Regions Field, 1401 First Ave. S. held in downtown Birmingham. The event is open to the public, but the number of participants is limited. To secure a place, please register here.

To learn more about Alabama Launchpad, click here. To learn more about the Alabama Power Foundation, visit