By Maria Saporta
Until Thursday, it had been at least seven years since a governor had attended a board meeting of the Georgia Research Alliance — the public-private entity charged with helping the state develop its technology sector.
At one time, it was an annual tradition for the governor to address the high-powered board of the alliance, which is composed of top business leaders and the presidents of the six research universities in the state.
Gov. Sonny Perdue broke that string when he only attended one board meeting early in his administration.
But when Gov. Nathan Deal came to the GRA meeting Thursday, the feeling of estrangement between the alliance and the governor’s office had totally dissipated.
“Thank you for making the Georgia Research Alliance a success,” Deal told the board, adding that even he had not realized the significance of the entity until he attended a recent meeting of the Southern Governor’s Association.
GRA President Mike Cassidy was a presenter at the association, and Deal quickly learned that the organization was a national model and was a feather in Georgia’s cap.
Deal, however, has quickly put his mark on the Georgia Research Alliance. When he first came into office, the governor’s budget had cut out most of the state funding for the organization.
But when business and civic leaders were able to explain the importance of GRA to the state’s future, some of that funding was restored.
More significantly, the governor realigned the state’s relationship with the alliance. Instead of it being affiliated with the Georgia Board of Regents, he partnered the organization with the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
Since then, GRA’s role has only increased. First, the state’s centers of innovation became under GRA’s umbrella. And most recently, the Georgia Cancer Coalition, originally a spin-off of the alliance, has been merged with the Georgia Research Alliance.
Clearly, Gov. Deal has become a proponent of the new Georgia Research Alliance.
“We are living in a time where the skies are cloudy,” Deal said, thanking the leaders of GRA for working with his administration. “We think we can do things in a different way, not destroying the good, but doing it in a different way. The Georgia Cancer Coalition move — that was appropriate. We are now making the Georgia Research Alliance an important component of our economic development strategy.”
Using the theme of “necessity is the mother of invention,” Deal said it was necessary for the state to consolidate various function and reorient the state’s priorities.
“Efforts being made here is to link the academic community to the jobs community,” Deal said, adding that it was important for the state institutions of higher learning to be “training people for the jobs not only of today but of tomorrow.”
One way to do that is to tear down silos between governmental institutions and be sure that the state is spending its tax money in the most effective ways.
Then Deal asked the board to help him.
“One of the problems Mike and I heard at the (Southern Governors) conference, is the lack of capital resources and venture capital,” Deal said. “We always hear about Silicon Valley and Boston.”
So Deal asked why those communities have become magnets for research, development and venture capital. He was told it was about quality of life.
“They like to be able to ride bicycles to work,” Deal said. “So when I ask DOT (the Georgia Department of Transportation) to build bicycle trails, don’t think I’ve lost my mind.”
Deal also said that “a great travesty” was that Georgia has developed cutting edge technology, but then they are “stolen away simply because we don’t have the capital available for them.”
The issue is not only start-up capital, but intermediate capital for the new ventures, the governor said.
“At the point when they reach the breakthrough, they get siphoned off,” Deal said. “I need your help in that regard.”
The governor went on to explain that one of problems in Georgia is that the state’s pension and retirement funds are not available to invest in those kind of ventures. Georgia is the only state in the country that prohibits its pension dollars going towards alternative investment plans.
Changing that, however, will be a “tough sell,” the governor said. But clearly he was asking the board of the Georgia Research Alliance to partner with him in trying to find solutions to the lack of venture funding in the state.
At the end of his comments, GRA Chairman Bill Linginfelter told Deal there was “an open invitation” for him to come back to the board meetings at any time.
“We appreciate you restarting the tradition of having the governor come to our board meetings,” Linginfelter said.
As he left the meeting, Deal was asked if he realized that a governor had not come to a GRA board meeting in more than seven years.
“Really?” Deal said incredulously. “I think this is important for Georgia.”