As you read this, programmers hover over laptops and lattes at the Technology Square Starbucks, designing the Next Big Thing. It has never been so easy (or so cheap) to turn a good idea into a global product. So they devise apps to entertain you, devices to save you energy and time, and stuff you won’t know you need until they invent it. Technology Square is the heart of Atlanta’s start-up community and site of the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) of Georgia Tech. Stephen Fleming, a former venture capitalist, runs this incubator and the overarching Enterprise Innovation Institute.
Fleming sports a lapel button with a red slash over the word “Valley.” Atlanta is not Silicon Valley, he says. It will never be Silicon Valley. So don’t even ask him when Atlanta is going to become the next Silicon Valley. Instead he’s helping Atlanta create its own identity as a center of entrepreneurship. “This is a once-in-a-generation shift,” he says. “You’re now at the point where an undergraduate with a good idea and the ability to raise a few thousand dollars can build a product or service that can scale to a global level.”
But creating a successful start-up is not easy. It requires networking, attracting investors, a workable business model—an education in Start-up 101. That’s where Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute comes in. “We connect the ecosystem. That’s what we’re about,” says Fleming. Georgia Tech nurtured Suniva (maker of high-efficiency solar cells) and Pindrop Security (a phone call analyzer that detects and mitigates fraud). The university has helped Georgia advance in the areas of healthcare technology, payment transaction processing, and mixed signal semiconductors (putting wireless signals on silicon chips). The National Science Foundation selected Tech as one of three universities that will teach budding entrepreneurs who receive NSF funding how to build companies around their new technologies.
If the start-up world is the Wild West of business, you’d expect its techno cowboys to be a bunch of cagey loners, afraid someone will steal their ideas. But Atlanta’s start-up community is collegial. StartupDrinks holds monthly networking events for entrepreneur wannabes. StartupChicks helps women entrepreneurs learn from and support each other. StartupLounge connects entrepreneurs with early-stage investors. ATDC serves as a hub for this community and hosts an annual showcase that draws hundreds of entrepreneurs. “The energy and the enthusiasm are just overwhelming,” says Jennifer Bonnett of StartupChicks. While the entrepreneurs dream of Facebook-scale glory, even modest success is a boon for Atlanta. “If you’re looking for high-wage job growth, you need young technology companies because that’s where the jobs are,” says Fleming.
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.