Clearing the Path to Success

The Georgia Center of Innovation is bolstering the state’s industries one connection at a time.

In the winter sport of curling, a thrower slides a heavy, granite stone toward a target, while sweepers furiously scrub the ice to allow the stone to travel farther. This process is a well-matched metaphor for the role of the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Center of Innovation (COI). “The business represents the player who throws the stone in this metaphor,” says David Nuckolls, COI executive director. “They have something they are trying to move forward toward a goal. Along the way, there are other players that serve as sweepers who work to clear hazards out of the way, so the stone gets to the target at the end of the ice rink. At the Center of Innovation, we are those sweepers.”

The Center of Innovation was launched in the early 2000s under Gov. Sonny Perdue as part of the Commission for a New Georgia Initiative. The goal was to create a program that was focused on strengthening the state’s strategic industries through innovation. Initially, there were various physical centers of innovation throughout the state, but over time, the physical centers went away and the program moved toward a model that brought solutions to companies no matter where they were located. It is composed of six industry teams: Aerospace, Agriculture Technology (AgTech), Energy Technology, Information Technology (IT), Logistics, and Manufacturing. Each team is headed by a director with experience working in their respective industry who can offer expert advice and engage the necessary resources. When projects call for it, the departments work together to come up with the best practices and solutions.

“It’s [the directors’] job to know the current industry trends happening in the state,” Nuckolls says. In addition to supporting these industry ecosystems, COI helps businesses directly. It works with about 500 Georgia companies each year, from every corner of the state. Companies in need of COI’s help can simply pick up the phone or reach out via COI’s website, and expertise is provided at no cost.

“Whether it’s a rural community or an urban area, like Savannah or Atlanta, innovation is everywhere,” Nuckolls says. “We want to help companies no matter where they’re located all across Georgia.”

To Infinity and Beyond

Aerospace department works with Georgia’s numerous aerospace companies in sectors such as maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO); manufacturing; space; and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). “Georgia is very blessed to have a lot of aerospace manufacturers. Aerospace products are the No. 1 export from Georgia and have been for 14 or 15 years now,” Nuckolls says. “Delta TechOps at the airport is one of the largest MRO shops in the country. Add in the Warner Robins Air Force Base, plus the plethora of other private companies that do this kind of work around the state, and it’s a big cluster.”

Many of these companies are looking at the future of aerospace, such as Hermeus, an Atlanta-based company with the mission to “radically accelerate air travel.” The company is manufacturing the “first hypersonic aircraft prototype for the Department of Defense, a plane that will travel from Atlanta to London in 90 minutes.

“We’ve been engaging with them to make sure they’ve been spotlighted as a Georgia manufacturer as they grow,” says Alyssa Sheehan, who was promoted to director of Aerospace last summer after serving as senior project manager for the Manufacturing team. “They’re opening up their facility to other manufacturers to showcase what they’re doing—because they’re doing a lot of vertical integration on their shop floor, manufacturing and building everything, from welding and machining, all the way up to the “final product.”

Sheehan, whose background includes working for Lockheed Martin and is currently pursuing a PhD at Georgia Tech in human-centered computing, has also partnered with Atomic-6. The advanced composites manufacturing firm, located in Marietta, has a proprietary manufacturing process that can stop a speeding meteorite—yes, meteorite—traveling at Mach 29 (about 22,000 miles per hour) and withstand extreme temperatures necessary in environments such as outer space. The company was recently awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from Georgia Tech.

“We helped connect them to resources at Georgia Tech and the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership,” Sheehan says. “We’ve also connected them to Hermeus, where they’re going to hopefully be able to incorporate some of their composite materials in certain sections of the hypersonic plane Hermeus is building.”

The Aerospace department also organizes events such as the Supplier Opportunities and Aerospace Resources conference, which aids small to midsize aerospace or defense companies to make connections with big names such as Gulfstream and Lockheed Martin. The 2023 conference will be held in April at Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center.

Growth Potential

Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Georgia, generating from $70 to $80 billion per
year. The CIO’s AgTech team is focused on how technology is used to improve yield, efficiency, and profitability in the state’s agriculture sector.

“In Georgia, we grow everything from apples to zucchini,” says Chris Chammoun, director of AgTech. “The largest industry is poultry. We grow more chickens for meat consumption than any other state, and we are the largest peanut-growing state.”

The AgTech department focuses on four areas: integrated precision agriculture (infusing technology into farm operations); controlled environment agriculture (growing food indoors); food production innovation (transforming commodities into value-added products, such as peanut butter from peanuts); and food systems technology integration (increasing efficiencies in food processing to reduce waste and create revenue streams).

