Anyone who has started a technology venture in the South can tell you what Silicon Valley thinks of us: We’re stupid and backward. Today, you will learn why “Southern innovation” isn’t an oxymoron — and never was, really. Join us on a journey around the South to meet a lot of people who are breaking new ground.
By Andrew Dietz
To understand the current state of Southern innovation, it is instructive to start in San Francisco with a prophet named Moses.
Moses Ma is a Silicon Valley innovation expert with a thriving consultancy and a 2014 book he co-authored called “Agile Innovation: The Revolutionary Approach to Accelerate Success, Inspire Engagement, and Ignite Creativity.” Revealing a vision of the South he claims his California colleagues hold, Moses proclaims this about Southern innovation: “If America is a time machine, then Silicon Valley is living in the 22nd century while the old South is not yet in the 21st.”
I was introduced to Moses 20 years ago when he was running the video game company he founded, Velocity, which was a pioneer in networked, multiplayer games. Arriving for the first time at Velocity’s seemingly empty office on the 31st floor of San Francisco’s prestigious Embarcadero Center, I wondered where Moses and his teammates had gone.
“They’re finger-painting right now,” the receptionist told me. She pointed to black curtains drawn against an interior glass wall. “In the conference room,” she said, and shooed me past the drapery where I found Moses and his ink-fingered programmers rubbing portraits of a chunky young woman splayed buck-naked across the table. Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” serenaded us. Beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking San Francisco Bay, a flock of starlings performed aerial ballet. In the late 20th century, this was how you fostered a culture of creativity in the world’s center of innovation.
Recently, Moses Ma and his Agile Innovation experts completed a workshop for one of Forbes magazine’s 15 Southern billionaire families and its real estate and oil empire lieges. Some in the family wondered if, after 100 years, it was time for the company to diversify and innovate. Enter Ma’s innovation SWAT team. It started like this: Moses wanted to pepper the training session with massage therapists, gravity inversion devices, yoga and tai chi instruction to ease the initial tension. All of these ideas were nixed.
“There has to be greater acceptance of change, but people won’t change when they’re afraid. Creativity is found on the other side of fear,” Ma says. So, he flipped the rules and pushed the group to the “other side of fear” — spurring participants to walk over broken glass and to break arrows against their throats. “Change doesn’t come quickly to the Deep South,” Ma opined. “It is set in its ways, processes and rituals.”
But there’s good news. "I found the group to be extremely innovative once they unlocked their creativity,” Ma says. “Which is what our work is all about. After letting go of their initial shyness, they produced hundreds of ideas and innovated as skillfully as any Fortune 500 company."
The “mind of the South” may still be stereotyped as an ultra-conservative, ossified relic, but both the businesses and the arts of the South demonstrate that there is an improvisational, iconoclastic and rebellious undercurrent. A free-flowing ethic of expression, experimentation and eccentricity runs through the Southern creative landscape. And there’s a discipline and diligence born of necessity. The South’s genius is as likely to spring from a DIY — a self-taught do-it-yourselfer — as it is from a Ph.D. Coupled with the region’s highly sociable, collaborative spirit, these intangibles may provide a razor’s edge that sets Southern innovation apart.
The question is: Can the region advance beyond appearances and actually wield the blade it holds?
A hundred years ago, the Southern innovation train seemed to tote only carnival-car frivolities when it went north of the 40th parallel.
A Nashville dentist and his confectioner friend built the first cotton-candy machine in 1897. Lips smacked when Nashville’s Standard Candy Company concocted GooGoo Clusters in 1912. Chattanooga Bakery came up with the MoonPie in 1917. Other modern Southern inventions like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Chik-fil-A boneless breasts, Popeye’s spicy chicken, Krispy Kreme donuts and Krystal Burgers were best when swallowed with any combination of Southern soft drinks like Coca-Cola, Pepsi (yes, Pepsi started in North Carolina), RC Cola, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper, Nehi, Barq’s, Mello Yello and Cheerwine. For much of the 20th century world, Southern innovation sounded like the raucous belches of the overcarbonated.
Innovation is different down here nowadays. Birmingham’s Innovation Depot sits alongside the mile-long swath of land carved out by the town’s founding fathers as The Railroad Reservation — it was the city’s hub of commerce during its industrial heyday. Housed in a revamped Sears department store, Innovation Depot is a 140,000-square-foot space that nurtures early-stage life-sciences and technology innovators vying to cure cancer or become the next Mark Zuckerberg. By 2014, Innovation Depot was cultivating 99 early-stage companies with 694 employees and 26 U.S. patents filed – seven short years after its launch. A contemporary behemoth of concrete, glass and steel and capped with a giant art deco Innovation Depot logo, it is the flagship facility among dozens of Alabama innovation initiatives — incubators, hubs, centers and funds from Mobile to Auburn, Tuscaloosa to Muscle Shoals.
Alabama isn’t alone in its effort to seed more innovative Southern businesses. The chamber-of-commerce hyperbole clangs like the bells of a church steeple when it comes to which Southern state’s innovations are sexiest.
