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Innovation Thrives in Tech Square

When Georgia Tech opened Technology Square in 2003, one of the guiding principles was to foster a better connection with the business community. Fast forward to today and evidence of those successful connections can be found in the more than one dozen corporate innovation centers clustered in the area.

While these centers represent a diverse range of industries, they all have the common goal of tapping into the area’s culture of collaboration thanks to the vibrant network of students, faculty, researchers and startup entrepreneurs.

Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson hosted a roundtable discussion Tuesday morning with a handful of corporate executives from companies that opened innovation centers in Tech Square.

“This is a very exciting time for the innovation ecosystem that exists here in Atlanta, and in particular in Tech Square,” Peterson said during the event held in Tech Square. “The strategy is to try to provide an opportunity for large corporations to create an innovation space and access the talent and the technologies that exist here at Georgia Tech.” 

The panelists included Tom Gebhardt, chief operating officer of Panasonic Automotive Systems Company of America, whose innovation center opened in 2012, making the company an early adaptor. The program has grown tenfold over the past four years, he said.

Gebhardt explained the benefits of working outside a traditional corporate environment.

“The ideas that are generated in this center versus what we’d get in our corporate environment are unmatched,” he said. “The mix, the demographic, the diversity, it’s not possible.”

UCB, the global biopharmaceutical company, is one of the newest innovation centers, having just opened the UCB Solution Accelerator this week. Its goal is to drive collaboration between the company and Georgia Tech to develop solutions to help those living with severe diseases.

Jeff Wren, head of UCB’s Neurology Patient Value Unit, explained how the centers demonstrate that problems cannot be solved just by the research and development units typically found at a company’s corporate headquarters.

“We have to go beyond our own walls,” Wren said. “We need to see transformation, but no single entity can create that transformation on their own. So if we want to see this transformation take place we have to be networked, and that is one of the reasons we are here.”

The centers do more than just help the companies. They engage with startups, providing them with access to markets and fostering relationships through mentorships, said Blake Patton, a technology entrepreneur and investor who is a managing partner with Tech Square Ventures, a seed and early-stage venture capital fund located in Tech Square.

The innovation centers are investors for the startups by becoming customers and partners, and providing platforms to help them to succeed, said Patton, a past general manager of Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center, a statewide startup technology business incubator.

ATDC’s current general manager, Jennifer Bonnett, moderated the discussion, which included questions from reporters who attended in person and those who watched the event through a live web stream.

One reporter asked for examples of products or solutions that came out of the innovation centers.

The first innovation created by the Anthem center allowed for what officials call a dynamic video, said Tom Miller, the chief information officer for the Fortune 50 health benefits company.

The company previously used a generic video to welcome new members who signed up for health care. Now a personalized video is dynamically generated that brings together attributes of a new client’s family, their situation and their health plan. The video is generated as soon as the client registers. While this information is currently incorporated in a welcome video, it will have additional uses as well, Miller said.

Miller said the innovation center has bred a new hope across the whole company, especially as the health care industry undergoes a major transformation.

“As a large company, you wonder if you’re going to be a part of it or if it’s going to happen to you,” he said. “For the first time in years, if you have a great idea you have somewhere to take it.”

More companies may soon have the same experience.

Peterson said the Institute is seeing more growth around Tech Square and is constantly talking with companies about different ways to engage in the area.

“We’re very excited about what’s going on and we’re very excited to see how it continues to grow and evolve,” Peterson said. “Five years from now it will look different than it does today, but I hope it retains this vibrancy, this energy and this innovative sprit.”