Stephen Fleming wants to make it very clear: He is not retired. He’s not working on his golf handicap. He is, however, looking for work.
“It’s just me right now, finding some clients that are in the profile of the sorts of things I’ve been doing for the last embarrassing number of years. ” the former general manager of Georgia Tech’s successful Advanced Technology Development Center told me as we sat recently in General Assembly’s offices in Ponce City Market, a short bicycle ride from his Midtown home. A late afternoon thunderstorm rumbled as he described his new consultancy, Boostphase, which he started earlier this year, shortly after leaving both the ATDC and his position as Vice President of GTech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. (In March, Fleming also left his 16-year director position at XCOR Aerospace, a reusable spacecraft startup.)
“I realized I’ve been working in and around startups for 28 years.” Fleming glanced at nearby GA members tapping away on their MacBooks. “That’s a long time — older, I think, than anybody sitting in this suite of offices,” he laughed.
In his 11 years at ATDC, the venture capitalist and mentor to many Atlanta tech startups played a significant role in the transformation of Midtown from seedy neighborhood to the hub of the city’s current entrepreneurial boom. Several of Atlanta’s Fortune 500 corporations have also either set up research and development centers there or are currently building them, as they look to ally themselves with a city sector that has come to represent millennial talent and energy.
Despite that growth, Georgia Tech late last year spoke of the desire for “new leadership” at ATDC and EII in announcing Fleming’s departure. He talks about the split, his take on Atlanta’s tech ecosystem, and his next steps.
Tell us about Boostphase.
I’m been doing this for a long time, so I’m trying to help some startups. I’ve got a university I’m working with, not in Georgia. I’m working with a municipality, working with some folks in China on incubator strategy. So I’m just trying to help out people that are moving into this world.
Georgia Tech said it was looking for “new leadership” when they announced your departure, did they talk to you about a different direction for ATDC?
Maybe not a different direction, but I think it was just time. I won’t claim that I volunteered, but I certainly did cooperate. They made it clear they wanted to make the change. You’ve got to remember, I signed up for that job for a two year hitch 11 years ago (laughs), so it’s kind of like, I’ve done my two years more than once. It certainly was friendly. I miss the team that I built. We put an incredible team of people in place, luckily they’re all still there. They’re doing awesome work. I’m proud of them. It’s a great team, a great set of programs.
As I’ve always had to point out to people, my mandate went far beyond startups. Startups were about 20 percent of what I did. It’s a 200-person organization, a large group, and really unmatched anywhere else in academia that I’ve found, because Georgia Tech has taken that concept of using the university for economic development and took it to heart. I don’t expect them to slow down or change course that much.
Where do you leave the ATDC and its place in Atlanta’s tech ecosystem?
I was very pleased. The biggest thing that I didn’t get a chance to finish was that we had started working on a different model, moving the ATDC particularly from being exclusively public-funded to a public-private partnership. We secured the one major gift from Worldpay to build the financial tech center, which was significant. We were working on a couple more in connected areas that would fit for Atlanta, but that’s something I had to walk away from. If you look at incubators around the country, some of them are purely profit-based, some of them are purely state-funded, and some of them are mixed. I think that mix is a good strategy for ATDC and I hope that will continue.
Both Midtown and the city’s tech sector have seen rapid growth. Any qualms about Atlanta managing that development?
It’s a great problem to have when you’ve got other cities and people emigrating away and you’ve got buildings that you can throw rocks through because nobody’s in them. I think it’s proving what we were literally working on for 15 years, and again, Tech Square itself was a public-private partnership. It took Georgia Tech, a public entity with a 100-year horizon to plant their flag in the middle of what was not a nice part of town and say, we’re coming, we’re going to stay there forever and we’re gonna keep it clean and safe and vibrant. Everybody started saying, okay, we can invest in Midtown now.
Georgia Tech put a marker on the table 15 years ago for $140 million, and it looks like that’s generated about $2 billion worth in investments. That’s where public-private partnerships make sense. It’s not the public sector trying to run the place. It’s being that anchor tenant, and that made a huge difference in all the apartments and condos and offices.