Let’s begin with Tennessee. In Nashville, Launch manages a network of nine business accelerator offices across the state. Memphis has Memphis EPIcenter, Emerge Memphis, Memphis Bioworks and StartCo, which operates three venture accelerators. Chattanooga has declared a 140-acre zone in the midst of its rejuvenated downtown as its Innovation District. They hype it as “a catalytic mix of start-up businesses, business incubators and accelerators alongside innovation economy generators & amenities — available in a dense, walkable urban core.”
At The University of Florida’s Innovation Square in Gainesville, your business can shape audacious ideas in the school’s Innovation Hub facility. There are seven other incubators percolating in this college town, too. Or, if you’re a student innovator, you can bunk at Infinity Hall, where The Entrepreneurial Living Learning Community encourages you to invent the next big thing from the comfort of your dorm room. They call it a “dormcubator.”
In South Carolina, the Watt Family Innovation Center launched in January 2016 at Clemson University and — connected to a high-performance computing resource and a 100-gigabit network — can link researchers, students, government agencies and private-sector partners across the State. Greenville has its NEXT Innovation Center, the Greenville SEED co-working space and the International Transportation Innovation Center. Charleston has its own Innovation District and the Lowcountry Innovation Center. Boeing recently opened a 104,000 square foot Research & Technology Center near the company’s massive Dreamliner plant in North Charleston.
In Georgia, Savannah promotes its Creative Coast initiative meant to cultivate the city’s creators and innovators. Creative Coast produces the annual Geekend gathering of entrepreneurs, designers and techies. Since 2011, Columbus, Georgia, has hosted Creative South, a yearly gathering of the region’s creative and design community that fills the historic Springer Opera House. More than 80 new business incubators are active in Atlanta, focusing on niches from consumer products and neuroscience to healthcare technology and civic innovation.
At least 10 of the country’s largest corporations — from The Coca-Cola Company and AT&T to Georgia-Pacific and Newell Rubbermaid - have opened ATL innovation centers. With Georgia Tech as its resident, Midtown Atlanta calls its Innovation District a "Living Lab" where local entrepreneurs, app developers and researchers are encouraged to collaborate and test new innovations. Midtown is also HQ to one of the world’s largest architecture and design firms, Perkins+Will. P+W designed Clemson’s innovation center as well as University of Florida’s Infinity Hall and created the designs for the Georgia-Pacific and Newell Rubbermaid innovation centers. The firm’s own Innovation Incubator participates actively in the Atlanta market, with alumni such as Ryan Gravel, who conceived the city’s Beltline project.
Not to be outdone, North Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas all tout an array of innovation networks, gateways, partnerships, zones, centers, councils and conferences. Nearly half the Board of Directors for the National Business Incubator Association come from Southern cities.
It remains tricky, though, to distinguish real advancement from puffery. Despite all of the current efforts to spark innovation, in 2014, California still produced more patents (40,661) than 12 Southern states combined (26,924). Among the most influential innovations from the new first decade of the new millennium, none was created in the South. Even if the Southern innovation engine is running faster than ever, is it flying full force like a maglev bullet train or just chugging along like Thomas the Tank?
Or maybe what’s actually happening all depends on your frame of reference. From the platform of Birmingham’s Innovation Depot, it looks like great progress. But when standing on the threshold of Google headquarters, Southern innovation still looks a little like the wreck of the Old 97.
Andrew Drake was a Southerner by choice. He lived in Atlanta for 12 years, married an Atlanta native and had become a prominent Atlanta civic and business leader. Once he pulled up stakes and moved to Silicon Valley, that bought him exactly nothing.
Frustrated with a lack of entrepreneurial opportunities in Atlanta, Drake moved west in 2010 and joined an emerging technology company. In some ways, he was starting over.
“There is an enormous bias in Silicon Valley,” Drake says of how his time in the South is viewed by his California colleagues, “that if it didn’t happen here, it doesn’t really count. I don’t get any credit out here for the work I did in Atlanta.”
For Drake, two elements stand in stark contrast between his years in the South and those in the Valley.
“The first is risk. Innovation is a great word to use when things work, but even when they don’t — which is most of the time with innovation — failed risk-takers are respected in Silicon Valley,” Drake says. “Where I worked in Atlanta, trying and failing was a black mark. They talked a good innovation game, but they didn’t really mean it, and I think that’s broadly true of the old-line Southern companies.”
Critical mass is the second element that Drake believes is sorely lacking in the South’s innovation equation: meaning despite its best efforts, the region doesn’t have enough serial entrepreneurs, venture success stories and risk capital to support a viable self-sustaining ecosystem. “It’s one thing to be a truly innovative individual, but if you’re the only one in town, your ability to make a difference is smaller than if you’re surrounded by innovative collaborators,” Drake says.
Drake is right. The South is no Silicon Valley.
Nor, perhaps, should it try to be.
Stephen Fleming, an outspoken champion of Atlanta’s innovation infrastructure, has been trying to convince his fellow Southerners of this for a long time. Fleming is an Atlanta native, Georgia Tech graduate and a successful venture capitalist. Easy to spot in a crowd, Fleming is a burly, bearded man with a booming voice and a lapel button with a red slash through the word “Valley.”
