How to Develop A Connected, State-Wide Innovation Ecosystem

R. Steven, Justice, P.E.; Executive Director, Georgia Centers of Innovation

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

Most entrepreneurs are jacks-of-all-trades who are equipped with the knowledge and abilities to solve business problems as they arise, but there are some obstacles that require a more specialized industry-centric approach. These are the challenges that keep business owners up at night because they don’t have the in-house expertise or resources necessary to develop a solution.

These problems can include getting access to the latest technology, finding workers with the right skills or re-training your existing workforce, and finding the right partners to bring a new product to market. These are the challenges that require an innovative approach, and the first step to success for business owners is figuring out where they can tap into the latest insights and resources.

Many states across the country have stepped up in recent years to help facilitate innovation. Government agencies, universities, industry associations and local chambers of commerce are becoming more adept at collaborating to connect businesses with the expertise, resources, and partners they need to develop creative solutions to unique problems.

Georgia, for example, has established the Georgia Centers of Innovation (COI) program to help businesses pursue a holistic approach to problem-solving. The program consists of six individual centers, each focused on a specific industry sector: Aerospace, Agribusiness, Logistics, Energy Technology, Information Technology, and Manufacturing. Businesses can engage dedicated industry experts, separate from their own industry vertical or market, resulting in a comprehensive economic development resource that’s more than the sum of its parts.

Innovation as a team sport

Businesses that engage one COI may end up working with multiple Centers to tackle a broader project. For example, an organization that begins working with one Center to solve an assembly line issue could lead to working with another Center to figure out how to build an efficient supply chain to bring the resulting increased production volume to market.

There are many examples of businesses tapping into this economic development team to overcome complicated problems. Such was the case with Replantable, an Atlanta-based indoor agriculture company that created “nanofarms” for growing fresh vegetables on kitchen countertops. An initial engagement with the COI for Energy Technology helped Replantable refine the design of their product, followed by assistance from the COI for Manufacturing to produce an initial run of prototypes for beta testing. With products in hand, the company was able to conduct a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the next stage of their growth.

This team-play approach can also extend beyond collaboration between individual Centers. As a division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the COIs can tap into other teams and resources across the state, from international trade representatives to university research labs, ensuring that businesses can access the right resources to address their needs.

ESCOGO, a manufacturer of eco-friendly lighter fluids, is one such example of a company that worked with the COI program to bridge the gap between government, academic and business partnerships to fuel growth. The company received a grant from the COIs that funded a project with the University of Georgia to refine the effectiveness of its product. That partnership enabled ESCOGO to develop a lighter fluid that works effectively with any kind of charcoal. After improving the product, the COIs then helped the company connect with business partners to ramp up production and distribution to retail outlets nationwide.

ESCOGO’s example is one that can be followed by many other companies. PhytoSynthetix took a similar approach when it sought to commercialize an idea for a line of LED lighting solutions for commercial greenhouses and indoor farms. The COIs connected the company with academic researchers who helped develop an effective product that identifies the lighting requirements for individual crops and provides the appropriate amount of light to ensure fast crop development with minimal energy.

Establishing and leveraging connections between business, government and academic sectors can seem like a daunting challenge, particularly for startups. For businesses in Georgia, the added help of the state as a facilitator between these groups has been an important factor in their growth.

Enabling innovation across the state — not just metros

In order for an innovation ecosystem to become more than the sum of its parts, a central resource such as the Georgia COIs must be present to connect business owners with the partners and assets they need to overcome a business challenges that lie outside their area of expertise.

In addition, these central resources must not be limited to metro areas. Georgia has paid close attention to bringing innovation to businesses wherever they may be throughout the state. Companies outside of major metro areas have a plethora of resources and partners available through local chambers of commerce and industry trade associations, all of which complement the statewide resources accessible through the Georgia COIs.

Entrepreneurs and existing businesses that know how to tap into the knowledge, network, and assets within their state and local community will be empowered to overcome the problems of today and develop the products of tomorrow. Ultimately, this all leads to a stronger innovation culture where Georgia businesses can connect, compete and grow across the global marketplace.