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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:

Nanotechnology
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."


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