By Maria Saporta
Advocates for the Georgia Research Alliance are working behind the scenes to make sure that the state’s new leaders understand the value of this unique public-private partnership.
But they also are beginning to realize that there’s a learning curve needed so that the state’s elected officials can fully recognize and appreciate the significance of their 20-year investment.
As GRA leaders see it, the alliance has brought Georgia’s business, civic, academic and government leaders together to work on a common goal of bringing cutting edge research and economic development to the state.
Two recent events, however, show that GRA advocates have their work cut out for them.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget recommendations have called for slashing the state’s investment in the alliance from an average of about $31 million a year to only $4.5 million in fiscal year 2012.
The net effect of that severe budget cut means that the alliance will be unable to continue its economic development strategy of attracting top researchers and scholars to the state, which in turn has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding and private grants.
The alliance also has helped launch a host of enterprises and commercial opportunities that have out of the research. Also, the six research universities have been able to lure new companies to invest in Georgia so that they can take full advantage of the latest breakthroughs coming out of its research universities.
The other warning for the alliance came on Feb. 17 when House Speaker David Ralston spoke to the Atlanta Press Club at the Commerce Club.
In response to a question about the governor’s proposed GRA budget cuts, Ralston said he was concerned about the administrative overhead of the program — implying that the state was covering those expenses.
Ralston then went on to say that no one is quarreling with the mission of the GRA; it’s just a matter of “where we put our dollars to make it most effective.”
Brad Currey, the retired CEO of Rock-Tenn who has been an investor in GRA for years, was at the Ralston luncheon and became concerned that the speaker might have bad information about the organization’s funding model.
“I was astonished,” Currey said. “The state does not pay for the administrative costs for the Georgia Research Alliance.”
Currey said GRA’s board includes the top business leaders in Georgia working in concert with the academic institutions.
“This is an ideal public private partnership,” Currey said. “It is the single most effective economic development initiative that I’ve seen in the 58 years that I’ve lived and worked in Georgia.”
Other than the speaker’s comments about GRA, Currey said he was impressed with Ralston. “I thought he was straight forward, and he seemed like a very good guy,” Currey said, adding that now it’s up to people who are strong supporters of GRA to make sure the state’s new leaders have all the right facts.
The largest private investor in GRA has been the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, which happens to be the largest philanthropic organization in the state. The foundation has invested more than $7 million in the alliance since it was launched in 1990.
“The GRA is the ultimate public-private partnership,” said Russ Hardin, president of the Woodruff Foundation. “The state’s strongest business leaders and the university presidents work together – that’s the key word – to harness the economic development potential of our research universities.”
Hardin also said his board believes GRA has proven to be a very positive return on the foundation’s investment.
“We feel very good about the Woodruff Foundation’s investment of more that $7 million,” Hardin said. “All of that has gone to cover the overhead costs so that every nickel of the state’s money can go to the economic development and research efforts of GRA.”
The state’s investment goes directly to the six research universities — University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Emory University, Georgia State University, the Georgia Health Sciences University (formerly the Medical College of Georgia) and Clark Atlanta University.
Those dollars have helped lure more than 60 of the country’s top research scholars, who have come to Georgia and set up their labs and research endeavors at one of those universities. Often, the state and private partners also promise the scholars that they will build them new labs and facilities to facilitate their research.
The state also has provided venture funds to invest in budding companies that have found ways to commercially leverage that research. Private investors also have contributed to those venture funds.
Since GRA was founded in 1990, the state has invested a total of $550 million in the organization. And that investment has been leveraged five-fold. GRA’s scholars and enterprises have lured an additional $2.6 billion in federal research funding and private sector dollars.