Georgia Tech Helps Boost Middle Georgia Economy

Companies gain help from ATDC, Georgia Tech Procurement Assistance Center

Star Software continues to shine. Earlier this year, Tom Eaves, founder of the Warner Robins company, was tapped as Georgia's 2005 Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. That honor follows on the heels of Star Software's inclusion in the 2004 Inc 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in the United States.

When Star Software was admitted to the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) Warner Robins incubator in 2000, the information technology company had seven employees. Today it employs more than 85, generates more than $5 million in annual revenue and is moving into a new 15,000-square-foot building.

But ATDC isn't the only Georgia Tech group to assist Star in its growth. Eaves also credits Georgia Tech's Procurement Assistance Center (GTPAC) for helping the company win several important government contracts. Co-located with ATDC's Warner Robins facility, GTPAC provides marketing and technical assistance to smaller companies wanting to do business with federal, state and local governments.

"Most entrepreneurs possess plenty of technical skills but lack the business savvy necessary to build a company," says Eaves. "ATDC and GTPAC prevent you from making mistakes - and save you time by pointing you in the right direction."

Though Star Software has received a lot of attention, it isn't the only success story in Warner Robins. Since its inception in 1991 as ATDC's first location outside of Atlanta, Georgia Tech's technology incubator has helped 27 startups and 14 landing parties plant roots in the community, increasing jobs and strengthening Warner Robins' economic base.

No small feat, say observers, noting that many incubators have struggled, even those located in large technology hubs.

"There were some people who worried that an incubator wouldn't be able to survive outside of Atlanta," says Larry Walker, a former state representative who helped secure funding for the project. Indeed, Walker admits that even he had a few concerns. "But ATDC has been a tremendous success exceeding our best expectations," he says, noting the Warner Robins incubator has paved the way for other ATDC offices in Savannah and Columbus.

Changing landscape

When ATDC opened its doors in Warner Robins' Advanced Technology Park, the neighborhood was pretty sparse. In fact, only two buildings stood at that time: the Middle Georgia Technology Development Center (MGTDC) with ATDC as its anchor tenant, and a speculative building, which was a joint project of the city and county government.

Today, the park comprises more than 35 buildings, with many occupied by former ATDC members who leased or bought real estate to accommodate their companies' growth.

"There is no question that the ATDC has been a catalyst for the park's success," observes Morgan Law, executive director of the Houston County Development Authority, the park's developer.

Although the park originally targeted technology companies and manufacturers as tenants, professional service firms, such as doctors and law practices, have been attracted to the park in recent years, Law says. Business supply firms, restaurants and retailers have also sprouted around the park's periphery. As a result, the west side of Warner Robins has metamorphosed from country fields into a mixture of commerce and technology.

In addition to bringing new jobs to Warner Robins, the technology park has also bolstered tax rolls. "When land moves from public to private ownership, it benefits everyone by increasing the flow of tax dollars to schools and public parks," Law observes, noting that since the park opened, land prices have risen from $25,000 to $100,000 per acre.

Part of ATDC's mission in Warner Robins is to support the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center. To this end, ATDC's landing party program - which helps attract companies from other states to set up shop in Georgia - has been instrumental in bringing more aerospace industry to the community. Among recent newcomers are Cubic Defense Applications, Megabyte International, Terma and Quantum Research International.

"The base is Georgia's largest industrial complex - employing more than 25,000 - but many people don't realize that two-thirds of the money flowing into it doesn't stay in Georgia," points out James Calvin, founder of Microcross Inc., a former ATDC company. Many components for planes and weapon systems are sourced from other states, he explains, noting that "landing parties help counteract this outflow by providing new jobs in the area."

More eggs in the basket

In addition to serving the military base, ATDC has broadened the technology mix in Warner Robins.

"We don't have to hold our breath anymore about BRAC (base realignment and closure) so hopefully the base will continue to prosper, but with any economy it's also important that you diversify," says Robert Hatcher, a partner at NanoMist® Systems, a current ATDC member.

"ATDC has helped the community see the importance of encouraging other types of technology businesses - that there is life beyond the base," adds Gary Martin, founder of IDMI, which graduated from the incubator in 2002.

Both NanoMist and IDMI are good examples of this diversification.

