A City of Big Ideas
Here in the Southeast, a buzz has been growing around the idea of innovation. In my hometown, Atlanta, startups have been popping up like weeds. What makes Atlanta a good place to innovate? To start, Atlanta is home to a number of top-tier universities and colleges, including Emory University, Georgia State University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, Agnes Scott College, and Georgia Tech, which U.S. News recently ranked fifth in the country for engineering. The city also boasts one of the fastest-growing urban populations in the country and a cost of living below the national average.
Among recent developments, a study done by the Kaufmann Foundation ranked Atlanta second in the nation in entrepreneurial activity. As well, Georgia companies drew in more than $116 million in venture capital funding in the first quarter of 2014, compared with $46 million just two years earlier. On top of it all, Forbes magazine placed Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) on its list of the top 12 Business Incubators Changing the World. So what’s the deal? Is Atlanta becoming the next Silicon Valley? Why has innovation been the buzzword of the last decade here?
A growing consensus holds that innovation is the key to economic growth in developed economies. Innovation enables firms to become more productive and thus increase output without increasing the amount of inputs (labor, capital, etc.). Throughout modern history, the kings of all innovations are the game changers, sometimes referred to as general-purpose technologies. Game changers include inventions including the steam engine, electrical power and, more recently, information and communication technology. Juan Moreno-Cruz, an assistant professor in the school of economics at Georgia Tech, noted that although you can’t always recognize a game changer right away; “there are small things that combine that make general-purpose technologies important.”
Without the small things, general-purpose technologies never become significant, and it’s here that start-ups become important. Stephen Fleming, vice president for economic development and technology ventures and executive director of the Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2) at Georgia Tech, says that, “Innovation is the reason that they exist.” Part of Fleming’s role is to oversee Georgia Tech’s ATDC, one of the nation’s oldest—it was founded in 1980—and largest business incubators attached to a university. Throughout the years, it has graduated more than 150 companies, which together have acquired over $2 billion in outside financing. “We shelter them from the ups and downs of the market,” says Fleming. “We do this for a while so that the company does not die from the downs.” But how exactly does the ATDC foster innovation in their start-ups? “We allow them the chance to fail.”
This is one of the many things that Fleming feels the U.S. does right. “There is a difference between being a failure and failing. If you fail, you just had a very expensive education on what not to do.” This holds true even for established small and medium-sized enterprises. “Let your people try stuff!” A survey done by PricewaterhouseCoopers asked CEOs which elements are some of the “most important ingredients to successful innovation,” and 57 percent of respondents agreed: “the right culture to foster and support innovation.” Meanwhile, 37 percent also responded by citing a “willingness to challenge norms and take risks.”
So, back to the question at hand: Is Atlanta becoming the next Silicon Valley? Fleming (wearing his “No Valley” button) would answer no; we’re becoming a better version of Silicon Valley that is welcoming to small companies. He points out four parts of our innovation ecosystem that make Atlanta a great place to innovate right now: First, the city has top-tier talent from all of the schools mentioned above. Second, unlike Silicon Valley, the city has the customers for the companies (Atlanta ranks third in the nation among cities with the most Fortune 500 headquarters). Third, customers who aren’t here are just a nonstop flight away, thanks to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Fourth and final, Atlanta has plenty of capital to work with.
It’s certainly a compelling case, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out.
By Trevor Lindsay, an economic intern in the Atlanta Fed’s research department
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