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Metro business leaders aim to boost city’s innovation credibility

By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, July 12, 2013

Despite its presence of respected colleges and universities, metro Atlanta rarely is recognized in national business circles as a leading center for innovation, research and entrepreneurship.

But the Metro Atlanta Chamber — through its recently formed Business Higher Ed (BHE) Council — aims to change that reputation as well as foster a closer collaboration between the region’s companies and its colleges and universities.

“There’s a great opportunity to have much stronger cooperative and collaborative effort, not only between the colleges, but between them and the businesses in metro Atlanta,” said John Brock, CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. and chairman of the BHE Council. “We want to focus on being a real center of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

The BHE Council also has two co-chairs — Jeffrey Sprecher, founder and CEO of the IntercontinentalExchange Inc., and Larry Gellerstedt, CEO of Cousins Properties Inc.

Georgia State University President Mark Becker recently told the board of the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) — a public-private initiative that invests in “eminent scholars” developing new technology at Georgia’s six research universities — that “we are not considered to be a top five higher ed market” even though that potential exists.

“We have the opportunity to do something big here and change the image of Atlanta and the Southeast,” Becker said. “When I travel, I think Atlanta enjoys a good reputation. I just don’t think people have an appreciation for the totality of it all. We don’t have the cachet of an Austin, Texas.”

The Metro Atlanta Chamber, with the help of The Boston Consulting Group, studied other regions that have formed strong relationships between their universities and business communities.

A couple of examples include the University of Washington’s relationship with The Boeing Co. in the Seattle metro area, and the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance and the Allegheny Conference, according to Katie Kirkpatrick, the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s senior vice president, who is leading the BHE Council.

Nationally, the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina is well-regarded for its partnership between universities and business, but Kirkpatrick said the Atlanta region probably is outpacing North Carolina in business startups.

Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson suggested a couple of other model regions.

“Two examples that come to mind are Mountain View California and its relationship to Stanford University and other California research institutions, and the Boston area, including its research universities,” Peterson wrote in an email.

In higher ed research circles, Georgia has received strong accolades for GRA, an entity formed in 1990 that was able to get competing public and private universities to work together on cutting-edge research.

Doug Hertz, a GRA board member who is president of United Distributors Inc., questioned the council’s relationship with GRA.

“My concern and my excitement is how it can dovetail with GRA,” Hertz said at the last GRA meeting. “It’s important that we not duplicate many of the things that are already in place. One of the needs that we do have is letting more people know what we are doing here. The chamber could really help all of us.”

GRA has never received wide public exposure to elevate metro Atlanta and the state into becoming recognized as a top center for innovation and research.

But it is not even well-known in its home state.

“GRA does a remarkable job, and we’ve got to do a better job marketing GRA,” agreed Brock, adding that GRA recently had made a presentation to the prestigious Commerce Club board. “A number of Commerce Club board members had never even heard of GRA.”

But he quickly added that “there can’t be any overlap” between GRA and the council. Several GRA leaders serve on the council and vice versa to keep that from happening.

“I don’t see confusion or overlap,” GSU’s Becker said. “I just see synergies.”

New business-university ties also are being formed. Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum is co-chairing an effort with Newell Rubbermaid Inc. CEO Michael Polk to build internship programs at small to midsized companies that have not had close ties with local universities.

“There’s a whole set of companies I wasn’t familiar with,” said Tatum, adding that it will open up more opportunities for students. “One of the tasks of the internship committee is to develop easy points of access for the smaller companies. Mike Polk describes internships as a prolonged job interview.”

Polk has agreed to succeed Brock as chair of the BHE Council in 2014, one of the most important local civic roles he has taken since becoming Newell Rubbermaid’s CEO two years ago.

Donna Hyland, president and CEO of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, chaired the chamber’s BioScience Leadership Council, and she sees the BHE Council as an extension to the targeted economic development strategy that has been in place for the last several years.

“We identified that a great richness of ours was the universities and developing a vibrant workforce,” Hyland said. “One of our primary objectives is to create jobs.”

As she sees it, the BHE Council is building an “ecosystem so business is better connected” with the universities. In addition to bioscience and health-care information technology, other focus areas include logistics, supply chain, global trade and clean technology.

“It’s collaborative,” Hyland said. “It’s not being done in isolation. It’s being done with an eye on what everyone else is doing.”

Georgia Tech’s Peterson agreed. “We’re being very purposeful about bringing together business and community leaders to maximize our effectiveness in creating a climate where innovations can thrive and startups can flourish,” he said. “We’re also working to tell our story to the world that Atlanta is a dynamic city that serves as a catalyst for centers of innovation, entrepreneurship and higher education.”

One of the challenges for the Atlanta region is creating the feel of being a college town. While the institutions are here, they remain geographically disconnected — in a city often lacking in the vibrant street life often associated with college towns.

That also is changing, according to members of the BHE Council.

“Word is getting out about the opportunities available in Atlanta, and momentum is building,” Peterson said. “Take Georgia Tech, for example. Tech’s 400-acre campus in the heart of the city blends the traditional college atmosphere with the excitement of a growing Innovation Zone in Tech Square.”

GSU’s Becker said the BHE Council has talked about the importance of having a quality of life that’s appealing to those drawn to innovation and higher education. But right now, the council will work with local government officials to help create the kind of environment that will attract the future generations of entrepreneurs and innovators.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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