Real Time Matchmakers
Georgia’s Centers of Innovation offer help to the state’s key industries.
Black Sigatoka is a disease that strikes banana trees in Asia, Central America and South America, often destroying entire crops, a situation that resonates with one South Georgia manufacturer.
In Atlanta, a small group of information technology experts investigates the possibilities of health-related devices that can hook up to smartphones; near Albany, a wine producer seeks new markets for his products; and in Macon, a manufacturer needs 100 new employees with very specific skills and needs them fast.
The companies dealing with these real-life situations all sought the assistance of one or more of the state’s Centers of Innovation (COI) – six sites with a combined 17 employees tasked with the mission of helping build profits and jobs for entrepreneurs, small companies and giant corporations.
The centers, part of Georgia’s Department of Economic Development, have been quietly at it for several years, with the kind of success economic developers dream of. And it may be the best is yet to come, as word spreads of the centers and their work.
Georgia’s Centers of Innovation for Aerospace (Eastman), Agribusiness (Tifton), Energy (Atlanta), Life Sciences & IT (Atlanta), Logistics (Savannah) and Manufacturing (Gainesville) may be identified as part of the cities attached to their names, but the experts in these locations belong to the entire state and cheerfully admit you’re not likely to find them anywhere but on the road.
The fungus Black Sigatoka is of particular interest to Eric Rojek, vice president of sales for Thrush Aircraft, a maker of crop dusters. “We build airplanes that work in agriculture,” Rojek says. “They are flying tractors. Right now 60 percent of our business is international, and our No. 1 customers are the banana growers. The banana world is Central America, northern South America and Asia, and that’s where we supply aircraft.”
The fast and agile Thrush can swoop into a banana grove surrounded by jungle and drop its load of Sigatoka-killing spray and be back at the hangar in minutes.
“The banana growers have been very good to the airplane business because, number one, if they don’t spray, they don’t produce,” Rojek says.
“One of the things we’re learning as a company in Georgia is that there are these wonderful branches of Centers of Innovation that can help our organization. So a company like ours that sort of bubbles in agribusiness and aerospace, but also in logistics finds that the Centers of Innovation are wonderful resources.”
Delivering his airplanes to foreign lands can be tricky, especially when his shipments are funded by the U.S. Export-Import Bank and require his cargo to be delivered by ships flying the U.S. flag. “First of all, U.S. [cargo] ships are not abundant,” he says. “We go to where the crops are grown, and that’s not always near a major port. Logistics is a very unique challenge we deal with.”
Costas Simoglou is the director of Atlanta’s Center of Innovation for Energy, which played a major role in landing the Swiss company SolarMax in the city of Norcross in Gwinnett County.
“The key moment came when the company linked up with Georgia Tech,” says Michael Ernst, a company spokesman. “I think the initial help was to give us access to a network of resources to get us up and running from the R&D [research and development] point of view, which was the first section of the company to open here.”
SolarMax site selectors were looking at Boston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but Atlanta and Georgia Tech won out. “The company is headquartered in Switzerland, and they were looking for an East Coast city in terms of [flight] connections to Europe,” says the COI’s Simoglou.
“At the end of the day, the overall package, things like the presence of a strong university, workforce and cost of living came into the equation. Atlanta’s a very strong international hub providing easy access to Europe and back.”
SolarMax will open for production in mid-July with 40 employees, including scientists, technicians, sales and administrative personnel. The company will manufacture photovoltaic inverters for solar panels. The devices convert DC current to AC for use in buildings.
Yet another project involved a call to faculty and engineers at Georgia Tech – this one from John Zegers, director at the Center for Manufacturing.
“A small company in Dahlonega was facing difficulties in their manufacturing process,” recalls Zegers, who says the company makes tiny sensors no bigger than a flea. “The sensors required curing in ovens, and they had to be removed periodically and measured,” Zegers says. “The step became a bottleneck in the manufacturing pro-cess, and only about five a day could be made.”
With early indications pointing to brisk sales, the manufacturer feared the orders could not be filled in a timely fashion. Then the call was made to Georgia Tech. “Here’s a company that has developed a revolutionary polymer-based sensor that is essentially imbedded into the product that you want to monitor the life of,” Zegers says. “You can picture the rubbery jacket that goes around all the cables inside a piece of equipment.” Equipment not unlike that inside a nuclear power generator, he adds.
“You mold this sensor into this product, and when the equipment is running as it should, you wave a wireless device over the equipment and it will tell you how much life is left in the equipment.” Zegers says the process is being studied for use by large global electronics companies, as well as the Department of Defense and the De-partment of Energy.
On The Move
Steve Justice is happy to note he is rarely where you think he might be, and it’s just part of the job.
“We are a virtual COI, because aerospace is all over the state,” says Justice, director of the Center of Inno-vation for Aerospace. “We have an office in Eastman, and our host institution is Middle Georgia State College. We have an office in Atlanta. But we’re rarely in our offices – usually on the road working with universities and companies.”
