Call it a womb for the new Southern economy — a warm, welcoming sanctuary for hatching startup companies in the Atlanta vicinity. As the high-tech counterpart to a mama bird, the Advanced Technology Development Center at Georgia Tech has fostered and reared renowned startups such as MindSpring and MicroCorp Inc. by providing the assistance and resources needed to deliver market innovations.
ATDC now boasts 46 participants in technological fields ranging from biomedicine and telecommunications to manufacturing and new media Internet technology. All potential members must demonstrate a sustainable advantage, potential growth, early funding, and management commitment before joining ATDC’s 20-year-old, state-funded program.
In the following interview, Georgia Tech graduate, entrepreneur, and ATDC Venture Catalyst Tony Antoniades discusses the challenges of sharpening focus, facilitating connections, and creating a business community for bright young entrepreneurs in the New South.
The Proliferation of Venture Capital
Years ago, people would say, “I came up with an idea but couldn’t get it funded in Atlanta.” That scenario is not true any more. There’s a lot of money here, a lot of angel investors are coming out of the woodwork along with fund companies and venture capitalists. In fact, national companies like Hambrecht & Quist are specifically moving to the area because they realize Atlanta is becoming a hotbed.
In the Atlanta community, there’s a substantial amount of old money. Now, some of these folks are joining the Internet world as investors. I started an Internet company three years ago. We shopped around our idea, and it was like pulling teeth getting people to invest. I am confident that if we started that company today, we would have investors in a heartbeat. I’ve even heard of a venture capitalist actually calling a potential startup company. Things are turning around.
Service With a Smile
Judging from my discussions with folks who have raised money on the East Coast and West Coast, the venture capitalists here are more friendly and personable. It’s not, “Send me your business plan and you might here from me.” Though it’s a relatively competitive atmosphere, it’s not as cutthroat. Perhaps that’s our Southern hospitality shining through. Instead of just ignoring you or not returning phone calls, VCs here have the courtesy to explain why they aren’t interested or where a company can improve its business plan.
I’ve noticed a tight-knit community of connections in the area. If you get in, you can get introduced to the right people to help make you successful. Big names in the industry are willing to stop and talk to some of these entrepreneurs. It amazes me. I’ll get an entrepreneur coming into ATDC with a business plan in very early stage, and I’ll ask who he has contacted with in the community. He’ll throw out some big names, very busy people. It’s very encouraging to see that.
If a startup makes any effort whatsoever, it can get in front of the right people. There aren’t a whole lot of closed doors here. Everyone seems to be cheering for each other.
The South could use a few more big success stories. MindSpring really put ATDC on the map, along with Relevant Knowledge. But if we can get some more everyday household names like Cisco, that will change our reputation and mindset and pride. People in Atlanta take pride in the fact MindSpring is here; it’s not all about Coca-Cola anymore.
Atlanta is flourishing with high-tech companies. The competition can sometimes make it tough to find employees, but there are a lot of great technology folks here and a lot of positions for them, too. The city is littered with billboards for big-name high-tech companies and recruiters.
Georgia Tech and its computer science school have been major supporters of that growth. The freshman class increases in size every year, which is good for ATDC because we were developed as a means of keeping the brilliant kids who graduated from Georgia Tech in the local area. Previously, those graduates went off to Silicon Valley because Atlanta had no high-tech jobs to offer them. ATDC was built like the Stanford model. We try to place graduates with local up-and-coming tech companies in an effort to retain that talent.
Motivation Runs Rampant
Most of the entrepreneurs we work with are from the Atlanta area. But we’re seeing some transplants as well. People all over the U.S. seeing the dollar signs. They hear the success stories and figure now is the time. Perhaps they made some money in the stock market, or they’re financially well-off and know they can take the risk. If it doesn’t work, they can get a job in a heartbeat because the demand is so high for engineering skills.
One question we ask every ATDC applicant is, “You’re very employable. You’ve got great skills. Why do you want to do this? What’s your motivation?” Most say they want to work for themselves. Many are just very passionate about their idea and really want to change things or make a difference. Sometimes they will respond, “I just want to be wealthy.” That’s a good answer, too.
Tepid Melting Pot
I used to think of Atlanta as a very international city. But I haven’t seen many high-tech entrepreneurs of different ethnicities. That’s disappointing in a way. Atlanta was always considered a big melting pot, but I haven’t seen that in the high-tech industry at the executive level. On the technology worker’s side, however, there is a great mix of people. The programmers who are actually doing the work tend to be more racially diverse.
At the executive level I just see a lot of white males and females. The executives here are really young. Most are in their 30s and 40s. They are not folks who have been around for 20 or 30 years and have that “Old Boys’ Network” mentality. In fact, Atlanta has some very aggressive businesswomen who are trying to get more women on the Board of Directors for their organizations — and they are making progress.
I hope we don’t turn into a Silicon Valley, where employees sit in a job for six months, then get a better offer and move on. I’m starting to see more and more of that here. If you sit at a job for more than three years, people look at you funny. “Are you going for for the 30-year pin?”
Our success is measured by the number of jobs we create, the economic improvement we bolster, and the tax dollars we bring back to the state. Our main goal is to attract small companies or entrepreneurs, help them start companies, build them up to a decent size, and then release them to the community, where they will grow, prosper, and create more jobs.
This is a unique incubator because it’s not-for-profit. We’re always on the entrepreneurs’ side. We’re even willing to help folks who can’t be in the program because our mission is to create jobs and bolster the economy.
We specifically pursue high-tech product companies because they’re the most likely to grow. We see a lot of companies creating enabling technologies. Perhaps that results from our affiliation with the university. For example, a professor invents this neat widget and he wants to commercialize it, so we help him build a company around it. Or a Ph.D. student comes up with a great thesis and wants to make it into a real company.
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