The Challenges of Building An Innovation Ecosystem in Atlanta

I respected colleague of mine recently asked me to author a blog post about the challenges that innovation faces in my own community. This is a timely post because a rather small, immature venture market just got hit by a Category 5 Hurricane:  the official (although expected for some time) announcement that Imlay Investments, the conductor of the Atlanta startup train for many years, was winding down.  Regrettably, this has material implications for a market trying to lure entrepreneurs, early-stage investors, and people talent. In most cases, other early-stage investors and angel networks have said “we’ll only invest if Imlay invests.”  Who will take over as “lead investor” for the Atlanta startup market?  I’m afraid that replacing this fund won’t come easily.


Recently, I blogged about a very eloquent presentation that Shirley Jackson, Ph.D., President of Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, made about the critical ingredients to a sustainable innovation ecosystem.  They are:  strategic focus, idea generation, translational pathways, and financial, infrastructural, and human capital.  Not to pick on Atlanta, but it appears that the community has to solidify each of these areas before it can even suggest it possesses a viable ecosystem. 


I talked recently about extrapolating this premise to the education industry.  People are suggesting that the best approach for systemic change in education is to go straight to the student and disintermediate the other stakeholders.  I’m afraid this is only wishful thinking, not reality.  People are also saying that providing tax cuts for investment in areas such as education are just padding the pockets of the rich.  Again, this is naivite at its finest.  These tax cuts are not like capital gain tax cuts.  These are being steered towards innovation and job creation, two elements this country badly needs at this time.

Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.”  – former president James Garfield, July, 1880


A Georgia Tech professor, Dan Breznitz, last year released a study that sheds light on the root cause of Atlanta’s inability to retain companies that were incubated inside its borders.  Many of the same ideas were echoed in his report.  He talks about entrepreneurs’ lack of “deep-rooted networks” in Atlanta, which is the same thing as not having “translational pathways.”


Education is the foundation of our democracy, but we must be courageous enough to admit that we don’t know everything, and that it’s ok to learn from other countries.  This humility would be a major step in ensuring that our children will be able to compete for the jobs that haven’t even been created yet.





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