Companies seek bright ideas at Tech Square

In its big box stores, Home Depot is the place where you go to get hammers, lawn mowers and even Christmas trees.

But on the eighth floor of the Centergy Building in Midtown’s Technology Square, Home Depot is an emerging technology giant.

The Atlanta-based chain recently opened an innovation center in the building where students at nearby Georgia Tech study the potential uses of a homemade 3D printer or fiddle with a virtual reality headset that could someday take shoppers on a virtual tour of a Home Depot store.

At a time when commerce is increasingly connected to a phone or a computer hooked up to the cloud, Home Depot is one among a growing number of companies creating labs at Tech Square. Their focus: stay ahead in technology and find ways to incorporate innovations into day-to-day business.

Tech Square was founded more than a decade ago by Georgia Tech to bring many of the city’s tech minds under one roof. It is an incubator for technology start ups, a link between the university’s top technology researchers and industry, and a place for established companies to build stronger technology infrastructure.

Home Depot and other tenants, including AT&T, Panasonic, elevator manufacturer ThyssenKrupp, work with Tech students, tapping their talents and offering internships to bridge the classroom and working world. As many as 40 technology start ups also are part of Tech Square’s incubator.

They will be joined by consumer transactions technologies giant NCR, which said earlier this month it was moving its headquarters and thousands of employees from Gwinnett County to the eight-block Tech Square campus.

Tech Square officials and others say the center raises Atlanta’s standing as a tech hub, gives some of the area’s brightest students a reason to stay here after college and could boost the region’s relatively anemic flow of venture capital.

For companies, having a tech research squad is considered critical because the days when it was enough to stock shelves with the right product or beat competitors on price are gone, business and technology experts say. The Web has made change so rapid that companies that don’t keep pace with technology will lose in the 21st Century.

“A lot of these companies need to create a think tank of smart people,” David Barton, managing director of consulting firm UHY Advisors, said of corporate America’s move to be closer to colleges and tech centers.

“And for companies like Home Depot, they want to communicate to Tech students that there is more for them than the Googles of the world or working at (gaming giant) Electronic Arts,” he said.

Bypassing bureaucracy

For start ups, the collaboration with Tech Square makes it easier for them to reach leading companies for product and service pitches without navigating thick corporate bureaucracies, said Stephen Fleming, vice president of the Enterprise Innovation Institute, which works to expand Tech’s local, regional, and global outreach.

The increased investment and visibility of high-profile corporations also boosts the credibility of metro Atlanta’s tech community in the face of one of its greatest weaknesses: a lack of the venture capital.

Venture capital is often critical to start ups because it provides the seed money necessary to launch a business. Lack of it has been cited as one of the biggest reasons start ups leave Atlanta.

It also helps the area narrow the gap in an industry where players in Silicon Valley, Austin and the Research Triangle have been at the game longer and have more depth. The more companies that find a home in Atlanta, the easier it is to recruit talent or retain what is already here.

“We don’t need to be the next Silicon Valley,” Fleming said. “I want to build a better Atlanta.”

Recent announcements of major players coming to the city as well as the growth of corporations opening innovation centers have put a spotlight on the area’s potential.

The city announced last week that Microsoft is building on its presence in the metro area by opening an office in downtown Atlanta at the Flatiron Building. Twitter also reportedly is said to be considering to lease space at Ponce City Market, though a spokeswoman declined Thursday to confirm the move.

In addition to Home Depot, Tech Square has attracted AT&T and Panasonic as tenants and news reports midweek suggested the site also may have snagged Coca-Cola Enterprises.

There are other clusters of tech activity in metro Atlanta, namely Atlanta Tech Village in Buckhead and the Alpharetta area in north Fulton.

Joe Bankoff, chairman of the community development group Midtown Alliance, said that while they may compete for business the variety of locations provides a stronger tech community overall.

“It’s not about Midtown opposed to downtown or Alpharetta, the economics of all these clusters are dependent on each other,” he said.

Part of Atlanta’s appeal is its density of Fortune 500 companies, said Brian Dally, co-founder and CEO of Groundfloor, a start-up that crowdsources funds for new home construction and renovations.

The company was launched in 2013 in Raleigh near the more-established tech goliath of Research Triangle but moved to Atlanta last year because of more favorable financial securities regulations, the city’s reputation as a strong real estate center and corporations like Home Depot. Dally met with Home Depot managers recently through its new innovation office.

The Tech Square model offers the “types of opportunities that start ups couldn’t create on their own,” he said.

Eying the future

Like Home Depot, Telecom giant AT&T opened its innovation center at Tech Square to collaborate with Georgia Tech students and campus start ups with an eye toward the future, said company spokesman Lance Skelly. AT&T Foundry, which opened in 2013 and is one of five such offices around the country, is focusing on connected home and cars, innovations in mobility and even “hackathons” where participants build and code mobile app solutions with help from leaders in the tech field.

“Software development and engineering are among the city’s strengths,” Skelly said. “And the next-generation of developers and entrepreneurs are cultivated through a robust university system, including Georgia Tech.”

The shift of big companies like Home Depot to Tech Square also parallels a change in Fortune 500 recruiting, experts said. The traditional route to corporate America that ran through business school is giving way to more jobs for computer science students.

Martin Key, who oversees Home Depot’s innovation center, said computer science graduates in the past couldn’t make the connection between the company and technology, making it difficult to recruit top college talent.

Ikenna Omekam, a part-time worker at the center, understands the confusion.

“When I thought of Home Depot, I thought of retail,” said the 21-year-old from Stone Mountain. “To me, Home Depot as an IT company is working on the website or with money.”

But at the center, Omekam and his colleagues are doing anything but that. In one corner, students study products for the connected home such as lights that can be turned on by phones or the ability to download water and power usage statistics for appliances such as refrigerators and hot water heaters. In another, students consider how to map Home Depot’s stores so consumers can match a nail by scanning it and locating a duplicate without needing employee help.

“It’s a lot different environment than I imagined,” said student Rafael Santillan, 21 of Dacula. “This place for us is creative.”

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