Column: Georgia Research Alliance ‘at a pivot point,’ refocusing for the future
By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Feb. 15, 2019
Leaders behind the Georgia Research Alliance are seeking to gain traction under the administration of newly-elected Gov. Brian Kemp.
The Alliance, launched during the administration of the late Gov. Zell Miller, is a well-respected organization of top business, university and government leaders dedicated to increasing the state’s technology portfolio.
At its quarterly board meeting Feb. 7, a combination of old and new faces were present. David Ratcliffe, retired CEO of Southern Co., was named board chairman – a role he had held in 2005. It also was Russell Allen’s first board meeting as president and CEO of the organization.
“We are on the verge of taking this to the next level,” Ratcliffe said. “I think we are at a pivot point with a new administration and a new focus.”
Already Ratcliffe, Allen and Mark Sanders, who is GRA’s lobbyist and a longtime friend of the new governor, have met with Kemp, who has promised to attend future meetings. Ratcliffe said Kemp understands the success the Alliance has had over the years and appears open to exploring new opportunities to work with the organization.
That is a significant change from the past two administrations. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue had never been a strong advocate for the Alliance, and he even proposed to incoming governor Nathan Deal to drastically reduce state funding to the organization. Over the years, state funding for the Alliance has gone from about $40 million a year to about half that amount.
Allen called GRA’s funding levels “inconsistent” with a trend line that has been “going in the wrong direction.”
But now the Alliance is working on a new strategic plan, and it is seeking input from the Kemp administration to make sure there’s a close partnership.
“This is historic,” said Larry Gellerstedt, executive chairman of Cousins Properties Inc. and GRA’s outgoing board chair. “We’ve been defensive for many years. We now can refocus GRA for great things in the future.”
Allen said the Alliance has been instrumental in helping grow the state’s research funding to more than $1 billion a year. About half of those dollars come from the National Institutes of Health, which has had a 20 percent growth rate in grants to Georgia universities since 2010 (compared to a national growth rate of 7.5 percent).
“I’m not viewing this as a blank slate,” Allen said. “GRA has a really strong foundation.”
But Allen said there are areas that need attention, such as a need to increase endowment levels given to eminent scholars the Alliance is trying to lure to the state. There also is increased competition from other states for scholars and commercialization support.
Allen listed several opportunities for increased support – investing more in brain health research and “translational” agriculture, that encompasses food security and research.
A draft strategic plan will be presented at the May board meeting, which the governor is expected to attend. The plan will be delivered to Kemp during the summer for his input, and an implementation plan will be presented at the September board meeting.
Bill Foege and Atlanta
Global health pioneer Dr. Bill Foege shared a historical perspective of how Atlanta became a strategic center for public health at a luncheon talk to the Rotary Club of Atlanta on Feb. 11.
As a student in Seattle 61 years ago, Foege was told by his mentor that if he was interested in global health, he needed to move to Atlanta – the home of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“So much of my career in global health has been right here in Atlanta,” said Foege, who is considered to be the architect behind the successful eradication of smallpox. Foege not only led the CDC and the Carter Center, but he also co-founded the Task Force for Global Health and served as a senior advisor to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on its global health initiatives.
Foege also talked about working with Rotary on its efforts to eliminate polio worldwide, which now appears within reach.
During his talk, Foege challenged Rotarians to play an even greater role in making Atlanta an even more important center for global health by encouraging greater collaboration among existing organizations.
“In my wildest dreams, Rotary could lead this city and other cities in global health,” Foege said. “The most determining factor for global health is poverty…. What if Rotary would quietly work in Atlanta to find solutions that would help?”
Poor people in the United States and around the world “work at starvation wages,” Foege said. “Poverty is slavery. I am a plantation owner, and others are suffering.”
As an example of what could be done, Foege pointed to the miracle of Chile. In 1988, 48 percent of its population lived below the poverty line. By 2000, that had been reduced to 20 percent. A 2004 World Bank report attributed the 60 percent reduction in poverty to economic growth combined with government programs aimed at reducing poverty.
Gwinnett Chamber CEO
Seasoned business leaders in Gwinnett County are leading the search for a new president and CEO of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.
Bill Russell, chairman of Russell Landscape Cos., is leading the search for a president and CEO to replace Daniel Kaufman, who has held the position since July 2013 and will be retiring in June. Another key member of the search committee is Wayne Mason, a legendary Gwinnett developer known for his close political and business ties.
“The Gwinnett Chamber’s 15-member Search Committee has been diligently at work for the past several months in the pursuit of an exceptional results-oriented president and CEO,” Russell said. “The committee is extremely excited at the tremendous opportunity to secure a best fit candidate with regional experience, strong business acumen, stellar communication and interpersonal skills, impeccable integrity and the ability to manage diverse relationships.”
Mason said Gwinnett is changing, and it is important to find the right executive to lead the chamber.
As an example, Mason said he is strongly supporting a March 19 referendum for Gwinnett to join the MARTA system.
“I’ll put my money on it,” Mason said. “We’ve got an opportunity to become Fairfax, Va. if we pass MARTA.”
For Mason, Fairfax is a model because of its diversity. “Diversity is our strength,” Mason said, adding that Gwinnett is the most diverse county in Georgia with its presence of African-American, Latino and Asian populations. “They like Gwinnett because they are part of the community.”
2019 Gwinnett Chairman Tom Anderson said in a statement: “It is truly an exciting time for Gwinnett and an exciting time for the Gwinnett Chamber. We look forward to finding the perfect fit for very large shoes, as well as fresh perspective and ideas.”