Big Companies Flock To Midtown For Talent, Startup Access | WABE 90.1 FM

Big Companies Flock To Midtown For Talent, Startup Access

Sep 21, 2016

Smyrna-based pharmaceutical company UCB opened an innovation center in Tech Square on Tuesday.

UCB is the first big pharmaceutical company in the technology hub near Georgia Tech, but it's the 15th innovation center here.

It joins AT&T, Home Depot, Coca-Cola, Delta, Anthem and other big corporations who have established “corporate innovation centers" in Midtown Atlanta.   

‘Fast-Fail’

Often far from corporate headquarters, corporate innovation centers are dedicated spaces where hundreds of ideas are crowdsourced, employees vote on them, they get developed and then tested in the real world.

It gives scientists, engineers and developers breathing room in a creative, playful atmosphere.

Panasonic Automotive’s Chief Operating Officer Thomas Gebhardt said his company already has an innovation center in Silicon Valley.

But in 2012, it opened another one near Georgia Tech, the first at Tech Square.  

"Silicon Valley, because of its success, has become enormously large and difficult to move through and one of the things that I think that's inherent in any area of innovation is a fast-fail. So if you can't go fast, it kind of defeats the whole purpose," Gebhardt said.  

Gebhardt said what’s different about this space near Georgia Tech is that an ecosystem is being built intentionally with future growth in mind.

‘Hotbed Of Talent’

Gebhardt said the company’s student-work program with Georgia Tech has grown by a factor of 10 since 2012.

“Coming from an automotive environment, we were quite secure about what level of talent we had until we really came down here and started to engage the co-op program,” Gebhardt said. “We can’t get enough of the talent and they’re embedded with our employees. They’re not just supporting an engineer, they are doing far beyond what we would have expected.”

Tom Miller, chief information officer of health insurance provider Anthem, leads the Anthem Innovation Studio, which opened a few months ago.

“It has to do with the speed of change and technology and talent are driving that pace,” Miller said. “We wanted to get close to a university, which is really the hotbed of both talent and technology and bring that to our business.”

College Campus Vibe

Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson said companies are flocking to Tech Square because it provides a youthful energy in a college campus environment, keeping those corporate employees engaged and also helping Georgia Tech recruit students who are entrepreneurial and want access to Fortune 500 companies.

“Technology Square was really started 13 years ago,” Peterson said. “We needed access to additional space, so the decision was made to jump the [Downtown] Connector. And that was a deliberate attempt to try to make a better connection with the business community.”

Startup Access

Miller said innovation centers allow collaboration with the university community, other businesses and the nearly 150 startup companies near Tech Square.

“Large corporations aren’t good at dealing with small companies, typically,” Miller said. “We either want to buy them, crush them, eat them, acquire them, do something. It creates a safe zone for startups to be able to get access to the big machinery that works behind these Fortune 100 companies and have serious dialogue about potentially game-changing capabilities.”

Research & Development

Jeff Wren, the leader of UCB's neurology department, said the company already spends 30 percent of its revenues on in-house research and development, but access to top talent and startups will help the entire biotech industry innovate faster.

"There has been a bias for years for internally home-grown research and development,” 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's one of the reasons why we're here."

With the financial technology company NCR moving its global headquarters to Tech Square, total residential and retail investment in Tech Square is expected to hit $1 billion.