We have the brains and desire. But not the money or history.
Bottom line: Georgia is second-tier when it comes to attracting biotech firms – and our image is lower than that.
The straight-forward assessment comes from none other than Mike Cassidy, president and CEO of the Georgia Research Alliance, who is charged with turning around the situation – despite heavyweight competition from states like California, Massachusetts and North Carolina.
“We need to get our image consistent with reality. We are scientifically sophisticated,” Cassidy, 56, said during a recent interview. “But when I say Silicon Valley or Route 128 [outside Boston], you know what I’m talking about. If I say Georgia, the man on the street doesn’t associate it with a high-tech economy.”
That’s partly because of the decades of head start those other areas received during World War II, when the federal government tapped top research universities like Stanford and MIT, Cassidy said. That fueled continued research after the war, along with collaboration with companies that developed cutting-edge technologies.
Over the past 20 years, Georgia has made considerable strides, helped by GRA, a nonprofit that ties universities like Tech, UGA and Emory with entrepreneurs hoping to turn promising research into new-wave companies.
GRA helps to bridge that transition with capital – not easy to come by during the critically early stage between initial research and forming a going concern.
Before private investors fork over money, Cassidy said, “they want to see a business plan, not a science project.” Without GRA money, many promising ideas end up in the “valley of death,” he said.
In total, GRA has leveraged $525 million from the state government into additional investments of $2.6 billion from federal and private sources, he said. About 70 companies have been created with GRA’s help.
Still, there’s a long way to go. And competition among the states for this important sector of the economy is mounting.
One way to compete against the big boys, Cassidy said, is to focus the state’s recruiting efforts on a local strength, namely the Centers for Disease Control. That could play well in some of the fast-growing fields within the biosciences, including immunology and infectious diseases, he said.
Cassidy salivates over luring R&D from some drug companies, hoping to develop a critical mass over time.
“Recruiting industry is the litmus test of an economic development strategy,” he said.
Another key is to try to beef up what’s available for venture capital in the state. Georgia only ranks No. 14 when it comes to venture capital investment in biotech.
“We’d like to bump ourselves up a couple of places, but that will take additional capital investment,” Cassidy said.
One potential source of money is the state pension funds. Cassidy said Georgia remains the only state that prohibits a portion of those funds to be used as venture capital.
If the legislature allowed it, he said, “it would change the equation. It could mean … hundreds of millions more to the region’s venture capital community.”
Are you listening, state legislators?
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