He explains, “To well meaning people who ask how we make Atlanta the next Silicon Valley, I point to my button and say that’s not a useful nor desirable goal. A more helpful question is, ‘How do we become a better Atlanta and build upon what we’ve got?’”
Back in 1997, while his comrades were hoping to turn Atlanta into Silicon South, Fleming joked about the South’s prospects, “They say that on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog. Well, no one knows you're a Southerner, either!"
Fleming has called himself an “academic VC.” After seven years as general partner of an early-stage venture capital firm sponsored by the Georgia Research Alliance, he returned to Georgia Tech in mid-2005, where he served 10 years as vice president for economic development and technology ventures and executive director of the Enterprise Innovation Institute. He understands the interplay between innovation-dependent businesses, economic development agencies, entrepreneurial citizens and research universities. But there’s only one of these where the diverse ingredients for innovation naturally cluster: It is the university. Fleming put it this way in a recent article, “We connect the ecosystem. That’s what we’re about.” That need for connection isn’t always immediately apparent to folks in the lab.
In 2012, National Science Foundation picked Georgia Tech for its I-Corps university technology commercialization program to make the connection between the scientists and the suits. Tech was one of only three universities (alongside Stanford and University of Michigan) to be an I-Corps designee and given $1.5 million in funding to move new technologies from laboratories into operating businesses. As part of the national faculty of I-Corps, Georgia Tech alumnus John Bacon helps to connect university technology spinouts with corporations and teaches university researchers how to turn their knowledge into money-making products.
Bacon also leads IP2Biz, an innovation consultancy, and his office in Midtown Atlanta overlooks the center of the city’s innovation community.
“Innovation is all about collisions,” he says. “It rarely survives without interactions with collaborators. Looking down to Tech Square from my office, I see those face-to-face connections occur every minute of every day. The Midtown Atlanta technology landscape is a strong, legitimate, sustainable example of an innovation ecosystem.”
The push to remake Southern Universities into super-productive innovation centers escalated in 2015 like a Cold War arms race.
- In January, Clemson’s Watt Family Innovation Center — a $30.5 million facility - announced that Philips Lighting North America and SCRA Applied Technologies had signed on as founding innovation partners.
- In February, the University of South Carolina broke ground on a new Innovation Center to house its Center for Applied Innovation.
- In July, Louisiana Tech University announced its public-private
partnership with the Cyber Innovation Center in the form of a new Louisiana Tech Research Institute.
- In August, Vanderbilt University announced that it is developing a new Innovation Center to “support a ‘maker’ culture that will encourage entrepreneurship and creativity.”
- In September, the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded the University of Florida $8 million toward the Phase II construction of its Florida Innovation Hub.
- In October, the Cambridge Innovation Center said it would build its second U.S. expansion location at University of Miami Life Science & Technology Park.
- In November, Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, established a new center “designed to advance a culture of innovation and develop a thriving community of entrepreneurs, with a focus on utilizing technology to foster economic growth, create 21st century jobs and attract and retain talent.”
- In December, the University of Houston announced a partnership with the Texas Collegiate Regional Center to develop two 75,000 square-foot buildings as part of its Energy Research Park innovation complex.
“The rise of innovation-based projects are a reflection of universities becoming more actively engaged in the business of economic development,” says Perkins+Will urban designer Kevin Bacon. “These projects are unlocking the intellectual capital of their universities — their students, researchers, faculty, and staff — and supporting entrepreneurship to sustain the creation of new business and jobs in the communities in which they are located.”
The investment in university-centered innovation is beginning to pay off. In September 2015, Reuters published its ranking of the world’s most innovative universities based on academic publications and patent filings. Three Southern universities made the top 25. The University of North Carolina scored highest: No. 15. That’s got something to do with Buck Goldstein, whose transition from VC to university innovator shares some of the elements of Fleming’s story.
A prescient entrepreneur, Goldstein launched a pioneering B2B online service, Information America, in the early 1980s. After selling Information America in 1994 and a successful run in venture capital, Goldstein joined the university faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2004 to help make entrepreneurship and innovation a core practice of the university. In 2010, Buck Goldstein and UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp co-authored “Engines of Innovation — The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century.”
Goldstein and Thorp propose that if our country’s top research universities can operate in a more entrepreneurial and innovative manner themselves, they hold the key to solving our worst social challenges and dramatically improving our economy.
“The engines for growth in the next 25 to 50 years are going to be great universities — especially in the South. If our regional economy is looking for what’s going to replace furniture, textiles, crops and carpet, you can look at higher education and its role in sparking innovation,” Goldstein says. “Corporate science and technology research at places like Xerox PARC and BellLabs used to be preeminent in terms of innovation. Now nothing compares to the investment in research and development taking place at the nation’s top schools. In 2014, the National Science Foundation ranked UNC eighth in research and development spending at $1 billion. If you look at the 125 biggest research universities, their combined endowment is something close to $250 billion. They are multidisciplinary, with all the pieces needed for solving the biggest challenges under one roof. You could argue they’re the crown jewel of the society. They have the staying power to make a long-term difference. If you’re betting on what will be around 200 years from now — University of North Carolina, University of Georgia or any company you could name - you would bet on UNC and UGA.”
