Recruit top science, research talent

His mind told him Palo Alto. His heart called him to La Jolla.

The year was 1959. Jonas Salk was looking for the right place to launch a research institute that would build on his historic work in vaccines. Palo Alto, Calif., had Stanford. La Jolla, a suburb of San Diego, had an astounding view of the ocean.

But from that view, Salk could see the future. Months later, the people of San Diego would vote to give him 27 acres of public land on Torrey Pines Mesa, free. And Salk would move his pioneering work westward.

Today, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies employs 850 scientists. The region is home to 100 other research enterprises and 600 life science companies. “There is more biological and genetic research talent per square meter (there) than anywhere else in the world,” venture capitalist David Titus said last year.

The lesson of La Jolla is clear: Invest in attracting great talent. More talent will follow. An ecosystem of enterprising research and entrepreneurship breeds more of the same.

It’s a lesson the Georgia Research Alliance has been working to replicate in Atlanta by recruiting world-class scientists to the region’s research universities, furnishing them with sophisticated tools and technology, then seeding and shaping the companies built around their discovery and invention.

The Emory Vaccine Center exemplifies this. When the Alliance helped Emory recruit Rafi Ahmed to Atlanta from UCLA in 1996, the renowned immunologist was not looking to move. And a plot of red Georgia clay was hardly a bluff overlooking the Pacific. But Ahmed was drawn to the promise of building a first-rate vaccine center around his scientific vision. He came to Atlanta.

Nearly two decades later, the Emory Vaccine Center employs 180 scientists and brings in $80 million a year in research funding.

One exciting breakthrough to emerge from the center led to a vaccine that targets HIV and AIDS. That discovery fueled the launch of a company named GeoVax, based in Smyrna. GeoVax has been testing the vaccine for nearly a decade, and today, it’s the only preventive HIV vaccine moving into efficacy trials.

Moreover, some rock-star researchers have followed Rafi Ahmed to Atlanta. One is Max Cooper, a man regarded in scientific circles as the father of modern immunology. In the 1960s, Cooper discovered that two types of blood cells, not one, work together to defend the body against infections — a finding that re-organized understanding of the human immune system.

The remarkable talent and scientific prowess we have here must be leveraged to strengthen Atlanta’s position as a science and technology hub. The Emory Vaccine Center and other similar examples are too important, too valuable, to keep quiet. Only when we share these stories across the miles, again and again, will the idea of Atlanta as an innovation powerhouse begin to live in the minds of others and shape the brand we are destined to be.

Michael Cassidy is president of the Georgia Research Alliance.