Justice sees himself as a kind of facilitator or matchmaker that pairs Georgia businesses with the technology or manpower needed to make them successful. “We had a company in Macon that got a new contract and needed 100 people,” he says. “Of the 100 new workers, the company needed 25 to be entry-level. That was easy. We contacted our technical colleges and university system [to provide the en-try-level workers].
“Then they needed 50 people with 15 years experience and 25 with 15 years-plus experience. We put out the request throughout the state through the technical college system and contacted retiree groups and connected the retirees with the company. Some of those retirees were interested in working another couple or three years. Bottom line: In about six weeks, the company had 85 people, enough for the company to launch the contract and move forward with it.”
Chris Paulk already had a successful family-owned wine producing company, Paulk Vineyards, in South Georgia when he began casting about for new uses for the skin, pulp and leftover juices of his muscadines. “It was then that I first heard about the Center of Innovation for Agribusiness being established,” Paulk says. “We had a research need and were looking for a new process for a new product.”
Paulk sought out Donnie Smith, director of the COI for Agribusiness in Tifton. “Chris came in, and he needed some information and needed to know who to contact,” says Smith. “We are a center for connectivity. We connect the client to the resources they need.”
What Smith did, according to Paulk, led to the development of a new product, concentrated muscadine syrup. “In 2006, we were awarded a grant from the OneGeorgia Authority for testing and development of a commercial production process for a concentrated extract from our muscadine farm.”
The COI for Agribusiness partnered with Paulk and the University of Georgia (UGA) and the OneGeorgia Authority. “The partnership made the grant happen, and that expanded our product line,” Paulk says.
Smith got involved when a French scientist came to the area with some ideas about muscadines he wanted to test. “He said they had searched the world over and found that Georgia muscadines had a certain quality he thought could heal burns and wounds a lot quicker,” recalls Smith.
“He’s still doing that research now. Not only that, but he’s doing some muscadine tests with mice he thinks can be used in the fight against obesity.” Smith says he is constantly in touch with ideas that can add value to Georgia-grown crops. “We grow everything in Georgia from apples to zucchini,” Smith says. “Right now we’re looking at the production of olive oil, and blueberries have surpassed peach production.”
Smith checks in on Paulk’s muscadine production from time to time and is constantly looking for other agriculture-related products to put on the market.
“We’re on the UGA Tifton campus and we have access not only to the UGA research scientists but also those of Georgia Tech, and we work with Fort Valley State University and Georgia Southern University,” Smith says.
The former Center of Innovation for Life Sciences in Atlanta is now the Center of Innovation for Life Sciences and Information Technology, less than a year old. The marriage of healthcare and IT industries seemed a natural, as Georgia and particularly the Atlanta area have grown rapidly in the use of digital electronics in surgical suites as well as patient records, according to Glen Whitley, director of the COI.
“One of the reasons for the combination or the creation of this modified center was to take advantage of all the IT already going on here and see if we can help stimulate additional growth in that area,” says Whitley.
“There is a huge market and business in the region for IT. We’ve got some very large companies with a presence here. I think the Metro [Atlanta] Chamber and our department identified over 200 companies in-volved in healthcare IT in Georgia, putting the state in a strong leadership position.”
If there is a cluster of such businesses here and a lot of talented people working in them, what might the next trend be?
Whitley and the other COI directors are guarded when discussing what their clients have on their drawing boards, fearing, they say, too much disclosure could damage new product development. But some concepts, without specifics, can be shared, Whitley says. Like the idea of health checkups on the go.
“One of the things I’m looking into, in partnership with the metro chamber, is mobility,” he says. “What’s going on in the mobility world? Those same strengths in software and engineering that help IT also underpin mobility as you find more and more people with health-related devices that can hook up to your smartphone.”
In the past, the directors of the six Centers of Innovation have typically worked in near anonymity on projects that may not seem to receive much publicity. Part of that was likely due to the nature of economic development efforts, which often require discretion.
But the COIs have been given the mission to spread the word of their presence and willingness to help create success for the entrepreneur or the CEO, and do it largely without cost. (Some grants are shared with the scientists or consultants who provide research and/or solutions.)
Outreach is very much on the minds of the innovation center directors. For example, Page Siplon, director at the Center of Innovation for Logistics in Savannah, serves on the U.S. Secretary of Commerce’s Advisory Committee on Supply Chain Competitiveness.
Mark Lytle, former director of the Georgia Centers of Innovation, now vice chancellor for economic development at the the University System of Georgia, emphasized the outreach efforts.
“I think it was very difficult, even a year ago, for people to get their arms around what the centers did and how they helped companies. But the companies they helped certainly knew it, and you could certainly hear about the success stories. I don’t want to say they were invisible, but they certainly were not well known.” Part of his effort, he says, was “to bring together the thousands of things the centers do for people and companies.”
Innovation Who’s Who
Center of Innovation for Agribusiness
Center of Innovation for Aerospace
Center of Innovation for Life Science and Information Technology
Center of Innovation for Logistics
Center of Innovation for Energy
Center of Innovation for Manufacturing