Atlanta Tech Community Reaches for Critical Mass

Some recent rumblings in the Atlanta tech community are raising my hopes that the city can build a vibrant technology community. We have great clusters of technology, some great angel and VC groups, some excellent entrepreneurs, great user groups, incubators, technologists, and even good schools cranking out good engineering talent. Yet for some the Atlanta tech community hasn’t really developed into any sort of cohesive community, and there’s a definite feeling that the opportunities aren’t here for startups that exist in other major metropolitan areas.

Tejus seems to think that the problem and solution is that we’re not fostering enough collaboration and entrepeneurship in local schools like Georgia Tech and Emory. Instead of staying here and starting companies, our best new technologists follow opportunity to cities across the country. There’s some merit in this argument – my senior design project at Georgia Tech was essentially a hardware-based encryption/SSL accelerator, well before any such products were commercially prominent. Never did the thought cross our minds to convert the project to a commercial enterprise – the concept wasn’t even recognized as particularly novel by any faculty who saw our project report. Half of our team has moved on into leading Atlanta-based startups, so you can’t say it was for lack of drive….

Jeff suggests it’s because we don’t support our own, giving the example of the Technology Association of Georgia potentially looking outside of Georgia (outside the U.S., even) to have a directory of Georgia-based technology companies. The subtext seems to indicate that they’re doing this because TAG wouldn’t know where or how to engage local companies to get the job done. Jeff and some other local entrepreneurs are working to improve on this through events like SoCon 07 and PodCamp Atlanta.

Hannon Hill CEO David Cummings just posted reasons why Atlanta is a great place for startups, and while most of his rationale is spot on, the attempt to turn a negative into a positive, “Do I need a small amount of capital to be successful?”. The low cost of living, decent weather (especially compared to NYC and Boston), a strong labor pool, and international travel connections are all great, but what good is any of this if you can’t get enough funding to launch certain ideas into startups, what good are the other benefits?

Unless Atlanta can rapidly become the center of the Web 2.0 universe (unlikely), this is only half of an answer. We can’t gain ground on other technology centers by building our fair share of low-cost startups and abandoning anyone with significant capital requirements. The startup culture that is strong in other places seems to be a product of both a self-supporting community and the availablity of necessary funding. Until someone finds a way to make the VC/angel markets more efficient, less location-dependent, these are the prevailing winds.

Even in this situation, I believe Atlanta has a real chance to turn the corner. Over the past year, ISS, CipherTrust, Scientific Atlanta, JBoss, Harbor Payments, Digital Insight, and the list goes on, have all been sold, and successful exits create a strong regional reputation, entrepreneurs available to start their next venture, and more affluent technologists to invest in angel and VC funds. Coupled with the momentum of this current push for a stronger community infrastructure, there’s a legitimate potential for the Atlanta tech community to reach critical mass, creating a self-sufficient cycle of innovation and growth.