The South has often taken pride in the sense that it's a place where life moves past a little more slowly; where people are friendly, relaxed, and under less stress than their counterparts elsewhere. It's an appealing quality-of-life factor. Still, the region's civic and business leaders know that the global economy is anything but slow-paced, and they're working hard to be certain that the South stays one step ahead when it comes to innovation.
There is, in fact, a proud history of innovation in the South - from acclaimed African-American inventor Garrett Augustus Morgan, whose long list of accomplishments included the traffic light and the World War I gas mask, to Mark Dean, who holds a third of IBM's original microcomputer patents. There are the activities of the Georgia Research Alliance, which has strategically invested millions of state funds to leverage billions in federal research dollars; the lengthy list of innovations emerging from North Carolina's Research Triangle Park; and the billions of dollars spent annually in Texas on R&D ranging from semiconductors to healthcare to golf clubs.
The Southern Technology Council and its many partner organizations across the region are well aware of the challenges posed by national and international competition, and they know that innovation is the key to sustained prosperity. And while they're pleased to cite hopeful statistics - for example, growing information-technology employment during a time when it was dropping nationally, or patent activity that would rank the region among the world's leaders were the South a separate country - business leaders have rolled up their sleeves to create many more success stories.
They've set their gaze on a number of high-tech sectors where the future seems particularly promising, and where the South promises to rise further, including the fields of nanotechnology, biotechnology, alternative energy, and information technology. They're also eager to help the region's manufacturers compete globally through advanced processes and to grow the South's share of private-sector R&D. Let's take a look:
The South aims to be very big in the business of the very small - nano-technology. All kinds of possibilities are presented by products created through the manipulation of materials at the nanometer level. For example, a Tennessee company called eSpin has developed machinery necessary to mass-produce nanofibers, which are custom-engineered fibers that are less than a thousandth of the diameter of a human hair and have applications in everything from aerospace to filtration to biotechnology.
Today, between 15 and 20 percent of the nation's nanotechnology research takes place in the South, according to the Southern Technology Council. Each of the states represented by the council contributes to the body of nanotechnology research, with leaders including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee as well as universities in Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. Numerous industry sectors are represented, with areas of strength including materials and biology. Of all the National Science Foundation's nanotechnology-related funding, 20 percent is spent in Southern states.
Economic development leaders in the South have launched a coordinated effort to expand nanotechnology research and development across the region. Paving the way for more advances is the new Southern Nanotechnology Network, which aims to leverage the resources of the region's universities, businesses, and economic development organizations. Partners include the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, eastern Tennessee's Technology 2020 project, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The network has been charged with coordinating the sharing of research and equipment, as well as the creation of a venture capital fund for nanotechnology startups. It also hopes to launch a Southern Nanotechnology Institute.
Already, the South claims 20 of the nation's top 100 nanotechnology institutions, and four of the top 25. Examples are presented in the accompanying chart. However, as important as nanotechnology research is, there needs to be a greater public understanding of the field in order to build strong support for these kinds of initiatives, John Hardin, deputy director and chief policy analyst for the North Carolina Board of Science and Technology, told the Southern Nanotechnology Network at its inaugural meeting last October. "One of the most important things to do is to emphasize education of policymakers, the public, the business community, and the scientific community on issues related to nanotechnology."
promises of biotechnology need little repetition here. Like regions
around the world, the South is aiming to build upon biotech successes
to create an atmosphere for more advances. The Southern Biotechnology
Initiative is one such effort, bringing together such partners as
Southeast BIO and BioSouth (formerly the Southern U.S. International
For now, the initiative is divided into two key
parts. First is the development of an asset map detailing where in the
South there are concentrations of biotechnology research,
infrastructure, and funding. Such a map will make it clear where the
strongest bioclusters can be found. The initiative's second major
mission is to take that information and present it in a cohesive way
when the biotech world gathers in Atlanta for the BIO 2009 conference.
won't be a difficult case to make. Already, the region has plenty of
strengths when it comes to biotechnology. For example, Ernst &
Young's "Beyond Borders: The Global Biotechnology Report 2006" names
North Carolina as America's third-most-active biotech cluster, behind
only California and Massachusetts. Playing a large role in that ranking
is the presence of the state's Research Triangle Park - which includes
three world-class universities and is home to 88 biotech companies and
100 biotech-related firms.