Integrated precision agriculture has been one of the most active sectors, Chammoun says, with farmers utilizing soil sensors, drones, autonomous tractors, and more to run farming operations. Controlled environment agriculture is one of the fastest-growing areas in the state. In 2017, COI helped sponsor the first AgLanta Conference that brought together technology providers and urban agriculture companies to show that growing food indoors is viable in the South.

“We import a lot of leafy greens from California and Arizona. We grow a lot of vegetables but have never produced lettuce on scale to go in your salad,” Chammoun says.

Canadian-owned Pure Flavor was the first company to announce plans to build a greenhouse facility in Peach County in 2017. Several other companies also joined the movement, including 80 Acres Farms, Gotham Greens, and Bowery Farming, which have all expanded to Georgia.

“It’s been an avalanche of companies,” Chammoun says. “Going from zero to nine companies in one specific subarea of agriculture is really rapid growth.”

The AgTech team also partnered with Thomasville’s Sweet Grass Dairy to help expand its distribution capacity. COI connected the local cheese manufacturer to the University of Georgia’s Food Product Innovation Center in Griffin to complete shelf-life studies that would enable them to expand their distribution channels.

“With the results, we were able to start selling our cheeses in expanded territories, including exporting to Asia,” says Jessica Little, Sweet Grass Dairy co-owner. “We would love to do a future project with the Center of Innovation for sensory analysis on our products.”

A Digital World

According to the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) Cyberstates report, Georgia ranks as a top 10 state for net tech employment, making it one of the best locations in the U.S. to start or grow a technology business. CompTIA also estimates that technology has a $53.9 billion direct economic impact in Georgia. At
COI, the Information Technology (IT) team helps Georgia maintain and grow this vitally important sector.

“IT is a part of almost every product, every company, every business today. For some, it’s the main component, which is where I sit. But in others, it’s part of the puzzle,” says Glen Whitley, director of IT at COI.

IT’s main focus areas line up with the leading technology industries in the state—fintech, digital health, cybersecurity, and creative media—but Whitley works to assist any company with digital issues across any industry segment. IT connected one digital health company with the expertise it needed to make its technology viable for the healthcare market. The company developed a process to wirelessly record the vital signs of a patient, but in accessing the data, it was looking at a wireless technology that was not widely in use.

“Georgia Tech said, ‘We can just use Wi-Fi and encrypt the data and you don’t need to use the other systems,’” Whitley explains, adding that using the other technology would have required convincing the hospital system of the product’s usefulness then selling the hospital a completely new infrastructure system.

The COI IT team is also entrenched in building a strong environment for the state’s cybersecurity industry. Generating more than $5 billion in annual revenue, companies benefit from assets such as the Georgia Cyber Center in Augusta, which is also home to the U.S. Army Cyber Command and the Cyber School of Excellence at Fort Gordon. More than 115 information security companies call Georgia home.

Creative technology, bolstered by Georgia’s success in the film industry, is the newest focus area for IT. From gaming and animation to virtual and mixed reality, there are numerous burgeoning companies in the region.

“There is an increasing overlap between the digital and creative industries, and this likely will continue to grow with the role of AI and the collaboration of gaming and film/television,” says Asante Bradford, COI senior industry engagement manager. “The creative economy value chain is being developed now by symbiotic relationships where growth in one part of the creative economy is stimulating growth in other parts.”

If You Build It

Manufacturing in Georgia employs more than 400,000 workers in roles from food processing to automotive. The COI Manufacturing team strives to keep that well-oiled machine pumping by helping companies innovate their products, processes, and workforce.

“We try to use our backgrounds in the industry to provide advice about several potential solutions to a problem and then make some strong connections that are going to lead to positive outcomes,” says John Morehouse, former director of the Manufacturing team at COI.

Morehouse’s team facilitated a collaboration between Rayonier Advanced Materials (RYAM) and scientists at the University of Georgia to test a waste stream product for its potential as a prebiotic that can be added to chicken feed in the poultry industry.

“This project combined two of the largest industries in Georgia: forestry and agriculture. With COI’s assistance, we were able to further this project through a collaborative effort with the University of Georgia Poultry Science Department,” says Larissa S. Fenn, RYAM’s new products director. “This prebiotics project is well outside RYAM’s normal area of operation. The Georgia COI for Manufacturing enabled us to extend our innovation evaluation and helped make connections we would not have had otherwise.”

Another success story was a partnership with Americus-based TSG Resolute, a leading provider to major OEM (original equipment manufacturer) marketplaces, which was looking to make its workforce more flexible to meet production demands. COI connected the company to Casi, an Atlanta Technology Development Center (ATDC) start-up that wanted to expand its SMS-based flexible scheduling system into the manufacturing industry. The system has allowed TSG Resolute to create a process where community members pick up kits that can be assembled at home. More than 500 people signed up to be part-time contractors.

