Written by Rick Robinson
When AT&T Inc. opened its Foundry product development center in Georgia Tech’s Technology Square on August 27, 2013, the company gained a prominent place in an innovation ecosystem acknowledged as a leader in fostering both technology and business innovation.
In its new location in the Centergy building on the edge of the Georgia Tech campus, the AT&T Foundry connects to the Institute’s students, research program – and dozens of early-stage technology companies being incubated through Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), VentureLaband Flashpoint initiatives. Georgia Tech’s incubation and acceleration programs are rated among the top such efforts worldwide by observers such as Forbes Magazine and Stockholm-based UBI Index.
Moreover, AT&T’s new location places it close to Georgia Tech’s many faculty-student research teams, as well as a variety of business and startup support groups located in midtown Atlanta. And the Foundry is just a few floors away from other major multinational companies in the Centergy Building: the Panasonic Innovation Center and the ThyssenKrupp Elevator Americas innovation facility. NCR Corp.’s Mobile Development Team is headquartered a block away at the Biltmore on West Peachtree Street.
“When we locate a Foundry facility, our number one criterion is to be part of an ecosystem that fosters innovation – which usually occurs at the intersection of premier education, high technology and an entrepreneurial mindset – and those are all things that we found at Technology Square,” said Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility. “When I saw the startup company incubators there, and the entrepreneurs and the high-quality technical people from Georgia Tech driving them, I knew this is where we needed to be. In fact, we’re already talking with a startup whose technology could significantly benefit our product offerings.”
In addition to Georgia Tech, the Foundry is collaborating with networking leader Cisco Systems Inc., which employs nearly 2,000 people in the metro Atlanta area. Working with Cisco, AT&T will concentrate on developing products for Digital Life, AT&T’s home security and automation service.
The team will also create new applications and services related to such focus areas as the connected car, mobility, emerging devices and AT&T U-verse. Cisco will collaborate with AT&T on projects, and will also help identify key third-party developers, startups, investors, inventors and other entrepreneurs to bring into the facility.
The $3 million total Foundry investment stems from the joint efforts of AT&T, Cisco and Georgia Tech, along with state and local involvement. The Foundry in Atlanta is only the fourth such venture for AT&T – the company has similar centers in Palo Alto, Calif.; Plano, Texas, and Tel Aviv, Israel.
The many startups found in Technology Square are largely a result of the ATDC startup accelerator, which provides coaching, connections and even office space to many young Georgia companies. ATDC’s work is aided by Flashpoint, which helps early-stage startups minimize risk and accelerate growth, and by VentureLab, which focuses on turning discoveries by Georgia Tech faculty, research staff and students into new companies.
“I think it’s widely recognized that the Technology Square innovation zone offers one of the world’s top business support infrastructures,” said Stephen Fleming, vice president and executive director of Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, which oversees ATDC and VentureLab. “A critical mass has been forming around Georgia Tech based on a multi-faceted innovation environment, and companies come here because they’re attracted by that range of capabilities, not just by a single center or research team or partner.”
AT&T’s interest in coming to Technology Square was supported by Georgia Tech outreach efforts aimed at helping potential partners with insight and ease of access to the innovations, new technologies and startup ventures developed and supported by Georgia Tech. Greg King of Georgia Tech’s Strategic Partners Office worked with AT&T as it examined the Georgia Tech and Atlanta environment.
“When you look at everything we’re doing in the intersection of people and technology, the startup community, and the exciting faculty and student innovation – a Technology Square location was a great choice for AT&T, as it has been for other corporate partners like NCR, Panasonic and ThyssenKrupp,” King said. “The Institute for People and Technology, the Georgia Tech Research Institute and ATDC’s Industry Connect program that helps larger companies connect with relevant startup companies – all played a part in the selection of this area for AT&T’s Foundry.”
Making Georgia Tech accessible to potential industry partners is a top priority, said Stephen E. Cross, executive vice president for research. The Institute’s expanded outreach toward industry, which organizes more than 200 research centers and laboratories into a dozen core research areas, helps make Georgia Tech more accessible and understandable.
“Georgia Tech was founded with a mandate to foster economic development and to conduct research with relevance,” said Cross. “Our innovation ecosystem helps give Georgia businesses – and multinational partners such as AT&T and others – straightforward access to our world-class basic and applied research capabilities and our ‘One Georgia Tech’ collaborative environment.”
Panasonic Automotive Systems Company of America opened an innovation center in the Centergy Building in November 2012. Initially, Panasonic opened the facility to gain access to Georgia Tech students and to north Atlanta residents for its headquarters based in Peachtree City, Ga., said John Avery, group manager for the Panasonic Innovation Center.
But once the new innovation location was up and running, he said, it became clear that the Georgia Tech and Technology Square environment could directly benefit product development at the Automotive Systems Division, which focuses on infotainment systems, sensors, switches, power systems and other products for vehicles.
“We’re increasing our innovation focus, connecting with the startup community in midtown and participating in all the good things that are going on there – ATDC and Flashpoint and the Midtown Alliance,” he said. “There are a lot of great things happening at once, which are making midtown into a really significant location.”
Panasonic’s Centergy offices currently have space for about 40, Avery said. The center employs a number of Panasonic staffers, along with Georgia Tech students in intern and co-op roles.
Panasonic recently sponsored the Convergence Innovation Competition (CIC) for students, and plans to sponsor other student efforts such as senior Capstone Design projects. In addition, Avery said, innovation center executives plan to approach companies incubated at Georgia Tech and in the metro area about potential business opportunities with Automotive and other Panasonic divisions.
NCR opened an R&D center in the Centergy Building nearly three years ago to hire Georgia Tech students and work on mobile applications and cloud computing technologies. That effort was successful – so much so that the center soon moved to a larger space in the nearby Biltmore, which became home to the NCR Mobile Development Team.
“Our first office was in Centergy, giving us direct access to new Georgia Tech grads and interns,” said Daniel Bassett, senior director of product development in NCR’s Hospitality line of business. “From there, we needed a larger space and moved into the Biltmore, which offered us room to grow in a perfect environment. Employees love the space and it has become our number one recruiting tool as we look to bring on the next wave of software development talent.”
Today, the Mobile Development Group’s R&D center has more than 50 employees – mostly full-time – at the Biltmore location, and expects to add up to 15 new people each year, he said.
Currently, NCR is collaborating with a Georgia Tech faculty-student research team on a project involving the unstructured analysis of “big data,” massive information sets that require special computation tools. In addition, the group is engaged with several small Georgia companies through the Flashpoint accelerator, and expects to be involved in Capstone Design courses in which Georgia Tech students develop real world prototypes.
“We’re focused on building some of the best consumer facing mobile apps in the restaurant industry – and access to the skilled and highly motivated people we encounter at Georgia Tech is a critical part of our development strategy,” Bassett said.
ThyssenKrupp Elevator Americas is heavily invested in the U.S., with a manufacturing plant and research center in Tennessee. The company conducted a lengthy assessment of U.S. engineering colleges before deciding to site its innovation facility at Georgia Tech, said Thomas Felis, vice president for innovation management.
“We evaluated the scores of major U.S. engineering programs on a national basis, and considered what you might call the personality of each university,” he said. “Georgia Tech was a more hands-on school than others – which is what we were looking for. And when we also considered the infrastructure, the lab space available, and the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute, we decided to come here.”
Felis said that the ThyssenKrupp Elevator Innovation Center, which opened in January 2013, is already working with two Georgia Tech startup companies. The aim of the collaborations is to develop human interface improvements that could enhance elevator technology.