If you’re flying with Delta out of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport this summer, the beginning of your trip could look something like this: hail a Lyft to the airport to accrue extra SkyMiles, speed through security with CLEAR pre-check, and then plop down in a seat at your departure gate and upgrade to first class with a roaming gate agent using a mobile device.
As technology continues to impact the travel industry, Delta is trying to keep up by investing in innovation — a resolution that can be seen clearly in the opening of its corporate innovation center, The Hangar, in Midtown Atlanta’s Tech Square just over a year ago.
Delta joined other mammoth Georgia companies like Chick-Fil-A, Coca-Cola and The Home Depot when it opened The Hangar at Tech Square, a growing hub for corporate innovation centers. But locally-headquartered corporations aren’t the only ones opening innovation outfits in and around Atlanta. Since 2013, international players like Panasonic, Siemens, ThyssenKrupp, UCB and Worldpay have all opened these centers of research and exploration.
Sam Adams, Invest Atlanta’s Manager of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said the city first started gaining traction as an international hub around the time it played host to the 1996 Summer Olympics. He pointed to some hard benefits — like the mobility offered by Hartsfield-Jackson and the comparatively low cost of doing business — as reasons large multinationals like Airbus and Panasonic have invested in Atlanta posts, adding that he expects growth-stage international startups to see the same benefits as they look for a foothold in North America.
But Adams says Atlanta’s draw as an innovation hub goes beyond simple utility.
“If there wasn’t a talent base here, these companies wouldn’t be considering (Atlanta) as an option,” he explained. “That’s the driving reason behind a Panasonic or a Siemens or an AT&T opening their centers here. The reason that they’re here is because of top talent.”
Nicole Jones, Global Innovation Leader at Delta and the driving force of The Hangar, agrees.
“Regardless of whether we were based here in Atlanta or not, I think the benefit of being here in the Tech Square ecosystem is (apparent),” Jones said. “We are right next door to at least 10 other corporate innovation centers that don’t compete with us in any way. We are a few steps away from students at Georgia Tech — one of the top universities in the country. And we are near other entrepreneurs in the ATDC right downstairs.”
Though Siemens just opened the doors of its Data Analytics and Applications Center this past April, the company has enjoyed a productive relationship with Georgia Tech for decades. The school is part of Siemens’ University 360 program, which involves collaboration with top universities, and in 2015 was named one of eight Siemens Center of Knowledge Interchange (CKI) partners.
“Georgia Tech and Technology Square are truly the heart of Atlanta’s innovation scene — it’s where you go to find break through talent, ideas, and companies,” said Simon Davidoff, head of Siemens Digital Rail Services and leader at the Data Center.
Innovation centers like these solve a specific problem for large companies — time to market. After identifying organizational inefficiencies and opportunities, the Hangar, for example, can rapidly churn out prototypes that will only take two to three months to get to market. Jones’ team had their hand in both the biometric technology process related to Delta’s partnership with CLEAR and the mobile gate agent interface, which will be piloted this summer at Hartsfield-Jackson, untethering gate agents from the PCs at gate podiums.
But as the number of these agile, hybrid centers grows, and more of Atlanta’s tech talent is attracted to Fortune 500 companies, will the local startup landscape wither?
Michael Tavani, founder of downtown startup incubator Switchyards Downtown Club, says no — innovation centers are altogether different from Atlanta’s startup hubs.
“Opening an innovation center — and ‘innovation’ is in quotation marks — in Tech Square, it’s good. It’s an announcement that they can make, it’s something that they can bring younger, prospective employees, by. It looks innovative, but I don’t know that that much innovation is happening in them,” he says. “And I don’t know, frankly, that it really impacts the startup scene.”
From his office in the Georgia Pacific building at Invest Atlanta, Adams believes the growth is coming as a return on the investments both the city and state have made in innovation.
“One of the things that gets lost in the conversation is a lot of this started before a lot of people realize,” he said.
Adams pointed out that ATDC (Advanced Technology Development Center) opened nearly 40 years ago as a state-funded institute that has since birthed the likes of MindSpring and TransNexus, gaining recognition by Forbes on a list of “incubators changing the world,” along with Y Combinator and the Palo Alto Research Center.
“Atlanta has been solidified as the capital of innovation for not only the state of Georgia but for the southeast,” Adams said, thanks to the city’s commitment to helping tech companies thrive.
And Invest Atlanta is focused on making sure the city’s talent doesn’t get entirely swooped up by large companies.
“We don’t want to be a city where only big firms come to launch innovation centers,” Adams said.
“In the near term, we’re really focused on bringing students into startups,” Adams explained. “Right now, the model is sort of: graduate, go to a big company, learn some things.”
But early experience in startups is critical for young entrepreneurs, he believes.
“The positive thing is more and more students are joining startups right out of college,” Adams said. “The development of that entrepreneurial skill set and startup experience early on is crucial.”
Wherever the talent ends up, Atlantans stand to be early beneficiaries of much of the corporate-level innovation occurring in accelerators around the city. That could come in the form of a more efficient travel experience at Hartsfield-Jackson through Delta’s work at The Hangar or a safer, more reliable Atlanta Streetcar system, which Siemens is working on at Tech Square.
“Technology brings jobs, vibrancy and development,” Adams said. “Atlanta has been at the forefront of bringing that into the state and region.”
Images via Georgia Tech.