The Southern Spirit of Innovation
The South's participation in the "innovation economy" includes initiatives to build R&D and boost prosperity in the region's high-tech industries.
Steve Stackhouse-Kaelble (Southern Tech Sites 2007)

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."

The 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 BioAlliance).

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.

It 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.

More 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 other partnerships.

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 companies.

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.

These 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.

Earlier 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 renewable-energy technologies.

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.

Construction 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.

Information Technology
The 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, and education.

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.

One 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.

Leaders 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.

Like other 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 quality assurance.

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
Manufacturing 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.

The 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.

Industrial R&D
It's 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 provided incentives.
• 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 at Birmingham
  • Marcus Nanotechnology Center, Georgia Tech
  • Joint research ventures involving Georgia Tech, Emory, and Clark Atlanta universities
  • 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

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