Georgia Research Alliance facing crippling cuts

By Maria Saporta and Urvaksh Karkaria
Friday, January 28, 2011

The Georgia Research Alliance, a 20-year-old initiative that has made the state a model for bringing cutting-edge scientific research into the commercial marketplace, is being threatened with a massive budget cut as Georgia lawmakers look to plug an up to $2 billion shortfall.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget calls for GRA funding to crater nearly 75 percent — from about $17 million currently to $4.5 million in fiscal 2012.

The public-private partnership between Georgia’s six research universities, businesses and state government is charged with transforming university breakthroughs into companies and jobs.

The 2012 budgets cuts call for the elimination of three future endowments of eminent scholars, and eliminations of investments in core R&D facilities and vaccine collaboration planning grants. Georgia has more than 60 GRA eminent scholars working at its research universities.

Lured to Georgia from around the world, these scholars often are working on the most advanced scientific research in their fields, such as cancer, drug discovery and vaccine development.

The GRA’s ability to attract major federal and foundation R&D grants also could be at risk, since the budget cuts call for eliminating matching commitments for such grants.

Business leaders are hoping some of the funding will be restored as the budget is presented in the legislature.

The Alliance is essential for growing the life-sciences industry in Georgia, said Charles Craig, president of Georgia Bio, which promotes the life sciences industry.

“The biotech industry traditionally clusters around strong research universities, which is where the basic discoveries are made,” Craig said. “Those discoveries then become the technologies that are commercialized into new medicines and vaccines and medical devices.”

Since its inception, the GRA has received an average of about $30 million in annual state funding totaling about $550 million. But the state’s investment in GRA has led to $2.6 billion in federal research dollars and private-sector funding.

“GRA remains an important force, not only for higher education, but for economic development in this state,” said Bill Linginfelter, the area president for Regions Bank who is chairing GRA’s board. “It is a model for like organizations around the country. We have never lost sight of the fact that we are recruiting very talented researchers and professors and eminent scholars to come to our great research universities and create a body of work that eventually will lead to commercial development.”

Linginfelter said GRA has been “handed a very challenging preliminary budget.” And the influential GRA board will try to get at least some of that funding restored.

Cuts also are being proposed for the current fiscal year. The governor’s amended fiscal 2011 budget is recommending a 7.2 percent decline in GRA funding.

“We obviously are going to have to have a thorough educational process for new leaders so they can fully understand and appreciate what GRA does,” Linginfelter said. “Clearly, the money that the state puts into GRA is multiplied by federal grants and private dollars, historically at a factor of 5 to 1. If that money doesn’t come to our eminent scholar program, those dollars will go to another state and to other educational systems elsewhere. We have a lot at stake.”

At the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs & Issues Breakfast Jan. 25, Deal said he would create a Georgia Competitiveness Initiative, described as a public-private partnership to improve Georgia’s ability to compete with other states.

When Deal was asked after the breakfast about his proposed cuts to GRA’s funding, the new governor explained that he is exploring the possibility of consolidating certain economic development functions.

“The ultimate goal is we would like to create greater efficiencies,” Deal said, adding that he supports the state efforts to try to attract top eminent scholars. “But I think we have let the program go stale and not looked to see whether it is accomplishing what it set out to do. We want to have a comprehensive review of the entire process to make sure we actually are seeing spin-offs and new jobs.”

Linginfelter said GRA not only has recruited leading-edge researchers, its incubation process has led to the formation of dozens of companies that employ more than 5,500 Georgians.

“We understand the difficult economic times,” said GRA President Mike Cassidy. “We will be concentrating our resources on generating new high-value enterprises from the ideas generated in our university research laboratories — enterprises that will contribute importantly to Georgia’s economic future.”

The proposed budget cuts are going to “affect drastically our ability to attract premier researchers [to the state],” said Ross Mason, who leads HINRI Ventures (Healthcare Institute for Neuro Recovery and Innovation) and is chairman of the Georgia Department of Community Health.

Researchers generate the intellectual property and medical breakthroughs that become the basis of new companies in Georgia, Mason said.

State cuts mean fewer GRA VentureLab projects will get funded, potentially stifling the creation of high-growth companies in Georgia.

GRA’s VentureLab program helps move university research into commercial markets by evaluating potential technologies, providing funding and offering business expertise.

A hobbled VentureLab program could have a ripple effect on the state’s technology industry.

“VentureLab is where you turn your very, very early ideas into companies,” said Sig Mosley, a respected angel investor.

In his budget proposal, Deal recommends GRA’s fiscal 2012 budget transfer from the Board of Regents to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

That move, Mason said, could signal the governor wants state-funded research to be focused more on job creation.

The focus, whether at GRA, Department of Economic Development, or Technology Transfer offices within the university system, must be to “turn knowledge into practice to transform lives,” Mason said.

Linginfelter said GRA is critical to the state’s economic future.

“I understand that there are limited resources in state government, but we need to look at what our competitors are doing,” Linginfelter said. “They are investing in programs like GRA, and we certainly don’t want to lose our competitive edge by pulling back too dramatically.”

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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