Georgia State University President: Metro Atlanta’s Resource-Rich Innovation Environment

Dr. Mark P. Becker

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

Now more than ever, innovation is recognized as a key catalyst driving regional prosperity and economic growth. A region’s innovation economy relies heavily on its ability to produce new ideas, technologies, products and processes. Understanding who and what compose the innovation ecosystem is crucial for making informed decisions about how to stimulate and sustain the growth of a region.     

As metro Atlanta continues its transformation from an industrial to a digital center, conversations about innovation are ever-present. The newly released Metro Atlanta Innovation Indicators Project offers a springboard for these discussions. The project report provides a comprehensive evaluation of innovation data for the 29-county region. It illustrates how metro Atlanta is performing relative to its history and explores the region’s standing among leading innovation regions. The comparison regions include: Austin, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Denver and Boulder, Colorado; Research Triangle, North Carolina; and San Diego, California.

According to the Innovation Indicators Project, metro Atlanta has edged out the comparison regions in some areas, and is closing the gap in others.

More than 70 higher education institutions award more than 40,000 degrees each year, and nearly a quarter of them are in the highly sought-after STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Among the innovation comparison regions, only Boston awarded more STEM degrees than metro Atlanta in 2014. With nearly 9,960 STEM degrees awarded, this represents a 40 percent increase compared to a decade earlier.  

Higher education institutions are important contributors to a region’s ability to generate new ideas and products. The number of new discoveries generated by academic institutions correlates directly with research and development (R&D) expenditures. The region’s academic R&D expenditures reached $1.85 billion in 2014, putting metro Atlanta ahead of San Diego, Denver/Boulder and Austin, and behind Boston and the Research Triangle. 

Along with local colleges and universities, industry players in areas such as global logistics, financial transactions processing, telecommunications and health information technology have contributed to a large and highly educated talent pool. This talent pool is enabling Atlanta to secure its position as a leader in newer industries such as the Internet of Things, business automation and cybersecurity.    

Between 2013 and 2014, metro Atlanta’s highly educated population grew roughly twice as fast as the region’s adult population. In 2015, metro Atlanta employed more individuals in technology occupations (163,180) than all other comparison regions except Boston (225,110). While metro Atlanta’s percentage of technology workers as a share of all workers lagged other comparison regions, it is gaining ground. Over the last decade, the concentration of technology workers grew 30 percent, the fastest of the comparison regions. 

Metro Atlanta is not recognized as a leader in attracting private investment capital, but momentum is building. In 2015, the region attracted $3.5 billion in total private investments, second only to Boston at $9.5 billion. Atlanta has outpaced Austin, San Diego, the Research Triangle and Denver/Boulder in attracting private investment dollars and total number of mergers and acquisition (M&A) deals in each of the last two years. Strong M&A activity is a sign that local companies are attracting buyers because they are creating value. Metro Atlanta companies were involved in 136 M&A deals in 2015, compared to Boston’s 193. 

While leading innovation regions like Boston and San Diego continue to attract significantly more venture capital than metro Atlanta, the region averaged $153 million in combined angel, seed and series A funding from 2013-15, a 125 percent increase in early-stage investment over the 2005-12 average of $68 million.   

Atlanta is being recognized as one of the top 10 markets for technology talent and one of the top three in the U.S. for STEM employment growth. Entrepreneurs are recognizing metro Atlanta as one of the best places in the country to start companies, particularly if the venture is serving other businesses. Eighty percent of Fortune 500 companies have a presence in metro Atlanta, 80 percent of the entire U.S. consumer market is within a two-hour flight, and Georgia is ranked the best state for business by Area Development for the third year in a row. To learn more about the Innovation Indicators Project and view the key findings, visit