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Advice from Georgia: Use University Research to Grow Jobs

C. Michael Cassidy

Des Moines Register

January 27, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

The future's most successful entrepreneurs will most likely be different from those of today. They may be wearing lab coats rather than sport coats and safety glasses rather than contact lenses. As comfortable in ivory towers as office towers, they may be using microscopes more than Microsoft.

In Iowa, this kind of future is attainable and may be under way, as indicated by the report issued by the Battelle Memorial Institute, "Iowa's Bioscience Pathway for Development." The report also mentioned how this happens in other states, including Georgia, where scholars, research, innovation and commercialization are creating a potent force in the global competition for innovation and high-tech, high-wage jobs.

Many successful research scientists have shown that they can be successful entrepreneurs. Leaders in many states, recognizing this potential, are providing new resources for research as a way to strengthen economic development. California recently authorized spending $3 billion on stem-cell research.

Georgia made the connection much earlier, in 1990, launching the Georgia Research Alliance. This public-private partnership harnesses the collaborative power of the state's six research universities to create, improve and grow science- and technology-based companies.

In the past 16 years, the alliance has invested $400 million to recruit top researchers in advanced communications, computing and the biosciences. The alliance's Eminent Scholars program has attracted more than 50 world-class scientists doing groundbreaking research and now is focused on bringing research results into the commercial marketplace. Besides attracting top scientific talent, it has produced new and improved laboratories that have brought the flow of research into companies in the form of marketable products and services.

Research funding follows scholarly talent, and the increase in research funding has been dramatic. The Georgia Research Alliance's investment has returned more than $2 billion in federal and private funding. And the Eminent Scholars researchers and their colleagues attracted to Georgia have led to the creation of more than 4,000 high-paying jobs and 125 new companies.

The alliance collaborates with the state's research universities to provide an infrastructure of support to grow young companies. New-business incubators link fledgling companies with management talent, funding sources and industry contacts - all before they leave academia behind. Two of the many new companies have gone on to be publicly traded: AtheroGenics, a pharmaceutical company focused on novel drugs for the treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases, and Inhibitex, a clinical stage, biopharmaceutical company focused on novel, "first-in-field" antibody based products to prevent and treat bacterial and fungal infections.

Advancing the progress of scholars and research institutions has also helped the state's existing companies. Numerous firms in Georgia's private sector, from poultry producers to medical manufacturers, have accessed these resources to become more competitive, keeping and adding new jobs in Georgia.

Leading firms nationwide Google, Hewlett-Packard and Gillette among them trace their origins to research universities. Just as these firms took time to grow, so Georgia has several jewels poised for growth, and the best is yet to come.

Developing a science- and technology-based economy in Iowa means setting a vision for the future. A collaborative approach is essential: Engage business leadership, encourage university involvement and build on existing strengths. Achieve short-term goals by winning new federal grants. And most important, manage expectations.

Substantial economic impact via enterprise formation and expansion may take years, but if Iowa stays the course, the dividends will be well worth the wait. Research and innovation is the key to the 21st-century economy, and the state with the best innovators wins.

C. Michael Cassidy is president and chief executive officer of Georgia Research Alliance.