But even if the South’s blossoming innovation centers yield a bumper crop of entrepreneurs, is the region still simply playing a weak game of copycat? Or could the South’s innovation efforts and the unique burdens of its history and benefits of its cultural heritage wind up giving it a distinct regional advantage?
Eric Weiner is a best-selling author and former NPR and New York Times correspondent. In his newest book, “The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World's Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley,” Weiner claims to have cracked the code on how the people and places immediately around us affect our innovations.
“Cultural geography matters,” Weiner says. “Throughout history, geniuses haven’t appeared randomly but rather in genius clusters.” He stretches the idea of innovation beyond technology and science and points to ancient Athens, Greece, during the Golden Age as a genius cluster whose innovations were mainly in culture and politics.
“Genius is contagious,” Weiner says. Back when Athens had no more than 150,000 inhabitants, it produced an epidemic of innovators from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Hippocrates.
The Southern Renaissance in poetry, fiction and drama that began in the 1920s is the closest the South has come to its own Golden Age of Innovation. Tired of being cast off as morons outside the mainstream, a crop of Southern writers went on the offensive. This period produced Southern literary innovators like William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Wolfe and Zora Neale Hurston. The ’20s and ’30s were also a time of radically shifting music trends instigated by Southern artists: from the urban blues of W.C. Handy to the improvisational instrumentals and vocals of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. As commercial radio broadcasting took off in the 1920s, the “devil’s music” of the shunned South passed over airwaves and penetrated the ears and possessed the souls of the rest of America.
“Genius is often committed by society’s outsiders who aren’t so outside that they can’t affect culture. The South of the 1920s and 1930s still had its own culture and still seemed geographically isolated from the rest of the country,” Weiner notes. “Creativity gets channeled into the spaces available to it. Literature and music were the containers the South had available.”
One Southern space that channeled a torrent of creativity was the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly complex in the bucolic town of Black Mountain, North Carolina. Black Mountain College — just outside of Asheville — was the brainchild of an unlikely proponent of radical innovation: an heir to Southern propriety and tradition.
John Andrew Rice was born to a highbred South Carolina family at Tanglewood Plantation just outside of Florence. He attended Tulane, then Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, after which he committed to a career in education. His pursuit of success in traditional academia was short-lived. Rice was dismissed from a series of university roles for broadcasting razor-toothed critiques of his employers. In 1933, after being fired from his faculty role at Rollins College for publicly lambasting the school’s leadership, he set out on his own. Rice and several colleagues founded Black Mountain College that same year as a progressive liberal arts school that honored direct experience, experimentation and the practice of art as central components of the curriculum.
From 1933 to 1957, Black Mountain College was a beehive of global genius in the heart of the South. The program attracted and cultivated brilliant arts innovators like Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Josef and Anni Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Cy Twombly, Kenneth Noland, Robert Motherwell, Walter Gropius, Harry Callahan, Ben Shahn, Franz Kline, Alan Ginsberg and Buckminster Fuller. Albert Einstein and poet William Carlos Williams served on the Black Mountain College Board of Advisors. Students were urged and expected to experiment — to test, try, fail, and to explore the unconventional. Faculty set the example. It was at Black Mountain that Bucky Fuller constructed his first geodesic dome. It was at Black Mountain that John Cage construed what would later be considered the first “Happening” — an early form of performance art.
Black Mountain College closed its doors in 1957, but it remains revered — referred to as mythical or fabled, a monumental experiment that was radically innovative and enormously influential. Did this happen in spite of its rural Appalachian locale or because of it? Published recollections of Black Mountain participants are filled with evidence of how the school’s Southern setting shaped the experience. They tell of participating in chores on the Black Mountain farm and helping with maintenance, working in the print and woodworking shops building furnishings and other equipment to operate the college. They speak of regular excursions to towns, farms, schools and even coal mines. They recall hikes through the Smoky Mountains along the Appalachian Trail. They recount watching the workers of Burlington Mills and learning from the craftspeople of Biltmore Industries in nearby Asheville.
One former Black Mountain student wrote, “Trips were highlights of my ‘Southern experience,’ sociological trips in particular. Nothing one had studied in earlier years or read of in a classroom situation could compare with the sights, sounds, smells and atmosphere of a Georgia landscape, seeing the living conditions of black sharecroppers and learning firsthand what the government was doing about them.” Intentionally or not, Black Mountain was both shaped by and embodied the expressive, experimental and eccentric Southern spirit.
Nearly 30 years after Black Mountain shuttered its doors, another Southern art school has disrupted the creative landscape: Savannah College of Art & Design.
SCAD had grown like a rocket — from 71 students in its opening year of 1978 to more than 10,000 today with campuses in Atlanta; Savannah; Lacoste, France; and Hong Kong. SCAD’s embrace of the business world stands in sharp contrast to the fine-arts university establishment. The fashionable Parsons School of Design in New York states that its mission is to have students “learn to apply the transformative capacity of design responsibly, creatively and purposefully.” The School of the Art Institute of Chicago says its mission is “to provide excellence in the delivery of a global education in visual, design, media and related arts, with attendant studies in the history and theory of those disciplines set within a broad-based, humanistic curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences.”
