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Georgia makes strides in research, but is missing bioscience ‘focal point’

By Maria Saporta

In the 24 years since the founding of the Georgia Research Alliance, federally-funded research and development grants to Georgia’s universities has increased five-fold.

The state’s total share of federal research funding increased to nearly 3 percent, ranking 12th and one of only five of the top 16 states that is increasing its market share.

These are the findings in new report prepared by consultants for the Georgia Research Alliance that was presented to the board at its recent meeting.

The report, prepared by McKinsey & Co. and Battelle Labs, said the Georgia Research Alliance drives an annual impact of $825 million on Georgia’s economy.

The alliance gets about $30 million direct investment from the state to recruit talent, equip laboratories, seed promising start-up companies and support research that promotes economic growth.

That spending has been leveraged to $395 million in direct spending by industry, universities, foundations and the federal government. That contributes to another $400 million in indirect spending, according to the report.

In all, the economic impact of the Alliance has helped create or support 6,400 jobs every year – yielding $319 million in annual earnings.

The consultants did an assessment of the scope of work of the Alliance.

It’s oldest initiative – attracting eminent scholars who will do cutting-edge research will help attract federal funding and business opportunities.

“The coming years will bring turnover in eminent scholars due to age and changes in the field,” the report stated. “Static or declining federal funding for research will require new thinking and approaches for recruiting eminent scholars.”

The consultants did give the Alliance kudos for its recent efforts to fund early commercialization efforts and to provide venture funding to help bring the more promising ideas to the private market.

Going forward, the report said that the Alliance should “continue to grow (the) impact of GRA Venture Fund LLC through leverage and syndication with industry-specialized venture capital,” it stated, adding that the long-term sustainability of the GRA Venture Fund could occur “through successful exits from investments.”

The consultants’ report did closely examine the “bioscience industry” – saying it “GRA and Georgia’s research universities have invested heavily in building bioscience research, commercialization capacity.”

But the report also said something was missing in Georgia – “a physical focal point to coordinate and connect bioscience research and commercial activity.”

Georgia has been talking about having a physical location where research could occur for decades – even before the establishment of the Georgia Research Alliance.

Part of the motivation has been the fact that Georgia has been in the shadow of the geographically-defined Research Triangle in North Carolina. Even though the research occurring in Georgia is competitive with the work underway in North Carolina, it does not have the same national recognition.

So the report had the following recommendations:

Create a physical destination for further bioscience development that will:

–      Address a long-term real estate need to cluster early and growth-state companies;

–      Serve as a “landing pad: for company recruitment;

–      Bring a more coherent economic development approach for bioscience; and

–      Promote sharing of unique state-of-the-art equipment, facilities.

The idea for a bio-science research park has resurfaced several times over the years. Most recently, the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority had proposed to turn over part of the recently-vacated fort in a research park that could have been a state collaboration among the various research universities and other related entities, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the meeting, Alliance President Mike Cassidy said that MILRA has now moved in a different direction. If the GRA board was interested in exploring a real estate proposition, Cassidy said it had the expertise on its board to develop some options for the future.

The Georgia Research Alliance meets three times a year, and its next meeting will be in January.

Maria Saporta

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.


1 Comment

  1. atlman September 24, 2014 2:17 pm

    Georgia’s main issue is not  a lack of a focal point. It is that Georgia has only 5 research universities: Georgia Tech, UGA, Emory, Georgia State and GHSU. Moreover, of those 5, only 3 – Georgia Tech, UGA and Emory – can be considered major players, and that is being somewhat charitable to Emory. Further still, Georgia Tech is the only one of the 5 that does major research in engineering. Georgia Tech and UGA are the only ones that do major research in the hard sciences also, as Emory, Georgia State and GHSU focus on life sciences (biology, pharmacology, medicine) and not nearly so much on physics or even chemistry that is unrelated to medical applications. 
    The decision to have only one STEM university, Georgia Tech, did lots for Georgia Tech but actually impeded the Georgia economy. Florida, North Carolina and Texas built multiple STEM universities (and also have multiple private schools that do real research) and as a result all enjoy far more research activity.
    For the longest time Georgia Tech was the only school in the state offering actual engineering degrees in the ABET core areas, as opposed to engineering technology degrees and non-ABET (which means little research) interdisciplinary areas. SPSU quietly began offering them, which opened the door for Georgia State also, but even then only undergraduate and master’s programs with almost no research. That UGA had to expend major political capital to begin offering ABET engineering degrees and had to do so under the condition that no new money would be allocated to those programs shows exactly how misguided our higher education policy with respect to STEM and research is. For comparison’s sake in Florida and North Carolina, even state-supported HBCU’s like FAMU and North Carolina A&T offer Ph.D.s in ABET core engineering majors and have research programs. Yet it is going to likely take UGA 20 years to build the engineering research programs that they should have had 60 years ago because of the lack of funding.
    Honestly, Georgia Tech can’t do it all. With respect to bioscience, they shouldn’t really anyway. Tech has always been better at hardware … building machines and what not in electrical, mechanical, civil, industrial etc. engineering. If you want to build an industrial robot or a communications system, go to Tech. But because they lack a medical (or even agricultural) school, Tech never really got as heavily into bioscience or even bioengineering. The closest that they came to it  – other than creating a bioengineering department – was creating this interdisciplinary program with Emory that pretty much requires majoring in engineering and biology or medicine because this area isn’t their thing. No other school in the state – including GHSU, Georgia State, UGA – has the resources or research personnel. UGA may 20 years from now, and even then only if they choose to focus on that area as opposed to building up their ABET core programs (which is unlikely by the way, as there is far more money and prestige in the ABET core than in bioscience). 
    Basically, Georgia is cheap and lacks real leadership in this area. If it can’t be done with tax credits, Georgia is not interested. Which is a real shame.Report


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