Fledgling companies will begin taking flight from Augusta Tech Drive when construction of the city's first high-tech "incubator" facility is completed early next year.
City officials had the ceremonial ground breaking for the 18,500-square-foot building on Friday near the gates of Augusta Technical Institute, pledging the $1.5 million building will create jobs by helping local entrepreneurs launch high-tech businesses.
Similar business incubators created in Atlanta during the early 1980s have helped that city become a powerhouse in high-tech industry, and local officials hope Augusta's entry into high-tech research has a similar effect.
On Thursday, Emory University announced it would purchase the nearby 42-acre Georgia Mental Health Institute for $2.9 million to turn it into a biotechnology development center to help jump-start Atlanta's sluggish biotech industry.
Augusta'a incubator is also likely to boost industry, officials say.
"This is something that is going to be the future of our city," said Augusta Mayor Larry Sconyers. "This is the kind of thing we've got to have."
High-tech incubators help engineers, scientists and other researchers develop ideas into marketable products by offering free or low-cost office, technical support and research space.
The payoff to cities who have incubators comes when the entrepreneur leaves the facility and begins creating jobs in the community and increasing the tax base.
Officials are expecting to create 100 jobs and 20 new businesses in Augusta within five years.
"We are in the business, the simple business, of economic development," said Terry Elam, president of Augusta Technical Institute.
The single-story building, to be ready spring 1999, will be the city's first true incubator as it offers up to 15 potential tenants laboratory and manufacturing space in addition to an office.
Officially dubbed the Augusta-Richmond Small Business Incubator, the single-level building is slated to be managed by the Southeastern Technology Center (STC), a nonprofit organization currently operating a "pre-incubator" at 501 Greene St.
The STC already has a half-dozen tenants developing products, ranging from computer software to a wastewater treatment system, but does not have any laboratory or manufacturing space.
The tenants would move over to the new building once it is completed.
The incubator is funded by a $1.1 million federal grant obtained by the CSRA Regional Development Center and a $400,000 contribution in city money approved by the Augusta Commission.
Officials say about 600 incubators exist across the country.
Augusta has tremendous opportunity to become a high-tech research hub, said Wayne Hodges, director of the Georgia Tech's Economic Development Institute, the department managing the Advanced Technology Development Center incubators in Atlanta and Warner Robins, Ga.
With the Savannah River Site, Medical College of Georgia and Fort Gordon within its metro area, few cities can boast Augusta's high-tech infrastructure, he said.
"You have to have a base to start from -- Augusta has that base," he said. "I think it's important you take advantage of those opportunities."
An Atlanta group, the Georgia Research Alliance, says it has already begun preliminary talks with MCG about forming an incubator there.
Bill Todd, director of the non-profit group that funnels high-tech investment funds to university researchers, said he has spoken with MCG President Francis J. Tedesco about creating a facility to "capitalize" on the school's research in molecular-based medicine.
"We've been talking about the next facility, wherever that might be," he said. Start-up companies such as Pharmacogenetics, an Augusta-based pharmaceutical research firm, have great potential, he said.
"MCG has grown from almost no research productivity to a very nationally known research institute."