SCAD’s mission statement is more prosaic: “Savannah College of Art and Design exists to prepare talented students for professional careers.” It calls itself “The University for Creative Careers.”
SCAD equips students with more than art chops. It teaches them creative problem-solving methods essential for business innovation. Best-selling author Daniel Pink chronicled the rising importance of design thinking skills in his 2006 book, “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The World.” The 2008 Great Recession validated Pink’s proposal that flexible, non-linear problem solving skills were essential to business survival. In a 2010 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Pink said, “The abilities that now matter most are those characteristic of the right hemisphere (of the brain): artistry, empathy, inventiveness and big-picture thinking. Those skills have now become first among equals in a whole range of businesses and professions.”
“Design is the future of innovation,” says John Paul Rowan, SCAD’s vice president for strategy and innovation and son of the school’s co-founder and leader, Paula Wallace. Innovation is also the future of design. SCAD’s ongoing reinvention is informed by constant interaction with top industry innovators in corporate America. SCAD’s Collaborative Learning Center is a primary facilitator of that interaction, according to Rowan.
SCAD's CLC is student-powered, cross-discipline creative consultancy tackling real and significant challenges posed by client companies like Coke, Microsoft, HP and Fisher Price. The SCAD website describes it this way, “During these for-credit CLC projects, students have the opportunity to experience first-hand working within a professional environment, including market research, branding, product development, client relationships and presentations, contracts and deadlines.”
Rowan believes collaboration born of ongoing relationships is the secret sauce of Southern innovation.
“The South is historically very relationship-based, and that’s the basis of strong collaboration,” he says. “There’s huge innovative power in collaboration. So, on any of our CLC engagements, we may have students from 10 to 12 different disciplines participating and bringing their unique perspectives to the project. Being in the South may well set us up to be better at collaborative innovation than others.”
SCAD has used its relationships and collaborations with industry to inform its own innovation efforts. Its relationship with Google led SCAD to launch the country’s first user-experience (or UX) design degree program. Working with the likes of Disney and Coca-Cola resulted in SCAD’s branded entertainment degree. Brainstorming with service quality leaders like Chik-fil-A influenced SCAD’s launch of a service design major.
Six years ago, Dwain Cox — who holds a Ph.D. in nuclear physics — became director of innovation and design for Chik-fil-A Inc. He launched Hatch, one of the company’s two innovation centers. While the other CFA innovation center, The Kitchen, focuses on new-product development, Hatch concentrates on innovation in restaurant design and customer service. In 2016, Chik-fil-A is opening nearly one new restaurant every day, and many of its 1,900 existing locations are renovated and redesigned each year. Hatch provides a safe place to experiment with new and customized store layouts designed to improve customers’ experiences.
Hatch operates in a nondescript office park on the industrial outskirts of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport near Chik-fil-A’s corporate campus. Inside the 80,000-square-foot warehouse is an open, reconfigurable space, where Cox and his team of researchers, designers and staff collaborate with restaurant operators and customers to put design ideas through their paces. Various vignettes — full-blown, mock restaurants made of foam board and white plastic — populate the building and allow the team to run simulations of the Chik-fil-A experience. In a nearby lab area, there’s a control room where Cox and colleagues can watch a live video feed of each faux facility, where real restaurant workers prepare real food for real customers. The observers make notes and suggest changes to the set-up. In minutes, it is reconfigured, and the test starts again. Just in case the multiple life-size mock-ups don’t do the trick, Cox has outfitted another Hatch space where customers strap on Oculus goggles and provide feedback based on a virtual reality stroll through different computer-generated restaurant designs.
Dwain Cox now serves on the board of SCAD, and the restaurant chain relies on SCAD as a key source of ideas and talent. “Innovation is the only thing you can’t automate,” Cox says. “It is a people thing. Step one is keeping the capable people in the Southeast. Good news is there’s never been a time that there have been more talented people staying here. Who would have thought that the premier art school in the world would be a Georgia-based institution?”
It may seem like a discontinuity: that a global force in arts and innovation could arise and thrive in Savannah. But SCAD has been an integral partner in reviving the city’s once tarnished urban core. The college has renovated and revitalized more than half of the 80 buildings it occupies in downtown Savannah. In 2014, Travel + Leisure magazine’s 2014 World’s Best Awards ranked Savannah as the No. 3 city in the U.S. and Canada. It was proof that architecture and design can morph a city from a has-been into a what’s-next and that the South has significant urban innovation prowess.
Like Birmingham’s Innovation Depot, Atlanta’s Ponce City Market exists within the revamped shell of a former Sears, Roebuck & Co. building. It is a mixed-used facility, with friendly retailers and funky food shops swarming with hip, millennial knowledge workers. While not solely dedicated to fostering innovation, the gargantuan facility houses the headquarters of Southern technology innovators like MailChimp — one of Atlanta’s marketing-software success stories. A prince among adaptive reuse developments, Ponce City Market might not have achieved the same instant success had it not been located along Atlanta’s Beltline — the King of Atlanta’s urban renewal and a civic innovation in its own right.
