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GRA celebrates 30 years; SSTI Q&A with new president on progress and adapting over time

September 10, 2020

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA), a public-private partnership that works with both the University System of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Economic Development to expand the research capacity at the state’s universities and seed and shape startup companies. When it was formed in 1990, GRA was a new kind of enterprise. Leaders in state government, private industry and academia all came to the table to strengthen cohesion among Georgia’s public and private research universities – and, ultimately, to bring more research dollars and discoveries to the state. Today it is recognized as a key player in building the state’s reputation as a center of discovery and invention.Susan Shows

On Sept. 1, longtime GRA official Susan Shows took the reins of the organization, becoming its fourth president. SSTI asked her to share her thoughts on the changes and growth of the organization, and the landscape of technology-based economic development in general. Here she shares her insights into the innovation economy – in Georgia and the nation as a whole.

Q: As GRA celebrates its 30th anniversary, how would you say your mission has changed over the years?

A: The impetus behind GRA, and our core mission, haven’t changed. Before GRA, our universities were fierce competitors. In athletics, they still compete, but the scale and scope of their collaboration in other areas is extraordinary. By bringing leaders together on a regular basis, and by initiating programs and opportunities, GRA became both a catalyst and a mechanism for greater cooperation.

At the same time, our mission has evolved. We’ve stayed true to our early focus of growing university research by attracting world-class scientists and providing them with tools and technology to advance their work. But when I arrived in 2001, we added venture development into the mix. GRA began to partner with university tech transfer offices to uncover more market-potential inventions and discoveries resulting from the growth of research. And we put into place a phased venture development program of seed grants and early-stage loans to help fuel the startup companies launching out of labs. It was, and still is, very exciting.

Along the way, we’ve introduced strategic initiatives and modified how we deliver our programs to adapt to changing times. It’s just as important to be responsive as proactive.

Q: What are some of the greatest challenges GRA has faced in its history and how were they overcome?

A: One has been telling our story. When it was created, GRA was a new kind of organization – there had been plenty of partnerships, of course, but to have government, business and universities working so closely together – at a time when the value of university research wasn’t fully understood – made it hard for some to “get” GRA. What familiar box could they put us in? There really wasn’t one.

As time went on, GRA’s value became clearer. Yet as we evolved and embraced a fuller life cycle of innovation, we became an organization of several moving parts. Explaining how these different parts fit and work together still takes some effort. But we’ve made great progress in communication.

Funding is another challenge. Organizations like GRA are a long-term play. Much of the payoff comes years after the investment is made. GRA has been fortunate in that our state’s leaders in government have seen beyond the core programs. They’ve recognized the Alliance as a vehicle for starting and advancing various initiatives. So, when they have an idea or priority, GRA can play a key role in moving that forward.

Q: What role has GRA been able to play in Georgia's economy?

A: Helping university scientists do more research and launch more companies brings three economic benefits. First, there’s the tangible benefit of more dollars flowing into the state. Our 72 GRA Eminent Scholars and their teams make up just 5 percent of the university research workforce – but they account for 25 percent of research grants coming to the universities. So, there’s been a high return on the state’s financial investment.  Something that we’ve learned from our colleagues at SSTI is the importance of having solid performance metrics that clearly demonstrate the impact of our programs.  We’ve taken that advice to heart, and today, we know that the state’s investment of nearly $650 million in GRA has led to over $6 billion in direct impacts in Georgia.   

There’s also the second benefit of workforce development. When university labs are doing more research, and more startup companies are being formed, that creates an ecosystem of jobs and experience that represent the economy of the future. You need those opportunities.

The third gain is harder to measure, but it’s just as important, and that’s enhancing Georgia’s reputation. Having an active collaborative like the Georgia Research Alliance is valuable in Georgia’s economic development story. It signals that the state takes technology and innovation seriously, and having a flourishing innovation infrastructure is appealing to companies.

Q: What do you see as the greatest challenges to innovation today?

A: The single greatest challenge is ensuring that we have the talent needed to continue innovating as a nation. To some, this seems fairly simple – you work to graduate more Ph.Ds., and you have sensible policies to retain top international talent. But talent is an enormously complex issue. Its roots are in teaching and learning at the K-12 level, and to ensure that we’ll be competitive in the future begins with improving elementary and secondary education.

It’s well-known that strengthening STEM education and encouraging more students to pursue STEM degrees is crucial in this equation. We need to continue to work to reverse the decline in STEM participation. But we can’t do that at the expense of liberal arts education, either. Having a strong foundation in humanities and arts helps produce critical thinkers, well-rounded thinkers, and of course those skills are essential to creativity and innovation.

Just as important is diverse participation in STEM fields. Thankfully, the conversation has been changing in recent years – diverse participation isn’t about numbers, it’s about inclusivity. The research is clear that when you have teams of social and ethnic diversity, and those team members feel accepted in the enterprise, the teams perform better. That’s true in the university, and it’s true in industry. There are some excellent programs out there to strengthen diversity and inclusion, but they need to be scaled up across our national education infrastructure to reach their full potential impact on innovation.

Q: Where do you see the innovation economy heading?

A: Well, ‘innovation economy’ is a broad area, and I can really only speak to the university side of it. But in that regard, I believe the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to usher in a new era of investment in both research and entrepreneurship at our nation’s campuses.

Prior to the pandemic, we had seen federal research investment decline in recent years. The urgency to develop a vaccine, plus therapeutics and diagnostics, has reminded us that to solve the most intractable problems facing the world, we need scientists and engineers more than ever. And to turn inventions into marketable products that benefit people, we need entrepreneurs and investors, too.

The lion’s share of R&D spending in our country is in private industry, but university research has given us so much. If we were to succeed in getting more students into STEM and investing more energy and resources into university research, that would have a profound impact on the innovation economy, not to mention solving the world’s problems and needs.

It’s also important to think of the innovation economy in the context of COVID-19. It’s not yet clear how different the world will be in the next few years. How America will step up to address the challenges of a new order, and what effect those actions have on our economy, are foundational questions. We will have to invent our way forward.

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