Brazil’s innovation labs inspire Georgia leaders

Georgia officials, who visited the site as part of a weeklong trade mission to Brazil, said it was an encouraging sign to push forward on a strategy that focuses on “experiential” learning in college systems and closer collaboration with corporate leaders.

That’s at play in a host of developments in the works across Georgia, from partnerships in Tifton with poultry businesses to the proposed “Silicon Valley of the East” at the edge of Georgia Tech’s midtown campus. And it was highlighted in a new partnership set to be inked Thursday between Brazil’s government and Georgia’s tech college system.

The trip to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s Technology Park was an eye-opening experience for many of the 30 or so state leaders and business executives who trekked to Brazil with the governor. The enclave is brimming with innovation centers, many founded by oil and gas firms, who partner with the university’s students and scientists.

The park’s director, Mauricio Guedes, said officials are next considering a “soft landing” program to incubate small tech startups in Rio. Among the early success stories is Geovoxel, an engineering firm that started in 2011 that is now expanding rapidly.

To some Georgia officials, the Rio university’s strategy is confirmation for their push for more hands-on learning at the highest levels of education. Bart Gobeil, the state’s chief operating officer, said it “validates what we’re doing in Georgia.”

“You’re already seeing it all over Georgia,” he said. “And it’s something we’re really trying to cultivate.”

The dream of an Innovation Corridor along Highway 316 connecting the University of Georgia and metro Atlanta that could rival North Carolina’s mighty Research Triangle has so far gone unfulfilled. But research centers catering to agriculture, health sciences and technology are popping up around campuses across the state.

UGA recently revamped its startup incubator to spur more business, and the school will soon require undergraduates to participate in an internship, research, study abroad or other “experiential” opportunities to graduate. And Georgia State University’s startup hub works to support new student businesses.

Nowhere is that more evident than the booming area surrounding Georgia Tech. The school’s midtown campus has attracted a surge of new firms, including innovation centers from AT&T, Southern Co. and Sage, a software developer that last week announced an expansion that will bring about 400 jobs to the campus.

Software firm NCR’s new $260 million headquarters is aimed at creating a hub for roughly 4,000 technology workers near Georgia Tech, and chief executive Bill Nuti recently said he was “actively advocating” for other companies to join him.

“The number one thing everyone we visit talks about is workforce,” said Chris Carr, the state’s economic development commissioner. “We preach collaboration. And helping the university system and the technical college system is critical.”

It jibes with Deal’s focus on more hands-on experience in higher education. The governor often says in speeches that he encourages students to major in fields primed for job growth, deadpanning that he wants them to land in “office chairs instead of in their parent’s basement couch” upon graduation.

The Rio university’s technology park, on a fortified island north of Brazil’s tourism district, has an added incentive.

Oil and gas companies who do business in Brazil must invest one percent of their gross revenues in research and technology development, turning the area into a magnet for the energy industry. Firms including Halliburton, Siemens and General Electric built shiny oceanfront complexes on the island.

The technology park is fast diversifying, though. L’Oreal, the cosmetics company, and beverage giant AmBev plan research centers on the island. And information technology firm EMC built a three-floor innovation hub where scientists test cloud computing hardware and then head upstairs to play board games over coffee on a breezy veranda.

“I hope this serves as an inspiration and an example of why this collaboration works,” Karin Breitman, the center’s chief scientist, told members of the delegation near the end of a tour of the building.

For Bonita Jacobs, the visit confirmed her long-term strategy. She’s president of the University of North Georgia and has long planned to develop innovation centers at the school’s Gainesville and Dahlonega campuses.

“We’re not quite there yet, but we’re kicking the tires,” said Jacobs. “There’s so much potential.”

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