Ryan Gravel invented the Atlanta Beltline. In his 1999 Georgia Tech master’s thesis, Gravel hatched the idea of converting 22 miles of unused rail corridor surrounding Atlanta into multi-use greenway with trails linking disconnected in-town neighborhoods. Seventeen years since submitting his paper, Gravel — now a professional urban planner - has seen his innovation become a $4 billion public-private project that has reaped tremendous benefit for Atlanta. It breathed new life into the formerly decrepit Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, for instance.
Gravel’s urban design consultancy, Sixpitch, is headquartered in Ponce City Market in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. His new book is “Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities.”
“The original beltline of historic railroad tracks was a classic barrier — as in, which side of the tracks are you on?” Gravel says. His soft, measured speech is calming and certain. “Now, it’s a meeting ground between communities. Social interaction is where you get creativity. Changing the physical form of the city can stimulate interaction and innovation.”
Gravel is a social innovator: an entrepreneur who solves societal issues with tactics originating outside the traditional non-profit world. As the South has raised more than its fair share of societal challenges, we also have grown a bumper crop of social innovators. That’s the opinion of Rohit Malhotra, a friend of Gravel’s and the founder of Atlanta’s Center for Civic Innovation, an incubator for entrepreneurs devoted to social change. Malhotra grew up in Atlanta, earned a master’s degree in public policy degree from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and worked as a Government Innovations Fellow in The White House. He launched the Center for Civic Innovation in 2014.
“We’ve identified thousands, in Atlanta alone, who have made a conscious choice to build businesses that fix broken societal systems,” Malhotra says.
Malhotra sees the South’s relationship culture as an advantage for social innovators. That’s why he does his part to foster more interactions to spark more ventures. He hosts regular “collective problem-solving” events that bring together entrepreneurs who are addressing the same social issues. Time invested upfront in building business relationships in the South opens innovators to a flow of resources that may come more generously here than elsewhere.
“The culture plays a huge role,” Malhotra says. “Anyone who thinks they can start a business here without drinking sweet tea with their partners and investors first is kidding themselves. When people ask me how we scaled the Center for Civic Innovation so fast, I tell them we sat down and did the Southern hospitality thing first.”
Agricultural innovation is also thriving in the South, and we have James Oglethorpe, in part, to thank for that. When Oglethorpe settled Savannah in 1732, his ambition was to create a colony based on farming and agricultural innovation. Within two years of landing, Oglethorpe and his backers established the Trustees’ Garden — a 10-acre plot dedicated to botanical and agricultural experiments. During its first 15 years, the Trustee Gardeners tried to figure out what would grow in the Savannah dirt. They experimented with grapes, oranges, capers, olives, ginseng, sassafras, figs, pomegranates, plums, flax and rice.
Two hundred years later, agricultural experimentation remained a part of Savannah’s early 20th Century plantation culture. Henry Ford made sure of it. Through the late 1920s and early 1930s, the auto tycoon stitched together large swaths of plantation land on the Ogeechee River just outside of Savannah in the area known as Richmond Hill. Should the U.S. be pulled into another major war, Ford feared, the ensuing shortage of tire rubber might stifle his auto empire and hinder the war effort. Ford’s assemblage of coastal Georgia land provided a place to grow his own rubber plants. Even with the help of Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone, however, Ford ultimately failed to develop new sources of rubber. Regardless, Ford’s plantation research lab carried on other efforts to transform agricultural products into automotive materials. And Ford himself urged his fellow plantation owners to do the same. He gave his neighbor, Mills B. Lane of Lebanon Plantation, tung-oil seeds so that Lane might grow a supply of raw materials for engine lubricant. Lane didn’t comply. He was busy producing Satsuma oranges and pecans and building empires of his own.
Today, the master of the Lebanon Plantation manor is Howard J. Morrison Jr., Lane’s grandson. Morrison is a big man. When he sits back on the sofa his long legs stretch out before him like live-oak roots wrapped in khaki pants. Morrison is in his early 70s, but a much younger version, with hunting jacket slung over a shoulder and shotgun in the crook of an arm, watches from a portrait above the arched fireplace mantle. We are discussing innovation while lounging in his red brick residence adjacent to the Lebanon’s main house.
Mills B. Lane Sr. bought the 256-year-old Lebanon Plantation 100 years ago. The estate now serves as the base of operations for a new agricultural experiment: Verdant Kitchen.
Morrison calls Verdant Kitchen “a gourmet and wellness company focused on the ginger and turmeric family of spices.” Wellness refers to the healthful properties of Verdant’s certified organic spices. Ginger is often called a “superfood” and credited as an antioxidant, an anti-inflammatory and even an aphrodisiac. Ginger is the new kale. It is also the fruit of the Lebanon Plantation soil. Browsing the company’s online store, I am reminded of Bubba in “Forrest Gump,” reciting the myriad ways in which shrimp can be prepared.
