Foster technology innovation

Atlanta may be respected as a technological innovation hub, but today, an entrepreneur — who notes Tennessee as a well-positioned rival — says our region needs more ambition and investors to truly shine. Elsewhere, the president of the Georgia Research Alliance talks about the role of research and science in growing the economy. — Rick Badie, rick.badie@ajc.com

Actively cultivate a culture of tech

By Lisa Calhoun

Recently I was in Nashville at Southland SE, a venture conference organized by Launch Tennessee, a public-private partnership that’s the operating arm of Gov. Bill Haslam’s $50 million INCITE (Innovation, Commercialization, Investment, Technology and Entrepreneurship) initiative. The fund partners with private investment firms to grow early-stage companies.

Southland involves the entire region in an intentional way. Launch Tennessee CEO Charlie Brock says, “Launch Tennessee is on record as having the single goal of making Tennessee the No. 1 place in the Southeast to launch and grow a business. But we don’t do that alone. Part of making Tennessee stand out is having an ecosystem of investors, entrepreneurs and mentors so our region has the density to create successful companies.”

Start-ups from 10 states participated in Southland. Atlanta sent more than any other city. Georgia Tech entrepreneur Candace Mitchell of Techturized (a hair care social network for African-American women) kicked off the first round of investor pitches, followed by emerging Atlanta businesses like Voxa (email productivity). It’s not surprising that Atlanta entrepreneurs had a big piece of the stage at Southland. Atlanta is, after all, the economic powerhouse in the South.

Yet where Tennessee is undeniably leading Atlanta and Georgia is in ambition.

What is Georgia doing to guide the development of entrepreneurship? We have bundles of individual success stories — like Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center, Atlanta Tech Village and Flashpoint for startups.

But what more could we do to cultivate our technology culture? Quite a bit.

Southland, for example, took the initiative to involve Pando Daily, a Silicon Valley media company. I applaud the ambition Southland showed to not only unite the region, but also the West and East coasts in one entrepreneurial and investment ecosystem. The parade of Silicon Valley personalities on stage at Southland provided an opportunity to create a larger, bicoastal conversation around tech culture.

Investment and entrepreneurship is a global sport. Investors representing Accel of Palo Alto, Calif.; Paladin Capital of Washington, D.C.; and Mosley Ventures of Atlanta sat at picnic tables to swap ideas over Hattie B’s hot chicken. The conference provided a unique setting for an infusion of Silicon Valley with a splash of Southern Comfort.

As the conference develops in years to come, I hope to have local heroes like the Dabbiere brothers of Airwatch (mobile device management), Ben Chestnut of Mailchimp (email marketing) or Bill Nussey, whose story of selling Silverpop (digital marketing) to IBM is one the region can relate to. These are stories that can stand at ease alongside imported Southland awesomeness like Phil Libin, the CEO of Evernote (personal digital organizer).

The South harbors much value in U.S. history, and much of its opportunity, from biotech to fintech to transportation. Al Gore, a keynote speaker at Southland, suggested jokingly we should call our region the “Silicon Gulch.”

But should we be “silicon” anything?

Embracing entrepreneurialism, we can invite personalities to play their part in the big brass band of business. Southland provides an early promise of what can happen when we get a lot more intentional about curating Southern culture and valuing it within a broader collaborative discourse.

Lisa Calhoun is founder of Write2Market, a tech communications firm with offices in Atlanta and Austin.

Recruiting top science, research talent will pay off

By Mike Cassidy

His mind told him Palo Alto. His heart called him to La Jolla.

The year was 1959. Jonas Salk was looking for the right place to launch a research institute that would build on his historic work in vaccines. Palo Alto, Calif., had Stanford. La Jolla, a suburb of San Diego, had an astounding view of the ocean.

But from that view, Salk could see the future. Months later, the people of San Diego would vote to give him 27 acres of public land on Torrey Pines Mesa, free. And Salk would move his pioneering work westward.

Today, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies employs 850 scientists. The region is home to 100 other research enterprises and 600 life science companies. “There is more biological and genetic research talent per square meter (there) than anywhere else in the world,” venture capitalist David Titus said last year.

The lesson of La Jolla is clear: Invest in attracting great talent. More talent will follow. An ecosystem of enterprising research and entrepreneurship breeds more of the same.

It’s a lesson the Georgia Research Alliance has been working to replicate in Atlanta by recruiting world-class scientists to the region’s research universities, furnishing them with sophisticated tools and technology, then seeding and shaping the companies built around their discovery and invention.

The Emory Vaccine Center exemplifies this. When the Alliance helped Emory recruit Rafi Ahmed to Atlanta from UCLA in 1996, the renowned immunologist was not looking to move. And a plot of red Georgia clay was hardly a bluff overlooking the Pacific. But Ahmed was drawn to the promise of building a first-rate vaccine center around his scientific vision. He came to Atlanta.

Nearly two decades later, the Emory Vaccine Center employs 180 scientists and brings in $80 million a year in research funding.

One exciting breakthrough to emerge from the center led to a vaccine that targets HIV and AIDS. That discovery fueled the launch of a company named GeoVax, based in Smyrna. GeoVax has been testing the vaccine for nearly a decade, and today, it’s the only preventive HIV vaccine moving into efficacy trials.

Moreover, some rock-star researchers have followed Rafi Ahmed to Atlanta. One is Max Cooper, a man regarded in scientific circles as the father of modern immunology. In the 1960s, Cooper discovered that two types of blood cells, not one, work together to defend the body against infections — a finding that re-organized understanding of the human immune system.

The remarkable talent and scientific prowess we have here must be leveraged to strengthen Atlanta’s position as a science and technology hub. The Emory Vaccine Center and other similar examples are too important, too valuable, to keep quiet. Only when we share these stories across the miles, again and again, will the idea of Atlanta as an innovation powerhouse begin to live in the minds of others and shape the brand we are destined to be.

Mike Cassidy is president of the Georgia Research Alliance.


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