“Now, if we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas,” Obama said during his State of the Union address in January. “… Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race. We need to make those investments.”
Last month, he released the details of a competition to create 15 applied-research clearinghouses and requested that Congress fund them with $1 billion.
Georgia’s six industrial Centers of Innovation operate on a more modest budget of about $3 million yearly. Yet, they typically receive 4,000 contacts annually from new companies seeking information and assistance, and when the requests take more than a phone call to complete, they initiate an average of 60 projects each month where significant resources are involved.
“There’s not a corner of the state that isn’t touched by what we’re doing,” said Mark Lytle, who oversaw the six centers until last month, when he became vice chancellor for economic development at the University System of Georgia.
The largest centers focus on aerospace, logistics and agribusiness, and each has a four-person staff, while the others are smaller and share staff dealing with life sciences and information technology, advanced manufacturing and energy.
“There’s some really good people that run these centers,” said Eric Rojek, vice president of sales for Thrush Aircraft, an airplane maker that has drawn assistance for multiple centers.
All of them strive to help Georgia companies be more successful by linking them to researchers in the university system, others in their industry and new customers to market to.
“When my business was in New York City, there was never an offer of help from any agency,” said Jody Espina, president of Jody Jazz Inc., a Savannah-based maker of professional musical instruments.
Jody Jazz benefited from working with the Advanced Manufacturing Center of Innovation, from which he got advice from experts on production, research and sales. It’s an example of how the centers’ staffers draw on connections across state agencies to assist small businesses.
Gov. Roy Barnes initiated the program. His successor, Sonny Perdue, expanded it, and now Nathan Deal has refined it and transferred it to the Department of Economic Development.
Chris Cummiskey, Georgia’s commissioner of economic development, said the tweaking is part of the necessary reevaluation of the changing needs of industry.
“Our goal is commercialization, commercialization, commercialization,” he said. “I think we have fine-tuned those COIs to make sure we’re focused more on that.”
In some respects, the centers are the applied end of the state’s research pipeline, which begins with the Georgia Research Alliance and the eminent scholars recruited to pursue leading-edge, theoretical breakthroughs at Georgia’s major universities. Cummiskey notes that the schools have not traditionally focused on turning those discoveries into profitable business ventures the way the innovation centers do now.
“I think there are hidden gems that we find every month, and we say, ‘You know what, we can sell that,’ ” he said.
With the world’s busiest passenger airport on one end of the state and the country’s fastest-growing port on the other, and being the headquarters of UPS as well, Georgia is already a clear leader in the field of logistics. That might be part of the reason more than 3,000 people from across the United States attend the center’s annual Logistics Summit.
“I can tell you no other state in the union has a focus on logistics other than the state of Georgia. And that’s intentional,” said Page Siplon, of the Garden City-based Center of Innovation for Logistics.
Such focus helps recruit large shippers such as Porsche, which imports its luxury sports cars through the Port of Brunswick. More often, it helps smaller railroads, truckers and shipping companies that don’t have in-house expertise.
They might have no more sophistication than a clipboard and spray paint to mark corridors in a warehouse, Siplon said. So, advice about technology can get them up to a speed where they can compete, take on more demanding customers and grow.
The center created an interactive map of shipping companies across the state. It helps customers find firms that can service them, and it helps firms see where the underserved markets are that offer opportunities.
Sometimes, Siplon serves as a matchmaker of sorts. For instance, he connected importer The Home Depot with poultry exporters so their truckers can coordinate hauling containers to minimize deadheading, or driving without a load. That adds up, considering that in 2007, trucks in Georgia made 12 million empty moves within the state.
“That’s innovation, right, the introduction of something new,” Siplon said.
Large companies such as Gulfstream Aerospace, Delta Air Lines, Lockheed and UPS prove the importance of the aviation industry to Georgia. It accounts for 86,000 jobs split evenly between manufacturing, repair and operations. It grew 6 percent through the recession years, making Georgia one of the top aerospace states in the nation and the fourth-largest exporter.