NanoMist is commercializing an innovative technology for delivering ultra-fine mists composed of micron- and submicron-sized droplets. This technology has a variety of applications, but NanoMist has made the most progress in commercializing a fire-suppression solution that uses water mist - an alternative to chemical agents that have environmental concerns.

"The smaller the droplets, the larger their surface area, enabling heat to be absorbed more quickly," explains K.C. Adiga, Nanomist's founder. In lab tests, NanoMist's technology extinguished a 12-inch diameter pan of flaming kerosene in 10 seconds using only 25 milliliters of water (less than 1 fluid ounce or 1/8 cup). Besides being remarkably fast, NanoMist's fire-suppression solution is cheaper than chemical agents and causes less damage.

NanoMist is now expanding into nanomaterials process technology and electronics cooling, and the company has a strong patent portfolio in these areas. Other potential applications include: sterilizing instruments in hospital operating rooms, preventing staph infections in recovery rooms, and sanitizing during food packaging processes.

Founded in 1996, IDMI developed the first online solution for insurance companies. PTS, its flagship product, allows agencies to manage their databases and systems - everything from underwriting to data warehousing - from the Internet, which increases efficiencies and reduces errors and costs.

Since leaving ATDC to move into larger offices in the technology park, IDMI has grown to 25 employees with customers in 14 states, Martin reports. The company generated $2.5 million in 2004 revenue and is on track to double revenue to $5 million in 2005.

And though Star Software initially served defense contractors, the company has been branching out. This summer Star Software launched its first educational product, which enables schools to access better software, ranging from auditing and accounting programs to Smart Card technology for managing student attendance or food programs.

"We're targeting lower-end school districts that don't have large IT budgets," Eaves says, noting that the company has already signed on three customers. "We also hope to get into healthcare before the year is over, offering both IT solutions and process engineering."

Still another new direction, Star Software is developing an information retrieval technology that combines images and words to generate more meaningful searches. Funded with a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I grant from the National Science Foundation, the company now is studying the feasibility of an automated tool for analyzing satellite imagery.

One of ATDC's newest resources for helping both existing and startup companies is the Aerospace Innovation Center. Located in the same building as ATDC, the innovation center is one five created in 2003 to support technology-based economic development in Georgia.

"The innovation center opens up new avenues in funding, R&D, education and training," explains Sherry Giddings, manager of the Warner Robins ATDC and director of the innovation center. "It gives us more ways to help ATDC companies, which get free membership in the center."

Instant credibility

Membership in ATDC has benefited Warner Robins startups in a variety of ways, say entrepreneurs.

"Besides being able to move into a professional environment without breaking the bank, you also have access to top-level resources," points out IDMI's Martin. "Consultants are a luxury that startups can't otherwise afford - typically you're limited to asking advice from friends or family."

Being affiliated with Georgia Tech also provided IDMI with instant credibility. "It was a regular part of my sales pitch when trying to get clients," Martin says. "Being an ATDC member squelched any objections they might have had about giving their business to a small startup company."

Microcross' Calvin credits ATDC for helping his company survive tough times. Microcross, which builds open-source development tools that make embedded computer systems easier to program, was about to close on $6 million in venture-capital funding four years ago. Yet before the financing went through, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred and capital markets dried up overnight.

Counseling from ATDC manager Jerry Wilson kept Microcross on course, Calvin says. (Founder of the Warner Robins incubator, Wilson died from cancer in 2003. Earlier this summer, Georgia Tech named the ATDC wing in MGTDC in Wilson's honor.)

"When our funding fell through, Jerry advised us to focus on generating revenue instead of trying to attract investors," Calvin explains. "Jerry painted a picture of reality for us - that VC money wouldn't be available for two or three years - and he helped us be resourceful. If we hadn't been proactive, we would have been forced to shut our doors."

Part of Microcross' belt-tightening included downsizing from 12 to three employees. Today, however, the rebounding company has six employees and expects to generate $1 million in revenue this year.

At Star Software, Eaves also links much of his company's success to the incubator. "We wouldn't be where we are today without ATDC - that's something I realize more and more as time goes by," he says.

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Media Relations Contact: John Toon (404-894-6986); E-mail: (john.toon@edi.gatech.edu).

Writer: T.J. Becker