Georgia, Texas, and Florida also rank
in the top 10. And biotech clusters can be found in such places as
Austin, Gainesville, Atlanta, Nashville, Birmingham, and Charleston, to
name just a few. The presence of strong research universities is a key,
and beyond that, life-sciences incubators dot the Southern map.
life science advances are promoted by BioSouth - a Georgia-based
organization dedicated to the advancement of Southern bioscience
companies and institutions. The organization sponsors regular
conferences and programs that support technology commercialization and
Part of the effort to boost biosciences
involves growing research capabilities. For example, Missouri's Center
for Emerging Technologies provides services and facilities designed to
accelerate the growth of biomedical and other advanced technology
Another part is leveraging the region's existing
strengths. Consider the case of the Memphis area. Thanks in large part
to the presence of FedEx, Memphis could be considered the capital of
logistics. Now, the Memphis Bioworks Foundation is working to make it
the capital of "biologistics," serving the needs of pharmaceutical
companies and scientists who need to quickly manufacture, pack, and
ship medications and other medical supplies.
There are plenty of
other examples of biotech activities that are not just
research-focused. In North Carolina, for example, the state's community
college biotechnology initiative, called NCCCS BioNetwork, is said to
be the leading network of specialized education and training for
biotechnology-related business. Its six BioNetwork centers offer
specialized training and employ staff recruited directly from industry.
days there may be no scientific topic any hotter than energy. With
prices for gasoline and other forms of energy going through the roof,
there's unprecedented interest in finding new efficiencies and
alternative energy sources. That's what the Southern Energy Initiative
is all about.
Providing some direction to the initiative is the
Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The organization and the
Southern Growth Policies Board pulled together the first bioenergy
retreat last fall, assembling about 80 bioenergy leaders from across
the South to discuss how to further develop their sector. The group
determined to create a regional bioenergy organization, an R&D
network, and a bioenergy commercialization committee.
this year, the Southern Growth Policies Board and the Southeast
Agriculture and Forestry Energy Alliance Steering Committee announced
the creation of a new Southeast Agriculture & Forestry Energy
Alliance. The group unites organizations and individuals from the
agricultural, forestry, conservation, and environmental communities
along with researchers, industry representatives, and others with an
interest in renewable energy. The result is to be a network that will
collect and share critical information for the commercialization of
Plenty of energy-related
innovations are already in the works in the South. At Georgia Tech, for
example, the Strategic Energy Initiative approaches energy research
from a number of angles. Research into alternative sources includes a
focus on ways to efficiently and cost-effectively create ethanol from
Southern pine trees, which will reduce carbon dioxide emissions and
sustain the South's forest-products industry. The initiative is also
exploring ways to increase energy efficiency by improving combustion
processes and lighting efficiencies, among other measures.
has also begun on the first bio-diesel plant in a 16-county area of
East Tennessee known as the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley.
Northington Energy's $3 million facility near Wartburg in Morgan County
will convert soybeans into fuel. Company officials have announced they
will use the facility to work with Volkswagen and Suzuki on an engine
testing program involving highly refined bio-fuels for auto racing.
promise of the "information age" economy is driving R&D and growth
strategies across the South. One of the first steps is to make sure all
areas and residents of the South have strong IT access. The Information
Technology for Economic Development Program is a partnership involving
the Southern Technology Council and the Delta Regional Authority (DRA),
which represents eight states in the Delta region. The hope is to
leverage information technology to improve entrepreneurship, health,
The first fruit is a comprehensive plan presented
in May called "iDelta: Information Technology in the Delta," which is
intended to build information technology access and utilization in the
region. "This plan provides a map for expanding information technology
in the region," says Pete Johnson of Mississippi, federal co-chair of
the Delta Regional Authority. "Information technology is as critical to
the advancement of the region as highways," he says.
specific recommendation is creation of an iDelta Center that will serve
as an organizing entity for regional IT initiatives. "Only a new
organization with regional responsibility for increasing IT access and
usage can connect the residents of the region with the opportunities of
the global economy," according to Scott Doron, director of the Southern
Technology Council and one of the authors of the DRA plan.
in the South are exploring numerous ways to boost
information-technology development. One example is Innovista, a
500-acre urban innovation district in Columbia, S.C. Among other
things, it's helping the community combine its strengths in the
insurance industry with its desire to boost IT, by welcoming such
companies as Duck Creek Technologies, an insurance software and
services company that plans to locate in Innovista. The South Carolina
location will include a new research, product development, and service
facility and create at least 200 high-paying jobs.
sectors, places where IT already thrives can expect ongoing growth.
