Sometimes, all it takes is one committed catalyst to get a reaction going.
In Atlanta, that catalyst was the Georgia Institute of Technology, which in the late 1990s began buying up acreage and developing a blighted, underused zone between its campus and Midtown Atlanta. Atlanta has long been home to industry-defining global companies like Coca-Cola, United Parcel Service, Home Depot, and CNN, but this new neighborhood, dubbed Tech Square, became a petri dish for all sorts of new innovation activity.
The result is one of the few places in the world where you can ride an elevator or walk a few steps to go between 15 innovation labs run by companies like AT&T, Anthem, Southern Co., ThyssenKrupp, Panasonic, and Delta Air Lines. The Advanced Technology Development Center, a tech incubator created in 1980, is also located in Tech Square, as is Tech Square Ventures, a seed-stage investment firm that often backs Georgia Tech spin-outs. In March, a group of companies including Cox Enterprises, Invesco, and Georgia Power created a new $15 million fund and accelerator called Engage. It’s also located at Tech Square. NCR, the company that invented the cash register and also makes millions of ATM machines, is building its new headquarters complex nearby; it is in the midst of a shift from hardware to software and services, and CEO Bill Nuti has said he wants the company to be part of “one of the most dynamic tech communities in the world.” It’ll bring nearly 5,000 workers to the neighborhood in two phases, starting next year.
“At Tech Square, there’s an active student community organizing events, and a whole tech entrepreneur set of programs and activities,” says Greg King, Georgia Tech’s Associate Vice President for Economic Development. “Then, you’ve got the corporate innovation centers and the events they put on. Having Tech Square has created a focal point and the ability to convene people that didn’t exist before.” And Atlanta as a whole, he adds, has become “a talent magnet for people from the Southeast and the rest of the U.S.”
CivicX, an accelerator that helps launch social enterprises, oversees a 10-week program. Tech Village offers solo entrepreneurs and young companies a communal place to work.
Paper-maker Georgia-Pacific runs labs in the suburb of Decatur and an Innovation Institute focused on more sustainable and efficient packaging. Fast food chain Chick-fil-A offers visitors to its headquarters campus the chance to see its “Hatch” innovation center, which includes VR simulator spaces that allow it to test out new restaurant concepts and kitchen set-ups. General Motors runs an IT-focused innovation center in Roswell with about 1,000 employees.
And one of Atlanta’s oldest companies, Coca-Cola, has been a committed experimenter in the entrepreneurial realm: while it closed down its Founders program last year, it continues to interact with and support startups through an initiative called The Bridge, which also involves partners Turner Broadcasting and Mercedes-Benz. Nearly 30 companies have been through that program, including one, Bringg, that helps smaller retailers restock their shelves with Coca-Cola products. A test of that technology began earlier this year in six countries.