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Georgia Research Alliance is an unsung economic treasure

By Maria Saporta

Talk about a hidden gem.

The Georgia Research Alliance, now more than 30 years old, has been an integral force in developing Georgia’s knowledge-based economy by partnering with the state’s research universities and investing in promising technology ventures coming out of those institutions.

The GRA board – composed of top executives, university presidents and technology leaders – met on Feb. 2 in what was one of the most impactful meetings in its 30-year history. I know because I’ve attended nearly every GRA meeting since its earliest origins when Zell Miller was governor.

David Ratcliffe, retired CEO of the Southern Co. and chair of GRA’s board, opened the meeting by saying that in the past 30 years “the state has invested to the tune of $700 million” in GRA and its various initiatives.

“That has led to $11.7 billion ROI. That’s a pretty good return,” said Ratcliffe, adding it is one of the state’s most successful investments.

But over the past decade or so, state funding to GRA has gone from a high watermark of $41 million in 2008 to $11.9 million in the 2023 fiscal year. In Gov. Brian Kemp’s recommended budget for the 2024 fiscal year, that number is being further reduced to $10.65 million. (See chart at the end of this column.)

“Appropriations is a process that’s never fun,” Ratcliffe admitted during the meeting. “One of the bigger problems we have is getting people to understand economic development that’s not industrial development, like a Kia plant. We have to add to the definition of a knowledge-based economy. It’s as significant as big box developments.”

Consider this:

Source: Georgia Research Alliance.

In just the past five years, Georgia’s ranking among states has gone from 12 to 8 in the amount of university research and development funding from federal, industry and nonprofit sources. Georgia’s universities posted $2.95 billion in R&D expenditures for the 2021 fiscal year – climbing above Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Florida since the 2016 fiscal year.

Georgia Tech President Angel Cabrera marveled at Georgia’s rapid rise. “I’m most grateful for the work GRA is doing,” he said. Later Cabrera added about GRA’s successful track record: “It’s a very difficult story to tell.”

Much of GRA’s success has come from the state investing in the country’s top researchers. GRA and its eight partner universities recruit top researchers to Georgia as eminent scholars – seeking for them to bring their labs and fellow researchers in their fields. In 1993, GRA started with four eminent scholars. Now it has 84 permanently endowed chairs at its partner universities – 76 eminent scholars and eight distinguished investigators.

Susan Shows, president of the Georgia Research Alliance.

“Recruiting world-class scientists is much like recruiting top athletes – it’s very competitive,” said Susan Shows, GRA’s president since 2020. “But successful recruits generate high returns. For scientists, access to new labs and research tools are essential factors in their ‘commitment’ process.

“GRA currently has an opportunity to recruit a cluster of three exceptional scientists and their teams to one of our universities,” Shows added. “We are advocating for funds to renovate and outfit lab space so we can not only close the deal but help Georgia take the national lead in this research area.”

At the Feb. 2 meeting, one of those scholars made a presentation to the board. Larry Heck is a GRA eminent scholar in artificial intelligence at Georgia Tech where he heads up the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Virtual Assistant program.

Larry Heck, GRA eminent scholar in AI at Georgia Tech.

Heck has had an amazing career in artificial intelligence out on the West Coast first at the Stanford Research Institute. Before coming to Georgia Tech, he was the CEO of Viv Labs and senior vice president at Samsung from 2017 to 2021. He was the principal scientist at Google from 2014 to 2017 and the chief scientist of the Microsoft Speech products team from 2009 to 2014. He got his doctorate from Georgia Tech in 1991.

“I wouldn’t be back here at Georgia Tech if it weren’t for GRA and Susan [Shows],” Heck told GRA board members. “It was an easy sell because I’m a graduate of Georgia Tech.”

Heck currently is working on the next generation of artificial intelligence – think Siri on steroids.

“The AI Virtual Assistant is a partner with humans – it’s an interaction that is like interacting with a human,” Heck said, adding that it can imbue human traits, engage in conversations, expresses emotions and get to know its human “better and better” over time – predicting future interactions.

“This is an amazing time to be in AI, in Georgia and at Georgia Tech specifically,” Heck said. “We already have brought in about $200 million in research funding.”

GRA also provides venture capital to companies with promising technologies, including ventures that have spun off from the research of the eminent scholars.

Steve Damon, CEO of Micron Biomedical.

An example is Steve Damon, CEO of Micron Biomedical, a company that has received GRA funding.

Micron Biomedical is in the midst of clinical trials to test the delivery of vaccines through an innovative technology of dissolvable micro-needles. The micro-needles are in a patch that is placed on the skin and can be self-administered. (See graphic illustration at the bottom of this column)

“You keep it on the skin,” Damon said. “The needles dissolve into the skin. It does not hurt because it’s above the pain receptors.”

The technology could revolutionize the delivery and administration of vaccines and medications locally and globally. Already, the Gates Foundation has made an investment in the company for a manufacturing plant being built in Germany. Damon said the company also would like to have a U.S. manufacturing facility.

GRA’s investment in entrepreneurship also has had incredible returns.

“One dollar drives $37 in outside dollars. That contributes to Georgia’s economic growth,” Shows said. “GRA values the more than 30 years of bipartisan support it has received from the state of Georgia. Spanning six gubernatorial administrations, GRA’s partnership with the state has proven to be a successful model for growing university research and innovation in Georgia.”

Doug Hertz, a former GRA chairman who is with United Distributing, said that with so many new legislators at the State Capitol, “there’s probably never been a better time to retell our story.”

But Larry Gellerstedt, also a former GRA chair, brought a dose of reality to the meeting.

“Our funding has dropped in the past 15 years,” Gellerstedt said. “Imagine what more funding would equate to.”

Much of GRA’s success today is thanks to investments made years ago. Over the years, every governor has made his mark on GRA, and that has paid off.

If Georgia wants to increase its stature as a center for technology research and development, it’s time for our key state leaders to reinvest in the Georgia Research Alliance.

In the interest of full disclosure: In 2010, I wrote the 20-year history of the Georgia Research Alliance along with my colleague Kathy Brister.

Funding for the Georgia Research Alliance has dropped significantly over the past decade or so. The drop is even greater because these numbers have not been adjusted for inflation. (Source: The Georgia Research Alliance.)

Micro Biomedical technology:

Chart shows how Micron Biomedical dissolvable micro-needles work when a patch is placed on the skin. (Source: The Georgia Research Alliance.)

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.


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  1. David Kyler February 14, 2023 10:52 am

    It’s disappointing that the so-called “knowledge-based economy” of Georgia has failed to enlighten the state’s policymakers, who remain defiantly regressive in relation to energy and public interest, boosting the state’s economic development by covertly shifting the cost of certain business subsidies onto taxpayers and residential utility customers.

    It would be a shame if emerging artificial intelligence [AI] technology were used to further advance corporate goals at the public’s expense.

    Our “business-friendly state” is achieved by being hostile to taxpayers and household utility customers, and grossly negligent in failing to adopt a clean-energy transition plan and related climate-friendly measures.

    This year’s proposed state tax rebate, though undoubtedly welcomed by many, does not alter the well-entrenched, hidden injustices of Georgia’s counterproductive development & energy policies.Report

  2. Sam Williams February 14, 2023 6:02 pm

    Georgia’s research universities are our path to future discoveries and funding is critical for new discoveries! GRA is the critical connection between our hospitals and research to improve health of our citizens and find new treatments for diseases and the next pandemic.

    Universities and hospitals (Eds and Meds) in metro Atlanta employ over 350,000 people, more than all the Fortune 500 companies combined. !!!!Report


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