That’s why a company such as Thrush Aircraft could have easily been forgotten about, because the Albany-based maker of crop dusters is comparatively tiny with just 180 employees and $50 million in annual sales.
But not by Steve Justice, the director of the Center of Innovation for Aerospace, according to Thrush’s Rojek. Justice lined up a state grant that included testing equipment for the company’s use.
The whole aviation industry has tremendous potential, according to Justice, a former employee of Gulfstream and Lockheed.
Part of his job is as cheerleader for the industry to get students excited about math and engineering and to ensure public officials recognize the industry’s impact.
“Folks in Savannah know about Gulfstream, and people in Marietta know Lockheed Martin, and everyone knows about Delta, but most state leaders and the public don’t have, and I use the pun, a bird’s-eye view,” Justice said.
Georgia Tech is researching the use of drones to replace helicopters used in law enforcement and agriculture. Brunswick is considering development of a spaceport. And a Boeing plant in Charleston, S.C., and the Airbus plant in Mobile, Ala., leave Georgia well located for parts makers as well.
“If there’s any flaw in the system, they have a wealth of resources, and we don’t know everything they can do,” Rojek said. “We need to do a better job of saying, ‘What are some other resources?’”
Jody Jazz makes mouthpieces for saxophones and other horns that sell for as much as $600 to top musicians. Production of each was long and involved many steps until the Center of Innovation for Manufacturing brought in experts from Georgia Tech who helped streamline and automate the process.
It also provided assistance in securing a loan to buy the equipment.
“Georgia as a state has played a big part in helping me triple the number of employees I have since arriving in Georgia,” company CEO Espina said.
Center Director John Zegers has a background in industrial recruitment, so he understands the reasons for working to keep companies already here compared to wooing others to move to the state.
Perdue based the center at Lanier Technical College near Dalton, but a year ago Zegers moved it to Georgia Tech.
“The first thing I said is this is supposed to be a statewide effort,” he explained. “It wasn’t helping companies in other parts of the state.”
Anyone who thinks farming is boring hasn’t talked to Donnie Smith, director of the Center of Innovation for Agriculture. A full-time farmer until he became Perdue’s agriculture liaison 10 years ago, Smith is involved in a range of projects that border on science fiction.
A sampling includes wasps trained to sniff out bedbugs, driverless tractors, synthetic sugar production, solar-powered chicken houses, inoculation of truffles in pecan trees and biomass energy production.
“We’ve got our hands in a lot of pots,” he said. “It’s just amazing. I get excited about it.”
Not a drop of petroleum, a molecule of natural gas or an ounce of coal is commercially produced in Georgia. So, why would the state have a center of innovation devoted to energy?
“What did Mother Nature give us?” asked Costa Simoglou, the center’s director.
Sun, wind and millions of pine trees.
The center is working in with companies eager to generate power from all of these, as well as a Savannah start-up trying to produce it from liquid waste.
“We talk to everybody,” he said.
That’s a departure from the traditional approach of research universities that limits discussions to technologies that have already demonstrated potential.
Simoglou is currently working with Marietta officials in their effort to attract energy-related companies to its Green Tech Corridor, such as the Green Guard Environmental wind-turbine-engineering company and an LED lighting company from China.
“They’ve worked with us in trying to create that vision and talk about it,” said Beth Sessoms, the city’s economic-development manager.
The newest center is the result of refocusing in the past year from a concentration solely on life sciences such as pharmaceuticals and medical-device manufacturing to include information technology.
“We’re adding information technology and applying it to life sciences,” said Glen Whitley, who became the director in July. “I don’t think we’re focusing less on one thing, but we’re increasing the target area.”
Federal health reform’s financial incentives for doctors and hospitals to use electronic medical records have fueled the budding industry of health informatics, in which Georgia was already a leader with 228 companies.