Bubba forgot ginger shrimp, but Verdant didn’t. If it can be made from ginger, Verdant Kitchen probably makes it. Bare ginger, chocolate-coated ginger, crystallized ginger, ginger-infused honey, ginger sauce, ginger syrup, ground ginger, ginger snaps, turmeric-dusted baby ginger and three flavors of ginger ale (the Artillery Hot Spiced Ginger Ale will blow up your taste buds). Oprah included Verdant’s Ginger Syrup and Ginger Infused Honey Gift Set in her “Favorite Things of 2015” list. In December 2015, the Savannah Morning News named Verdant Kitchen its “Entrepreneurial Business of the Year.” Morrison, it seems, has unearthed innovative opportunity in his own fertile soil.
Howard Morrison explains how his family tree has produced a bounty of problem solvers. Out of the dirt-farming ditches of Reconstruction-era Valdosta, Morrison’s great granddaddy, Remer Lane, started one of the first post-Civil War Southern banks in 1874. Remer’s son, Mills B. Lane Sr., merged that bank with another in Savannah to form C&S Bank in 1906 and kept it growing through World War I and the Great Depression. Along the way, he served on the boards of major Southern companies (like the original makers of Dixie Crystal sugar) and acquired personal interests in others, like the former textile giant, Bibb Manufacturing. Mills’ son, Mills B. Lane Jr., took leadership of C&S at age 34, in the tumult leading to World War II. Mills Jr. was an exuberant marketer and a civic champion who built C&S into a powerhouse over the next three decades. Mills Jr.’s nephew, Howard Morrison, joined C&S in the mid-1960s.
By the mid-1970s, following the rampant growth of Atlanta technology pioneers like Scientific Atlanta, Morrison shifted his business development efforts toward banking the budding tech community. Morrison has had an enormous influence on Georgia’s technology ecosystem ever since. He helped create C&S Bank’s High Technology Banking Group. He co-founded the predecessor organization to the Technology Association of Georgia. He got C&S to fund local venture capital pioneers like Noro-Moseley Partners and the Atlanta Technology Development Fund. After retiring from banking in 1996, he has been board chair of the Georgia Tech Research Corporation and is an inductee in the Georgia High Tech Hall of Fame. In his hometown of Savannah, Morrison helped launch what is now the Creative Coast Alliance and influenced the creation of a Georgia Tech Savannah campus. In 2008, Morrison co-founded a consultancy to develop biomass energy technologies. More recently, he’s been working with health-care technology start-ups when he’s not selling ginger and turmeric.
Morrison carries himself with an easy self-confidence and attentive courtesy as he mixes with members of the local Farm Bureau under a drapery of Spanish moss. The visitors are sampling Lebanon Plantation’s ginger harvest and studying Verdant Kitchen’s approach to farming. Pragmatism and experiential knowledge are as important as science and experimentation when it comes to agricultural innovation, and Morrison gets as much as he gives at these interactions. His friendship with Pete Waller is an example. Morrison counts on Waller’s advice when it comes to Verdant Kitchen. Waller is a Chatham County Farm Bureau board member. He’s the president of the Georgia Strawberry Growers Association. He’s on the Coastal Georgia Resource and Development Council. He’s a member of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and of the Georgia Cattlemen’s Association, and he makes time for the Water Policy Planning Committee and the State of Georgia Farm Service, too.
Morrison gently guides Waller over to say hello. “This is the man I was telling you about,” Morrison says. “He’s got wisdom based on experience. And he’s a real good friend as long as he doesn’t have a gun. He sure knows how to shoot birds.” Waller sniffs, and a small smile cracks his stoic mouth. His head is covered with a white cap. Ottawa Farms, Bloomingdale, GA, it says. “Quality Produce Since 1878.” The place has been in the Waller family that long. Waller’s chin is covered with a curtain of wiry growth running down from his sideburns and along his jawline. The man is country as a turnip green. He’s also smarter than a tree full of owls when it comes to growing things. Waller can grow anything, but he’s mainly a berry and melon man. Ottawa Farms produces strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, watermelon, cantaloupes, pumpkins and pomegranates.
“Right now, we’re tryin’ to put a breedin’ program together for the Southeast for strawberries ’stead of using the ones outta Canada and California,” Waller says. “Time we did it here.” Waller is also an agricultural entertainment impresario — hosting rodeos, corn mazes, pig races and duck races at Ottawa Farms. He says, “Y’know…what you did a hundred years ago, you gotta improve on.”
Dirt-beneath-the-nails innovation is endemic to the South. It feeds the booming craft and maker movements in the region.
The Makers Collective in Greenville, South Carolina, is the brainchild of Lib Ramos, Erin Godbey and Jen Moreau, whose mission is to cultivate a thriving maker community in the Southeast and to connect it to the modern craft movement that is brewing across the U.S. They host the Makers Summit, an annual two-day conference that helps creative entrepreneurs, independent artists and makers turn their handcrafted products into revenue. They also lead the Indie Craft Parade, an annual three-day conclave showcasing Southern makers.
