Tech Innovation Centers Encourage Atlanta Startups
The Atlanta Tech Village in Buckhead features an independent coffee shop, free beer on tap, video game consoles, nap rooms and some desks.
Office spaces like this go by many names: tech incubator, maker space, startup accelerator, hub, innovation center. Technology companies have been eager to put entrepreneurs, ping pong tables and tech support all in one building -- especially within the last five years.
According to Tino Mantella, president of the Technology Association of Georgia, there are more than 80 of these incubators and innovation centers in Georgia and most of them are in the Atlanta area.
“These are spaces where young companies can go to collaborate with other companies to be trained and to really create an atmosphere where they have a better chance of success,” Mantella said.
Pete Davis is one entrepreneur who has taken this route.
He is CEO of GreenPrint, a company that launched in July 2014. It takes money spent on fuel from large trucking fleets and gas stations and redistributes it to renewable energy projects and nonprofit groups like Trees Atlanta.
Davis and his co-founder worked out of their homes until he found out about the Atlanta Tech Village.
“As an entrepreneur, I’m an artist and this is an inspiring place to be,” Davis said. “Besides the look and the feel and the high ceilings and the lights, there’s a lot of young folks walking around with new ideas, starting new businesses, people flying by in scooters. It’s like a playground.”
Davis said calling something an "incubator" is usually “marketing spin for shared office space.” He began his work at the Atlanta Tech Village by renting what’s called a "hotdesk."
“Pick a desk on a floor in a kind of a shared open area and you don’t own or lease a particular desk," Davis explained. "It’s just the right to come work here. So for the first three months we did that, and then as we grew, signing clients and generating revenue, we rented a fixed office space, which had four desks initially.”
Davis said he loves the flexibility. He pays about $1,500 a month for the glass office space he’s renting and since it’s a month-to-month lease, startups can move out when they need to.
“Cheesy analogy, but chickens incubate eggs,” Davis said. “I think it’s providing a nest, which is like a soft, warm, comfortable environment.”
The Atlanta Tech Village was founded by entrepreneur David Cummings in 2013 and has grown fast. It now hosts many seminars. Sometimes, Davis said, it is too much.
“You could certainly be here and almost full time attend events and network and have coffees and lunches and be totally distracted,” Davis said. "And so you got to balance and remain focused on what you’re trying to achieve."
According to Davis, one valuable aspect of working in a startup incubator is collaboration with other startups. He runs into Mikhail Avady from SmartUp Legal on his hoverboard and in the elevator quite often. Avady’s company, SmartUp Legal, uses technology to make legal services like filing a patent cheaper.
“I’ve gotten some free legal advice," Davis said. "That’s better than even working together!”
Kipp Ramsey works for a startup called Terminus at the Atlanta Tech Village. He said tech startups thrive off of each other.
“Our kind of overarching theme is kind of that positive self-starting and supportive mentality,” Ramsey said. “Going out of your way to help others, even if it’s not asked of you, even it’s not part of your job.”
This kind of office space is now becoming even more popular.
Microsoft’s Business Evangelist Bradley Jensen hopes to bring something similar to the Flatiron building in downtown Atlanta, which now houses the country's second Microsoft Innovation Center.
“The problem that Georgia has, if you look at the University environment, what happens is, these students graduate, they not only egress from the city of Atlanta, they egress from the state of Georgia, so a lot of that talent goes other places in the United States,” Jensen said. “So what we’re trying to do is build an environment and an ecosystem, so when you have a reason and a motivation to stay in the city of Atlanta.”
Jensen helped launch the first U.S.-based “innovation center” in Miami in 2014. Microsoft is planning two more in New York and Philadelphia this year.
The Flatiron Building was renovated to create space for software startups, student entrepreneurs and job seekers. The building is also home to the city-sponsored Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative and a separate Georgia Tech innovation center.
Tech incubator office spaces were popularized in Silicon Valley, the start-up capital of the world. But at the grand opening of the Microsoft Innovation Center last month, Mayor Kasim Reed said Atlanta is not trying to be like the Valley.
“I don’t think you can replicate what they have in Silicon Valley," Reed said, "but what we can do is be the center of thought in the southeastern region of the United States and that’s carried us a long way.”
Microsoft says its innovation center is what the city of Atlanta has been missing: another office space to connect tech groups and businesses in a central location.