“It’s revolutionary for the manufacturing workforce because it provides them with flexibility that they haven’t had in the past, and it also provides the company with a more engaged, flexible, and in many cases, larger workforce,” Morehouse says.

COI’s Manufacturing team also works to strengthen industry in Georgia through strategic programs. One recent example was COI’s involvement in the Georgia AI Manufacturing (GA-AIM) Technology Corridor, a $65 million grant Georgia Tech won from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

“We provided a support letter and helped evaluate the proposal,” Morehouse says. “As the program gets up and running, it becomes another resource that we can connect Georgia manufacturers with so they can continue to innovate and grow.”

Moving Forward

Logistics and supply chain is the central nervous system for commerce. According to the COI’s latest Georgia Economic Impact Study, the state’s logistics industry includes 32,000 companies, employs 251,000 individuals, and generates $83.4 billion in economic impact for the state.

“You can manufacture all day long, but if it’s stacking up in the back of your warehouse and not getting to your end customer, what have you accomplished?” says Sandy Lake, director of Logistics at COI. “By creating a statewide, coordinated focus in this industry, Georgia has been very visionary.”

With the third-largest entry port in the U.S., the Port of Savannah, and the world’s busiest and most efficient airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, as well as a diverse highway and railroad system, Georgia sits at a prominent crossroads for the nation’s cargo. The Logistics team supports this network through three areas: workforce innovation; logistics and supply chain technology; and supporting cargo owners, shippers, and logistics service providers.

Recently, the Logistics team worked with a France-based frozen dessert company to connect it with a provider who could handle the transport, warehousing, and
distribution of its inventory as well as the e-fulfillment of the frozen product.

“This company was going to be selling frozen desserts through QVC, and they needed somebody to fulfill those orders. That’s a pretty tall order and complex task,” Lake says. “Because we keep up with who’s doing what from a service perspective, we were able to accelerate them to a service provider that could meet those specific requirements. They’re doing business in the Southeast as a result.”

Lake’s team also worked with Rugged Road Outdoors, a seller of coolers and outdoor products. The Atlanta-based company was having its products manufactured in Vietnam and imported through West Coast ports, leading to delays. Working with COI, Rugged Road Outdoors piloted a trial run moving its freight through the Port of Savannah. It was so successful that now the company almost exclusively ships its products through Savannah.

Power Ahead

Costas Simoglou has been in the technology industry since the 1980s and part of GDEcD since the inception of COI. As director of the COI Energy Technology team, he is helping businesses innovate to keep up with constant change.

“We’re going through an energy model transition—how we can generate and consume energy locally—so I have to think about what is next and how we can lay the groundwork for growth and build the renewable energy ecosystem,” Simoglou says. “In order to accomplish that, we form partnerships.”

The department started about a decade ago, when solar energy came into play in Georgia. The idea was to use the sun, one of Georgia’s “unfair advantages,” and assets such as the University Center of Excellence for Photovoltaics Research and Education at Georgia Tech, to begin localizing the state’s energy model.

If energy is generated locally, it must be used or stored locally. This fact led to COI’s work in battery technology and promoting the use of electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy in transportation. The Center partnered with the Ray C. Anderson Foundation to create a living laboratory to demonstrate technologies in transportation, energy, and the environment. They utilized the Visitor Information Center in West Point, Georgia, to demonstrate a solar road, wireless tire pressure monitoring, and a solar-powered fast EV charger. This was the start of The
Ray, which is now an 18-mile stretch of Georgia interstate that hosts a solar farm and supports research for connected and autonomous vehicle technologies, right-of-way solar, and more. The city of Peachtree Corners also invested in a three-mile, urban-setting, living laboratory where dozens of companies work together in developing autonomous vehicle technologies.

“The focus has been transportation, energy, and the environment—and the technologies and innovation that fall under these three categories. They’re all interconnected,” Simoglou says. “The collaborative effort is paying off.”

Two electric vehicle manufacturers, Rivian and Hyundai, announced that they will be producing EVs in Georgia. Lithium-ion battery manufacturers and other suppliers are also coming, creating an ecosystem around electric mobility in the state. The next frontier: hydrogen fuel cells.

“Georgia Tech, our electric utilities, and many other companies in the area are working together,” Simoglou says. “We are going to connect the dots to grow this industry in the Southeast and Georgia. We’re trying to be proactive. We cannot wait for the phone to ring; we will lay the foundation to create an environment where these technologies will flourish.”

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