Atlanta is one such place. "IT talent is thriving in Atlanta, and we
intend to hire and train a significant number of employees over the
next year," says Chris Thompson, team lead of the new Atlanta office of
RTTS, a professional services organization specializing in software
And San Antonio is fast becoming a hub for
data centers: Microsoft has plans for a 475,000-square-foot center
there; Lowe's last year announced its intention to build a data center
in San Antonio; the National Security Agency's Texas Cryptology Center
has plans for a large data center there; and the CHRISTUS Health
hospital chain does as well.
Advanced Manufacturing Technology
remains vibrant in the Southern states, and their star has really been
rising when it comes to automotive manufacturing, thanks in large part
to foreign investments. Seven Southern states have made automotive
manufacturing a special economic development target, and four have
targeted manufacturing in general with special incentives and programs.
However, it's not an easy time for American manufacturers, with
overseas competition continually gaining strength. That's why U.S.
firms need to stay ahead of the game in their strengths of advanced
manufacturing technology and productivity.
With this in mind,
the Southern Technology Council launched the Southern Manufacturing
Technology Initiative, hoping to enhance the efficiency and
productivity of information technology in manufacturing firms. Small
and medium-sized manufacturers employ 60 percent of manufacturing
employees and represent 40 percent of manufacturing output, and their
long-term success depends upon their ability to react quickly to the
continuously changing business climate.
A recent survey of
Southern manufacturing companies found that virtually all view
information technology as very important or somewhat important to their
success. Business leaders involved in the push to boost manufacturing
technology have been focusing their efforts on five types of IT
critical to manufacturing: enterprise resource planning, the Internet,
computer-aided design and manufacturing, radio-frequency
identification, and manufacturing execution systems.
Southern Manufacturing Technology Initiative, which includes as
partners the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST)
and the Integrated Manufacturing Technology Initiative, has identified
a number of ways that NIST's Manufacturing Extension Program can help
Southern manufacturers forge ahead into the technological future:
• Use talent from engineering and business colleges to help manufacturers overcome financial and knowledge barriers.
• Create extension student internships making graduate students available to companies in various capacities.
• Hold industry-specific roundtable discussions on IT issues.
• Provide engineering assistance.
• Educate manufacturing managers about the value of innovation and technology as a strategic resource.
• Directly address the problem of cost, the top barrier to technology adoption.
clear that significant research and innovation is spearheaded by
federal and university-based institutions. But business history books
also are filled with breakthroughs resulting from private R&D
efforts. The Southern Industrial R&D Initiative was created to help
boost the South's share of the latter kind of research activity. A
number of potential actions are being discussed:
Establishment of programs to help entrepreneurs create their own
R&D facilities - Doing so can yield long-term benefits at a cost
that can be significantly lower than recruitment. Universities are
prime sources of this kind of help and surveys suggest that the vast
majority of executives would partner with universities if public funds
• Attraction of private R&D facilities, especially those from overseas
Promotion of the region's attractiveness as a location for R&D
facilities among economic developers as well as R&D executives
The provision of initial funding to create state associations in
targeted industries - An example of this kind of effort is the
Mississippi Polymer Cluster, launched to promote collaboration among
the state's polymer businesses, organizations, and initiatives.
Seeding the creation of regional technology councils to help build
support for science and technology issues, including the increase of
R&D programs - For example, Virginia has 10 multicounty regional
technology councils covering most of the state.
These are just
some of the initiatives in place or taking shape to ensure that the
Southern states are healthy participants in the "innovation economy."
Southern Nanotechnology Initiatives
- Alabama Center for Nanostructured Materials, Tuskegee University
- Center for Nanoscale Materials and Biointegration, University of Alabama
- Marcus Nanotechnology Center, Georgia Tech
- Joint research ventures involving Georgia Tech, Emory, and Clark Atlanta
- Institute for Micromanufacturing, Louisiana Tech University
- Center for Advanced Microstructures and Devices, Louisiana State University
- Advanced Materials Research Institute, University of New Orleans
- Approximately 30 nanotechnology research, development, and education organizations at North Carolina's universities
- NanoCenter, University of South Carolina
- Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, University of Tennessee-Knoxville
and Oak Ridge National Laboratory
- Center for Nanophase Materials Science
- Condensed Matter Sciences
- High-Temperature Materials Laboratory
- Center for Self-Assembled Nanostructures and Devices, Virginia Tech
- Institute for Nanoscale and Quantum Science, University of Virginia
- Nanotechnology-specific research centers at Rice University and the University of Texas in Austin, Arlington, and Dallas
- WVNano Initiative, West Virginia University