Bringing Innovation Across Georgia
A study looks at ways to bring innovation and entrepreneurial equity to the state
Living in metro Atlanta and working in the heart of Midtown’s Tech Square, it’s easy to assume that all of Georgia has the same innovation- and entrepreneur-based economic development ecosystem that exists in the state’s capital. And until now, there wasn’t any research to show exactly what the technology entrepreneurial landscape across the state looks like.
Paige Clayton, Ph.D., assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning, explored just that in an effort to form a baseline of information about innovation and entrepreneurship in the state and develop a replicable method to analyze innovation activities over time with an eye for future areas of growth. Her research and recently released report, “Tracing Georgia’s Evolving Regional Innovation and Entrepreneurship Landscape,” were funded by the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation (Partnership), which is supported by Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, and the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Center of Innovation (COI).
“I have been really interested in how we use innovation as a source of economic development in cities, as well as how places outside of major cities have been trying to use the same types of economic development tools,” Clayton said. “But they don’t always seem to work as well. I’ve been motivated to try to understand places that have been doing this well and what can we learn and apply to different areas in Georgia.”
It was a research idea right up the Partnership’s and the COI’s alley. The Partnership is a public-private organization launched in 2020 to lead coordinated, statewide efforts to position Georgia as the leader for innovation, opportunity, and shared economic success.“What’s really interesting about Dr. Clayton’s research is not only understanding Atlanta versus the rest of the state, but then digging deeper in terms of these regional innovation hubs across the state,” said Debra Lam, the executive director of the Partnership. “She’s also shown that what we hear about entrepreneurs leaving Georgia because there’s not enough venture capital for them to grow, isn’t entirely true. We are becoming a hub for inclusive innovation. Founders of color are coming in because they’re seeing this to be a welcoming, dynamic environment for them to grow their business.”
The COI, the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Center of Innovation’s strategic arm that provides services and programs to help businesses around the state, also found the research important to its mission.
“In a lot of ways, the research validated what we already knew,” said David Nuckolls, the COI’s executive director. “The things that did surprise me were how some regions had strengths in unexpected areas. Like in Savannah, you would have thought there’d be more logistics-related startups because of the port. I don’t think that was the case. It was more aerospace.”
Clayton and her team talked with people in economic development and entrepreneurship around the state about what they consider the strengths and weaknesses of their local ecosystems.
In Atlanta, strengths included:
- Opportunities for Black founders
- Georgia Tech
- Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
- Involvement of corporate players
- Growth in local venture capital funds
In Atlanta, challenges included:
- Lack of connectivity and coordination of resources and support organizations
- Lack of financial capital
- Lower valuations and earlier exits than peer ecosystems
- Founders program hopping rather than building firms
- Difficulty finding life sciences mentors
- Poor local transportation
Outside Atlanta, researchers explored ecosystems in Athens, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, and Savannah, and found several challenges to growing an innovation and entrepreneurial culture.
- The slower pace of life in these areas may appeal to individuals who are not as interested in starting and operating their own businesses, especially those related to technology
- How can communities achieve critical mass and develop the physical, intellectual, and social infrastructure needed to strengthen innovation?
- More examples of success are needed, with lessons that can be applied broadly
Findings like these will be useful not to entrepreneurs themselves, but to economic developers around the state, Clayton said. “I think where it’s helpful is for people who are trying to foster an innovation or entrepreneurial ecosystem in their region. They can think about some of the assets they already have, because the paper shows some of that. And then, it could help them think about strategies beyond ‘if you build it, they will come’ type models for innovating.”
Jud Savelle, the ATDC @ Albany catalyst with the Enterprise Innovation Institute’s Advanced Technology Development Center, is glad to see research like this and believes it can bolster innovation in areas like Albany. “One of the conclusions that didn’t seem to surprise anyone was that a major challenge outside Atlanta — and particularly in a place like Albany, where there is no entrepreneurial or innovation ecosystem — is the lack of support and resources that can help to build a culture of innovation,” said Savelle, who works with technology entrepreneurs in the Albany area who are looking to create startups. “A major challenge for entrepreneurs who want to stay in their hometowns and grow a technology business or innovate in agriculture, is getting funding. There is also a lack of other support. If entrepreneurs who have a shot at success leave for the essential support that Atlanta can offer, then newcomers back in the towns across the state, don’t have mentors or peers to learn from and share information with.”
The report offers four recommendations to foster statewide innovation and entrepreneurship:
First, improve statewide coordination and connection. One way to do this is to create an annual Georgia Innovation Ecosystem Summit to bring together local ecosystem champions, investors, economic developers, and others who support entrepreneurs.
Savelle thinks this is the most important takeaway from the report. “We need to have better access to see into other communities, to see what they’re doing, and then to intentionally come together and better support each other in building out these ecosystems for the benefit of the whole state.”
Lam agrees. “Georgia doesn’t have a gathering of entrepreneurs, economic developers, and researchers, where they are finding opportunities to collaborate.”
Second, the report recommends improving information availability and sharing stories more broadly so that regions can learn best practices and avoid unsuccessful strategies.
Third, build networks and think regionally. Efforts to support ecosystems outside Atlanta should be regional and more targeted to specific industry sectors. Enhancing regional social networks — the relationships and interactions between individuals involved in entrepreneurship and innovation — is vital.
Finally, enhance digital, financial, and business literacy. Technology-related innovation and entrepreneurship cannot occur without the basic education and technological needs of citizens being met.
“I don’t think every city and region of Georgia needs to be a technology entrepreneurship place,” Clayton said of her research. “I don’t think that’s reasonable or possible. But I do think the broader ideas of what being innovative is, of coming up with new solutions to problems, of having this sort of worldview that if there are problems, we can solve them and that process could lead to some economic benefit to where I live, I think that those kinds of ideas are important to have.”
And that’s really the bottom line of putting research like this into practice — how can it be used to better the lives of people around the state? “Some of the entrepreneurs that are coming from regional innovation hubs, because of the connection with the community, because of the support they got from the community, they became more invested in the success of the community,” said Lam. “That’s exactly what we want. When we talk about building regional innovation hubs, it’s so that we can address some of the inequalities across the state.”