Georgia Research Alliance regaining its sea legs

By Maria Saporta
Friday, May 20, 2011

After seeing its budget slashed during the last legislative session, the Georgia Research Alliance appears to be regaining favor among state leaders.

The board of the Georgia Research Alliance passed a resolution May 12 to support the integration of Georgia Centers of Innovation with the Georgia Research Alliance. The Centers of Innovation were launched in 2003 by the state to provide technological support to businesses and startups.

Currently, there are six Centers of Innovation in the fields of aerospace, logistics, agribusiness, energy, life sciences and advanced manufacturing.

“The centers were envisioned as being a bridge between these industry clusters and the universities,” said Mike Cassidy, president of the Georgia Research Alliance.

The alliance was founded nearly 21 years ago as a partnership between the state’s six research universities — Georgia Tech, Emory UniversityThe University of Georgia, Georgia State University, Georgia Health Sciences University (formerly the Medical College of Georgia) and Clark Atlanta University — and the state’s top business leaders.

The strategy of the alliance was to attract leading eminent scholars to come to Georgia’s universities to conduct their research. In turn, these scholars would be able to secure federal and private research dollars, and they would help translate their work into commercial applications and help launch new leading-edge companies.

Over the last two decades, the total state investment in the alliance has been $560 million; and its programs have leveraged $2.6 billion in federal and private investment.

Despite that track record, the state proposed cutting GRA’s budget by $6.8 million to about $17 million for the 2011 fiscal year. For the 2012 fiscal year, the proposed cuts were even more drastic — from $17 million to $4.5 million. But because of strong business and civic support for the GRA, $3 million was restored during the legislative session for a total of $7.5 million.

The legislature, following Gov. Nathan Deal’s recommendation, also decided to align state funding for GRA’s programs with the Georgia Department of Economic Development instead of the Georgia Board of Regents.

Chris Cummiskey, the state’s economic development commissioner, welcomed the move. And that’s when the idea emerged to integrate the Centers of Innovation under the purview of the Georgia Research Alliance.

“I’m a big fan of the Georgia Research Alliance,” Cummiskey said. “If we talk to a company about coming to Georgia, we need to be telling them about the Georgia Research Alliance.”

By combining the Centers for Innovation, with the GRA, “we’ve got a great marketing tool,” Cummiskey added.

Cassidy said that because of the budget cuts, “it will be a lean year” for the Alliance.

“The good news is that funding is in place to maintain the core programs of Georgia Research Alliance,” he said. “I think every gubernatorial transition we have been through, it’s taken us a little time to regain our sea legs.”

But Cassidy added that with the new relationship with the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Centers of Innovation, there now seems to be a greater appreciation for how GRA’s activity contributes to a broader vision for economic development in the state.

Cassidy said that the Alliance is “excited about working with the department’s recruitment activities.”

For the next six months, GRA’s Sid Elliott will be assigned to overseeing the six Centers of Innovation. He will conduct an in-depth analysis of each center by assessing what resources are being invested; what programs and services are being provided; and their tangible and intangible results.

The GRA’s May 12 board meeting also provided a unique opportunity to hear case studies from two of its partners.

Eminent Scholar Allan Kirk told GRA’s board about his work as Emory University’s director of transplant immunology.

“We did the first hand transplant in Georgia about a month ago,” Kirk said, adding that his lab also is working on several experimental medical breakthroughs, such as in the areas of diabetes.

He also has been working to create a “transplant bio repository” with nearly 90,000 specimens that would be available for possible transplants.

The second guest speaker was Val Rahmani, CEO of Damballa Inc., an Internet security firm. Damballa has received funding from GRA’s VentureLab and the new GRA Venture Fund LLC, each of which invest in promising new technologies and companies.

“Traditional security is failing companies today,” Rahmani said. Lastly, GRA director Pete McTier announced that the organization has successfully completed its private fundraising effort for its $3 million “Breakthrough Campaign.”

“We have exceeded the $3 million goal,” McTier said. “We particularly want to thank Clyde Tuggle [of The Coca-Cola Co. for taking us over the top. As we enter this new relationship with the new administration, we need to make sure that we demonstrate that the private sector is strongly behind what is taking place. … This may be one of the best public-private partnerships in the country.”

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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