Outgoing Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson Reflects On Innovation, Cooperation, and Waffle House As An Economic Growth Engine

Bud Peterson

When G.P. “Bud” Peterson was appointed President of Georgia Tech in 2009, the campus and surrounding neighborhood looked quite different than its 2019 iteration.

Many of the skyline-defining buildings — NCR, Coda, and countless apartments and condos — were not even conceived. Frankly, Midtown Atlanta was simply not the walkable, bustling neighborhood it is today.

And just that one decade ago, the 30-plus corporate innovation centers clustered around the university’s Tech Square also did not yet exist.

Through his 10-year tenure, Peterson oversaw and drove the establishment of all of these corporate innovation centers and their corresponding company partnerships with the school. These companies encompass almost every industry: AT&T, Delta, Panasonic, Honeywell, Accenture, and Georgia Pacific are just a few of the signs now seen around campus.

“This is a very different place than it was ten years ago,” Peterson tells Hypepotamus. “These companies are hiring Tech alumni, they’re bringing in talent to relocate here.”

Peterson shared more about his push for innovation last week on a panel covering ‘How Startups and Innovation Centers are Transforming Georgia’s Economy’. The event marked his last time speaking publicly about this topic — the educator announced his retirement from the president position this year and will officially step down next month.

Beyond reinforcing the impressive statistics — Georgia Tech has an annual impact of almost $3 billion on the state’s economy and works with hundreds of startups each year through its entrepreneurship programs. Peterson also provided a glimpse into the history of university innovation efforts.

Sometimes, that elicited an unexpected backstory.

“This wasn’t a situation where we thought of this great concept and made it happen,” says Peterson. “It really all happened organically.”

Back in 2009 and thereafter, Peterson and other state officials were trying to create better pathways for startups, both student and faculty-founded and otherwise, to get off the ground.

They already knew that the Southeast did not have the same venture capital scene that places like California have.

“If you go to Silicon Valley, there’s a mentality that the C-suite of those companies, of Google and Facebook, they will be engaged in the startup community,” Peterson explains.

“The alternative that we do have is a lot of Fortune 500 companies,” he says. “So how do we connect the leadership of those companies to our startup community?”

They began bringing in executives of huge enterprises to see firsthand what Peterson and Georgia Tech were fostering in Tech Square. On one such tour, Peterson shares that his team set up meetings with five startups in the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) incubator. The corporate team ended up continuing conversations with three out of those five.

In 2011, the first innovation center officially opened: payments giant NCR’s Hosted Solutions Group. The year 2012 saw the entrance of the Panasonic Innovation Center. In 2013, Thyssenkrupp and AT&T both came to Tech Square. And it’s only ballooned from there.

Peterson says that the more companies they work with, the easier it is to get others to see the value of the partnership.

Beyond the startup connections, another positive development has emerged: the corporations use their proximity to the coveted Georgia Tech graduate pool to feed their talent pipeline.

In this way, corporate innovation centers also contribute to Georgia Tech’s mandate to foster economic development. A study conducted five years ago found that only 50 percent of Georgia Tech grads remain in the state after a year.

“A lot of these students would like to stay in Georgia, but they are going to go where the jobs are,” Peterson says.

This same study will be repeated within the next year, and can serve as a temperature check on whether these activities have affected students’ post-school plans.

In the meantime, Peterson says you can see the economic development activity in Tech Square and Midtown by simply walking the outskirts of campus.

“Eight years ago, it was even a big step forward when Waffle House came in — it’s open 24/7, so it made the street safer, it brought people in, generated more traffic. Those are the kind of little changes that actually make a difference,” he says.

While he still has a few duties to close out, Peterson says he looks forward to seeing what the university under his successor, Dr. Angel Cabrera, will become over the next decade.

“What I’ve told our folks is, don’t miss the next big thing,” he says, citing the school’s leadership in cutting-edge fields like cell-based manufacturing and applied AI.

“If we don’t move quickly, we could lose our position,” says Peterson. And as the event ends and attendees file out of the building, surrounded by the offices of hundreds of startups, dozens of innovation centers, several venture capital firms, and the state’s largest incubator, it’s clear that this is a position he helped to solidify. 

Photos via Georgia Tech