It doesn’t take much effort to get a hold of Steve Justice, executive director of the Georgia Centers of Innovation (GCI.)
“Just go into Google, type in ‘Georgia innovation,’ and we’ll come right to the top,” the 61-year-old says with a smile.
The head of the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDOED) division was in Bartow last week to meet with several “economic leaders” in the community to discuss the topic of potential business incubators in and around the county.
“The whole idea is that the local community creates an incubator, just a place where people can collaborate, and we start to bring more and more resources to that so those entrepreneurs there can get value from it,” he said. “Because it’s really the personal interactions that make the incubators happen.”
It may be a fashionable term, but Justice said many people still don’t grasp what an “incubator” truly is. Rather than a specific program in a specific place, he said he prefers to view the concept as more of a philosophical “innovation ecosystem” throughout a business community.
“In this region and in these communities, you already have successful people in your area,” he said. “Those people have knowledge, they have experience. How can we take those people and and spread that experience and knowledge out through having them speak and do programs at the incubator?”
The GCI program began in 2003. When it was initially launched, it primarily focused on aerospace. Since then, however, the program has expanded to also include centers dedicated to information technology, energy technology, logistics and manufacturing.
“Last year, we worked with over 1,000 companies,” Justice said. “Now some of those were just very small things we did for a company — helping them to find a partner to manufacture things with, things like that. And some of those were big projects, where we worked for months and months with a company.”
In 2018, he said the GCI measured just under $54 million “in actual activity that happened during the projects we were working with.”
The division’s mission, he said, is to help companies solve the numerous problems they may encounter while developing new products and services. Justice said the GCI seeks to provide entrepreneurs “integrated solutions” by connecting them with resources throughout the state, in turn allowing them to commercialize their products and create new jobs.
He cited the division’s work with ESCOGO, LLC, in Monroe as a case example of the GCI’s efficacy.
That particular company sought to create a new, renewable, non-petroleum-based charcoal accelerant, and the GCI was more than happy to assist them in their quest to formulate a better-burning fluid.
“With a grant program that we have, we were able to have them do a joint development program between the company and the University of Georgia to come up with one formulation that worked better than their original one,” Justice recounted.
But as that old adage goes, with more money comes more problems. The improved product led to a spike in sales, but the company found itself struggling to meet big-box store orders. Once again connecting with the GCI, the company was partnered with several contract manufacturers and bottlers to increase their expansion load from thousands of shipments to tens of thousands. From there, the GCI’s logistics branch helped them on solving their shipping woes, and when it came time to start sending products to Mexico for processing, the GCI connected the company to the GDOED’s international trade division to help them get things moving.
“If you connect our centers, you really have now a window to the entire economic development program of the state,” Justice said, “be it the regional folks, be it our global commerce, be it international trade, tourism, whatever it is.”
Indeed, Justice said the GCI has already worked alongside Phoenix Air, Inc. to get their unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) program underway.
“Back in 2009, we brought a bunch of the experts in our state together to look at what was the next big thing coming in aerospace, and the consensus was it was an unmanned aircraft,” he said. “At that point, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not allow companies to fly UAVs, it was illegal to do so. In 2010, we started a statewide unmanned aircraft working group, and Phoenix Air was one of the companies that came and joined that group.”
Through that group, Justice said several research projects came together, giving companies like Phoenix Air the ability to start putting their UAV business plans together ahead of the FAA authorizing commercial UAV flight in 2014.
“Phoenix Air was ready to go,” he said. “They were able to launch their Phoenix Air Unmanned program, and they’ve been going great guns ever since.”
A major GCI goal, Justice said, is to pinpoint resources in a community and “layer” them with resources from other parts of the state.
“One of the things we see, especially in Atlanta — [like] Tech Square — is we have an innovation hub that has grown up there,” he said. “We want to work with communities outside of metro Atlanta to help develop their own flavor of an innovation ecosystem. So a lot of what we’re doing up here is talking with the folks from the region, from the communities, to find out what’s going on here, what are the resources you already have — are you developing incubators, are you developing co-working spaces, things like that — and how can we help bring more resources to that from outside of the community?”
Justice said that northwest Georgia, in general, has quite a few advantages, primarily due to its transportation infrastructure.
“Logistics is a huge part with the I-75 corridor up through here and the new inland port,” he said. “You have a great manufacturing base to work from here, and you have some great educational institutions here, so you have all the elements to grow. What you need is those connections to more resources.”
The State certainly has its eyes on Bartow County. Indeed, Justice said that’s one of the reasons the local community was chosen to host the 2019 Georgia Logistics Summit Regional Forum last month, marking the first time in its 11-year history that the event was ever held outside of Atlanta.
“You have people in every community that have ideas and have a passion for those ideas,” he said. “But what they don’t have is access, necessarily, to all the resources they need. They don’t know what the next step is … and that’s where an organization like ours can help.”
Justice said the Appalachian Regional Port in Murray County — located approximately 60 miles north of Cartersville — could have a transformative effect on the region.
Justice said he believes a wealth of different businesses and industries could array themselves around north Georgia's inland port, the same way such has happened around the ports of Savannah.
“What are the corollary businesses that can build up around an inland port? Plus, what kind of business can be users of an inland port, that might want to locate their manufacturing facility or distribution center near it to take advantage of it?” he asked. “The field is wide open on that.”
Manufacturing, logistics and distribution may remain the biggest players in the north I-75 corridor, but Justice said there’s also potential for other industries to flourish in the region.
“Cybersecurity is going to be a huge area that is already important but it’s going to be even more important for every company of every kind,” he said. “It’s not just about [information technology] anymore. If you’re a mom and pop store, you’re doing electronic commerce now, you have to worry about cybersecurity, so it’s not just the big companies.”
Energy sustainability, he added, is another growing sector.
“We don’t create any fossil fuels in the state of Georgia. We don’t have any oil wells, we don’t have any refineries or anything like that, we import all our energy,” he said. “How can you take waste and turn it into energy, or turn that waste into an input to some other manufacturing process, so it doesn’t end up in a landfill?”
That’s one of the reasons why the region is seeing an uptick in solar energy, hydropower and battery technology investments, Justice said. When manufacturer Hanwha Q CELLS Korea announced they were bringing a solar module manufacturing facility to Georgia last year, they didn’t put the needle on Atlanta or its surrounding suburbs; instead, they made the decision to invest $150 million — and an estimated 500 jobs — in Whitfield County.
The region, Justice said, already has a “good base” of businesses. The continued success of the northwest Georgia corridor, he said, will hinge on two things: recruitment efforts and business development.
In that, Justice said promoting and fostering an “innovation mindset” and “innovation culture” isn’t just economically sound, it might just be an economic necessity.
“You have existing businesses that are here, but the marketplace continually changes. They might need to develop a new improvement to their product, or even a whole new product,” he said. “You can’t grow just from bringing companies in, you have to create new companies or grow your existing companies, which is very important. Innovation doesn’t stop once you’re making money — then it’s even more important.”