AT&T eyeing Atlanta for sought-after research hub

AT&T is considering Atlanta for a high-tech innovation center that would bring dozens of sought-after research jobs to the metro area and create a powerful incubator that could generate more startups across the city.

AT&T Mobility chief executive Ralph de la Vega said the company was eyeing space near Georgia Tech for a location for a new Foundry, the company’s collaboration centers where engineers and executives dream up new technologies and then bring them to market quickly.

Staffers at the centers work with software developers and engineers from outside firms on new programs, apps and devices. The full-time jobs alone are the high-paying gigs that set economic developers drooling, but analysts say the Foundry’s real promise is forging new startups in Atlanta.

The company has three of these centers already, in Israel, Texas and California, and some Atlanta entrepreneurs are buzzing about the potential for AT&T to build a fourth one here.

“The economic benefits could be significant,” said Mark Lubow, an Atlanta businessman who has started several wireless companies.

“This could increase competition and investment activity from local angels and venture capital funds,” he said. “And it could accelerate more out-of-state investments from national VCs who have traditionally overlooked our great startup community.”

Georgia’s economic development officials have recruited a string of high-tech manufacturing sites, including Baxter International’s $1 billion pharmaceutical manufacturing plant near Covington that would staff about 1,500 jobs. But tech entrepreneurs have long pushed the state to focus more on the smaller research and design labs that are breeding grounds for startups.

The research facilities alone can bring a chunk of new jobs even before spawning startups. Earlier this month, Panasonic Automotive Systems opened a research center at Georgia Tech that generated about 100 new tech jobs. And the state is courting General Motors for another innovation center that could employ hundreds. Two people familiar with the search say GM has recently scouted a now-shuttered UPS facility in Roswell for the site.

AT&T’s Foundry could usher in more of these types of sought-after jobs. The company has met with hundreds of developers at the three other innovation centers, which are in Palo Alto, Calif., Plano, Texas and Ra’anana, Israel. The company has said $80 million has been set aside for the centers.

They’ve cultivated a competitive atmosphere where engineers can work to develop ideas with major companies on one day and work with tiny startups the next.

An economic development official with direct knowledge of the negotiations said recruiters have been working the deal for months and are hopeful of soon landing the project. The official said the center is expected to staff a few dozen full-time jobs, but will have a broader impact on the startup community.

Atlanta’s setting as the home of AT&T Mobility, the company’s wireless branch, could offer a strategic boost for the firm to bring a research facility here, said Roger Entner, a telecommunications analyst with Boston-based Recon Analytics. Combining the Foundry with Georgia Tech’s skilled graduates and state tax incentives could position Atlanta as a mobile telecom hotspot for startups, said Entner.

“If you are an application developer, you know AT&T will help you, you know the state of Georgia will help you, so why not go to Georgia, why not go to Atlanta?” Entner said.

So far, the dozens of engineers at the three Foundry sites have met with more than 2,000 companies, and de la Vega said the projects that received AT&T’s backing have gone to market three times faster than a typical venture capital project. AT&T didn’t disclose how many engineers are employed at the sites.

Many of these developments could soon land on your smartphone or tablet. One is called AT&T Toggle, which lets consumers switch between a personal and business profile on their devices. Other teams work on healthcare software, new methods to store messaging and even innovative ways to control games.

“I would love to see us open a Foundry here in Atlanta here at Georgia Tech,” said de la Vega.

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