Georgia Centers of Innovation's Steve Justice: A Tale of Two Georgia River Cities

R. Steven Justice, Georgia Centers of Innovation

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

Our team recently visited two cities on opposite borders of the state, yet bound by geography, history, and a desire to embrace innovation to move their communities forward.  I am referring to Augusta and Columbus; historic Georgia communities located on our state’s eastern and western borders.  

The parallels between these cities are uncanny:  both grew up on major rivers that provided both transportation and water power for early industry.  Each have redeveloped their historic riverfront areas through strong partnerships which has attracted people, businesses, and university programs back to downtown. Both host major U.S. Department of Defense installations leading the way in technology; Ft. Benning in Columbus focusing on robotics and Ft. Gordon in Augusta in cyber technologies. And Augusta and Columbus are building strong local innovation ecosystems to address growing their economies for the 21st century.

Pictured above is the newly open Georgia Cyber Center located on the river in Augusta. 

Augusta – Cyber and Much More

Our first visit was to Augusta to learn more about the rapidly expanding cyber security community there.  Ft. Gordon is the home to the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence, and a major National Security Agency facility with the Army Cyber Command (ARCYBER) Headquarters currently moving to the base.  Combined with the private sector companies located in Augusta to support Ft. Gordon, the area is a hotbed for cyber technology that will impact not just Augusta, but the entire state.  

The focal point for the community and state efforts in cyber is the new Georgia Cyber Center in downtown; an over $100 million investment by the State of Georgia to support the growing cyber security sector in Augusta.  Led by Executive Director Eric Tolar, the Georgia Cyber Center houses offices for private sector cyber-focused companies along with the Cyber Workforce Academy, the cyber education programs of Augusta University and Augusta Technical College, and Georgia Bureau of Investigation Cyber Crime Laboratory. This cluster of cyber operations and talent provides a critical mass that the community can build upon. 

But Augusta is not just about cyber, it has a strong manufacturing sector and growing entrepreneurial community.  The is a very successful local innovation hub that now runs the Innovation Space at the Cyber Center.  The, led by Eric Parker and Grace Belangia, serves as a “co-working space, a makerspace, a code school, a startup accelerator, a prototyping lab, a mentorship network, an organizer of events, and think tank” to support burgeoning entrepreneurs in a wide range of industries. 

Another economic engine in the area, the Augusta Regional Airport, is continuing to expand their facility and services which connects Augusta to global markets.  Proving that economic development is a team sport, we also met with the Central Savannah River Area (CSRA) Alliance for Fort Gordon, Development Authority of Columbia County, and the Augusta Economic Development Authority who together provide a well-coordinated suite of services to attract and grow industry in the area.

Columbus, Georgia has seen a resurgence in development alongside the river pictured above. 

Columbus – Robotics, FinTech and Innovation… Oh My!

The Centers of Innovation had previously visited Ft. Benning to learn about high technology robotics initiatives in the U.S. Army. Local leadership is working to make the base a strong hub for robotics and autonomous systems within the Army feeding off expertise from industrial robotics efforts of the regional manufacturing community including Pratt & Whitney, Precision Components International, Johnson Controls, MeadWestvaco, Heatcraft, and Kia Motors. COI participated in the Bot-Ober Fest last October which showcased robotics programs and technologies along with a K-12 robotic education event run by our Center of Innovation for Manufacturing.  Just recently the Georgia Board of Regents approved a Robotics Engineering program at Columbus State University to train tomorrow’s workforce for the growing local robotics sector.

On our most recent visit we started by talking with Columbus 2025 implementation committee member Russ Carreker and Executive Director Tabetha Getz, on their efforts to build a strong local innovation system. Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce Program Manager Ben MacMinn brought us up to speed on the StartUP Columbus program which is working on a new downtown incubator to serve the region.  The presence of very successful local companies - such as TSYS, Synovous, AFLAC, and WC Bradley - provides a strong base of local leaders and experts to build a great speaker/mentor program.  Add in other resources available from across the state through the Centers of Innovation, then the incubator will become a fantastic innovation hub for both start-up and established small to mid-size local companies. 

Other resources are emerging in downtown such as the Cowork Columbus, a co-working space located just across the street from the proposed incubator and the innovative Pop Uptown which provides “Georgia’s first pop up shop & event space” for entrepreneurs to test their business models.  Jacy Jenkins and Jason Gamache of Pop Uptown are passionate ambassadors for Columbus and totally dedicated to growing the entrepreneurial community in the city. In addition, companies like Starrett – Bytewise are building state-of-the-art facilities in downtown/uptown to take advantage of the amenities and talent flocking to the area.

The educational systems are changing to support this new innovation culture in Columbus.  Columbus State offers a focused entrepreneur program and hosts the TSYS Center for Cybersecurity to address need of the local companies for people trained in cybersecurity practice in the financial sector. It is so important to get young students interested early in technology, so we also visited the new Muscogee Columbus School District STEAM Center near the new Spencer High School, which will serve student throughout the district with programs such as FIRST Robotics and the Columbus Space Program.  

Opposite Sides of the State; Same Passion and Drive

Augusta and Columbus might be on opposite sides of the state, but they share the same passion and drive to build strong innovation ecosystems to grow their economies.   Each have a firm foundation consisting a nearby military base, strong industry partners, and local universities combined with leadership that sees the needs and is stepping up to challenges.  Through the Centers of Innovation, these communities can tap into other teams and resources across the state ensuring that businesses can access the right resources to address their needs. Entrepreneurs and existing businesses that tap into this ‘innovation network’ will be able to overcome the problems of today and develop the products of tomorrow. Ultimately, this all leads to a stronger innovation culture where Georgia businesses can connect, compete and grow across the global marketplace.