Silicon Valley on the Savannah River
photo by Saad Faruque
TECHNOLOGY. It’s the result of applying scientific knowledge to solve a problem, improve a method or create something useful. It’s both the hardware we hold in our hands and the software that allows us to interact with it. It’s the visible product of someone’s imagination and the invisible “storage” of the person’s ideas. For some people, it’s logical and elemental, yet, for others, it’s baffling and enigmatic. Either way, it affects everyone every day.
In less than a decade, Augusta and the Central Savannah River Area (CSRA) have become a hub of technological research, implementation, discovery, innovation and delivery. Metro Augusta ranks second in the United States for high-tech job growth in the past five years. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of technology jobs in Augusta increased 81 percent. Among cities in Georgia, Augusta has the second highest growth in technology-based businesses, preceded only by Atlanta. A steady increase of tech-related jobs and companies is inevitable in the future.
TECHNOLOGY is pervasive. It’s present in almost any activity, from grocery shopping to driving a car to working out to watching television to visiting the doctor. The increasing capabilities of the “cloud” make technology more productive, more powerful and more accessible than ever. Technology, while it exposes our vulnerabilities, as exemplified by the Target hacking incident, also underpins economies, such as the CSRA’s, positioned to catapult forward.
Speak the words information technology or cyber defense or advanced manufacturing or cyber security—samples of technology niches served by CSRA businesses—and the general population tenses. These things are dually feared and praised, and the dissonance the opposing feelings cause is exactly why specialists in the technology industry are valued. Though most people are tech savvy enough to operate tablets, PCs and smart phones, they cringe at the science behind the gadgets.
As consumers, we witness why the technology industry continues to explode. Technology breeds more technology at a fast pace. The gadget bought yesterday is obsolete today. Computers connected to the Internet receive software updates routinely. New hardware or software requires additional hardware or software to support it. Other sectors of the economy consistently require tech assistance as they integrate and absorb technological advances. Nothing is static in this industry. One niche gives way to another as new applications, risks, research open doors for alternative solutions, methods and utilities.
The CSRA is becoming its own version of the Silicon Valley on the banks of the Savannah River. “The Augusta Economic Development Authority is constantly meeting with site location consultants that work with companies looking to relocate their operations,” says Scott Poag, project manager for the Augusta Economic Development Authority. Along with a multitude of tech-based businesses that have set up shop here, the twofold forces of Augusta’s layered healthcare community and the U.S. Army’s Fort Gordon are pushing the CSRA to the forefront of the technology field in the state and in the nation.
The recent announcement of the relocation of the U.S. Army’s Cyber Command Headquarters (ARCYBER) to Fort Gordon will compound the current tech sector expansion. The selection of Fort Gordon as the new home of ARCYBER testifies to the Augusta area’s infrastructure and atmosphere that converge to proliferate tech-based businesses. Poag says, “This creates an enormous amount of synergy between the public and private sectors in this industry and Augusta is right in the middle of it.”
In conjunction with ARCYBER’s move to Fort Gordon, several other units such as the Cyber Center of Excellence and the Cyber Resources Teams, along with intelligence units, will have quarters there. Eric R. Parker, AIA, co-founder and managing partner of theClubhou.se Partners and advisory board chair of the Greater Augusta chapter of the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG), calls the development “a complete economic game changer for the entire region.”
ARCYBER alone is estimated to create more than 2,000 jobs with salaries starting at $50,000 and peaking at more than $100,000 by 2019. That’s an annual income impact of $154 million. This impact will be multiplied by private sector cyber contractors and tertiary tech-type businesses certain to sprout or re-locate to the region to meet outsourced needs, identify and fill new high-tech niches and take advantage of the benefits of clustering.
A strong technology sector means a strong Augusta. Positions requiring specific tech knowledge tend to offer higher salaries. Poag explains, “They have a greater impact on the local economy versus job growth in lower paying sectors.” A broader, wealthier tax base is on the CSRA’s horizon. School districts and municipalities will have the means to improve facilities and services for the community at large. The spending power generated by higher salaries translates to stable retail, housing and construction markets. And it means more housing, retail, cultural and entertainment choices for everyone.
EDUCATIONAL institutions accommodate employer demand for a tech-skilled workforce. Magnet high schools, like the established health science and engineering magnet school A. R. Johnson, and the infant Richmond County Technical Career Magnet School, prepare young people for post-secondary study in tech-related fields. With the addition of its nuclear engineering technology program, Augusta Technical College is staying astride the area’s growth trends. Poag says, “The steady stream of new graduates and veterans separating from the military [about 150 personnel stationed at Fort Gordon, who are highly trained in information technology (IT) and communications, part from the military every month] is one of the main reasons that the Augusta area is such an attractive place to do business, especially in high tech sectors.”
Likewise, federal facilities, like Fort Gordon, the Charlie Norwood V.A. Medical Center and Savannah River Nuclear Site, along with private facilities, such as Plant Vogtle, bring a brain-trust of technology experts to the CSRA. A vortex of tech-talent is forming over the area. Look around at your neighbors. Look at the people shopping the grocery aisles alongside you. Look at the parents of your children’s friends. There’s a very good chance that many of those faces make up the changing face of the CSRA’s economy.
Efforts are afoot to cultivate a community of ordinary people who comfortably converse in the language of computers. Parker’s endeavor, theClubhou.se, for example, “functions as a cultural center for techies and entrepreneurs.” It pulls together people whose thoughts pour out as 0s and 1s and people learning to leverage that kind of thinking. Parker believes this grassroots movement toward a tech-abled citizenry sets Metro Augusta apart as a model of trailblazing in the 21st century. Blending creative people with tech-savvy kinds, theClubhou.se may be the birthplace of the next big breakthrough by regular folks. At the very least, the endeavor brings down the self-imposed walls people put up when intimidated by technology. At the very best, the effort spawns entrepreneurs— you the reader, perhaps—which attracts an influx of venture capital.
POAG NOTES. “A strong entrepreneurship and innovation culture is critical in a high-tech sector.” Augusta’s tech-friendly eco-system is a particularly good incubator for entrepreneurial pursuits. “Our growth is driven by three primary factors: massive government spending on information security, affordable quality of life and a number of highly impassioned citizens who believe in a vision of a prosperous, technology savvy Augusta,” says Parker. Morris Venture Capital, a division of Morris Communications, is taking advantage of the Invest Georgia Act, which creates a $100 million venture capital fund in the state. Other financing opportunities through initiatives like FundAugusta.com educate the community on crowdfunding. Through crowdfunding, average citizens pool their resources to finance a project, fledgling endeavor or organization. Average people drive technology growth from the ground floor.
Georgia Regents University’s Office of Innovation Commercialization supports new technology around the globe and in its own front yard. Through this office, GRU markets and commercializes emerging technologies with potential to solve real-world problems. The Office of Innovation Commercialization also hosts the Life Sciences Business Development Center, a 10,000 square-foot facility dedicated to promoting a collaborative atmosphere for transferring ideas into action.
The technology vortex is turning. Parker says, “The Greater Augusta TAG chapter serves our community by organizing government, education, business and community leaders in our region to collaborate, discuss the needs of our community and businesses, and to offer strategic guidance on how the Greater Augusta region can capitalize on the historic opportunity we face as one of the most promising emerging technology economies in the nation.” Technology breeds technology breeds wealth breeds consumer choices breeds better schools and community services breeds tech industry expansion breeds technology. Technology touches everyone every day. You are standing at the epicenter of the cyber explosion.
Are you ready?