Byers Brothers: Atlanta positioned well for higher ed and innovation

By Maria Saporta

The Byers Brothers could take their act on the road.

The three brothers — Ken, Brook and Tom — who have all excelled as technology entrepreneurs from different vantage points, were the featured speakers at Monday’s Rotary Club of Atlanta where they spoke about the future of innovation and entrepreneurship.

The oldest brother, Ken Byers, started his business in 1971 and is the founder of the Atlanta-based Byers Engineering Co. Like his brothers, he went to Georgia Tech. But unlike his two younger siblings, he never left.

Brook Byers is a founding partner of the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley. As one of the largest venture capital firms in the country, it has invested in a multitude of companies including Amazon.com, Google, Netscape, Sun Microsystems and Intuit.

The youngest brother is Tom Byers, who holds the Entrepreneurship Professorship Chair at the Stanford School of Engineering. He has approached entrepreneurship through academia.

“We are here with an optimistic view,” Tom Byers said, adding that the brothers disagree with a popular notion that the United States has lost its “mojo” when it comes to innovation.

Brook Byers agreed. “A lot of new start-ups are happening on a new model,” he said. “An entrepreneur goes toward risks, calculated risks.”

But Tom and Brook Byers said the United States must pass immigration reform to remain competitive.

“Over the past eight years, the teams of the major new start-ups, one-third of those teams have had an immigrant,” Brook Byers said. “We have got to pass this immigration bill in Congress. We need an investment visa. We need to attach a green card to PhD degrees.”

Don’t you agree that the current immigration climate “is insanity?” Tom Byers asked Rotarians, who had already applauded when Brook had called for immigration reform.

When asked about what was “hot” in the market, Brook Byers put cyber and data security at the top of his list giving a special shout-out to serial entrepreneur Tom Noonan, founder of Internet Security Systems. Other hot market areas include: “social-local-mobile” as well as the future of television, new diagnostics and online education.

In a panel discussion after the Rotary meeting, Atlanta business leaders were able to ask more pointed questions about what the region can do to leverage its business and higher education resources. The panel discussion was organized by the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Business-Higher Education Council and the Rotary Club of Atlanta.

“The right people are on the bus,” Tom Byers said. “For Atlanta, it’s not a daunting task.”

Brook Byers said that before coming to Atlanta, he asked his peers in Silicon Valley their opinions about how they viewed Georgia and its capital city.

“The response I got from everyone is that they (Atlanta) are doing just fine,” Brook Byers said. “They know about your universities and your start-ups. I know as Atlanta business leaders you never think you are doing enough. There’s a bi-polar neurosis.”

But he went on to outline eight factors that are critical to creating an “eco-system” to foster research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

  1. Geography. Create a sense of community for start-ups, entrepreneurs and universities.
  2. Talent supply. Talent comes out of universities as well as from having a critical mass of major companies that provide fluidity for employees to move from one entity to another.
  3. Culture. Collaboration is key. Also, companies and universities must be willing to let their employees and researchers fail as they try new ventures.
  4. Academic research anchors. Atlanta and Georgia already have important institutions that serve as those anchors.
  5. Diversity. A community must be open to having a diverse population, especially being welcoming to immigrants who have come to study at their universities. This is where immigration reform is so important.
  6. Creative service models. An eco-system also needs accountants, lawyers, real estate developers and others who are open to helping create an environment for innovation and entrepreneurship.
  7. Availability of risk capital. “That sounds obvious,” Brook Byers said. Later he was asked about whether his firm had ever considered having a base in Atlanta. He said he had thought of moving back home to Atlanta in the 1980s, but he then added that “a lot of it is convenience” of being based in Silicon Valley. By the way, Ken Byers said he was news to him that his brother had ever thought about moving back to Atlanta.
  8. Ability to reinvent itself. Silicon Valley has had to reinvent itself several times — from designing computer chips to networks to the Internet. Areas have to stay relevant with the current technology.

Tom Byers did say that “there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to connect business and education” in Atlanta, and he encouraged the business and academic leaders to find creative ways to involve students and faculty in their endeavors.

Throughout the panel discussion, Ken Byers had remained relatively quiet, letting his younger brothers do most of the talking. But finally he had to speak.

“My firm has been in business for 42 years,” Ken Byers said. “I think Atlanta and Georgia is one of the best areas to do business. We’ve got 1,000 employees around the world. We are very comfortable here…. Atlanta is terrific.”

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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