“We really care about the emergence of Southern artists, and we see our organization as part of the continuing Southern renaissance that has been in the works for the past decade or so,” Moreau says. She believes that there is a “noticeable, deep camaraderie among artists” at Makers Collective events. Those events, she says, avoid “destructive competitiveness between makers” and are instead characterized by “a genuine Southern hospitality that flows throughout.”
“In our experience,” she says, “entrepreneurs are willing to share their knowledge and experiences with each other, which results in accelerated innovation and business growth.” In fact, many Makers Collective alumni have seen commercial success: The list includes Billiam Jeans, The Landmark Project, Emily Jeffords and Lovelane Designs.
“As a general rule, I think Southerners are particularly good at passing creative skills from one generation to the next,” Jen says. “Also, I think some of the memory of the darker portions of our history have helped create a new culture where creatives want to be inclusive and fair. And, since Greenville is located so close to the Appalachian mountains, there is a lot of history and creative culture that makes its way to us. The legacy of schools like Black Mountain College and Penland School of Crafts looms large throughout Western North Carolina and upcountry South Carolina. The efforts of artists in our area have both kept alive and helped rebirth traditional forms of arts and craft.”
Southern craftsmen are creating all kinds of small batch, high quality products ranging from clothing and furniture to beer and spirits. They’re innovating using old-school production values and eco-friendly approaches. They’re turning up in every product category: clothing from Alabama Chanin, Ledbury and Raleigh Denim; libations from Terrapin Beer, American Spirit Whiskey and Cathead Vodka; music-based businesses like Fern & Roby Turntables and New West Records to Baxendale Guitar, with its remanufactured with mother-of-pearl inlays and mink-lined cases. Some are fueled by the rise in 3D printing. Robohand is an Atlanta-based company that 3D-prints prosthetic hands, while Feetz is a Chattanooga company that 3D-prints custom shoes. Others are driven by a folksy, friendly Southern authenticity like Bohemian Guitars, that turns salvaged oil cans into instruments.
Bohemian Guitars’ founders, Adam and Shaun Lee, are Southern boys who got their inspiration from street musicians in South Africa playing homemade instruments ginned up from old cans and other found objects. The brothers were smitten with the unique sounds resonating from scrap-metal guitars and decided they could make their own. Operating out of their parents’ basement, they first built ukuleles with lunchbox bodies. Then they built a batch of oil-can guitars and convinced themselves they had a business in the making. Bohemian was born. Now, the company’s hand-made recycled metal and repurposed oil can guitars are played onstage by major artists like Hozier and Shakey Graves.
You know the quote from William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!”
“Tell about the South. What's it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?”
Not long ago, three young creative professionals set out on a road trip to find answers to those questions among artists and innovators across the South. What, they wondered, is that particular something that motivates regional artists to create work that is distinctively Southern? Melonie Tharpe, Cubby West, and James Martin wanted to make a documentary film, “Something in Particular,” that would capture capture the elusive intangibles that define the source of Southern creativity.
The filmmakers believed the second Southern renaissance was on its way, and they aimed to document it in real time. After raising nearly $10,000 through a Kickstarter campaign in early 2012, Tharpe, West and Martin visited 17 cities and interviewed over 200 creators in just over a month. They interviewed luminaries like artist Radcliffe Bailey and musician Jimbo Mathus and they interviewed lesser knowns like the proprietors of the Idea Hatchery in Nashville and the Mojo Coworking space in Asheville. They were able to post a film trailer online and mount a gallery exhibition featuring the work of 10 Southern artists in 2013 before they ran out of money and momentum and put the documentary on indefinite hold.
Still, the remnants of “Something in Particular” reveal distinctive attributes of Southern innovation. Its sound bites speak of an expressive freedom emerging from scarcity. Tension, too, is cited as an important innovative influence here: the ever-present dualities of good and bad, black and white, what’s apparent and what’s hidden behind closed doors. Tolerance and togetherness, even in the midst of a segregated history, provide a support system, a sense of story and an acceptance of the iconoclastic oddity inherent in many innovators.
The South’s vivid contradictions do carry seeds of innovative advantage.
If turmoil is rich fertilizer for innovation, the region should be ready to burst with buds.
“Geography of Genius” author Eric Weiner writes, “There has to be an element of tension and disorder in order for a genius cluster to succeed; comfort is the enemy of creativity.” There is certainly plenty of discomfort to go around in the South. Six Southern states rank in the top 10 for worst poverty rates. A map of the worst health-care systems in the U.S. published by The Atlantic shows the entire Southeast in stark, negative contrast to the rest of the nation. But that is, perhaps, why it’s fair to ask: Is that why inventions like anesthesia or advances in open-heart surgery happened here before they spread elsewhere?
Weiner tells this story: “I talked to a venture capitalist not long ago and asked about who he funds. He said, when someone comes in for funding, he looks for the chip. The microchip? No, the chip on their shoulder. The South has chips to spare.”
Maybe so. That chip-on-the-shoulder is what led to the South’s greatest media success: Ted Turner and the invention of 24-hour news. Turner’s father was born to a Mississippi sharecropper and carried plenty of his own insecurity. He believed instilling insecurity in his own son would push him to greatness. It worked. According to biographer Hank Whittemore’s account of Ted Turner’s creation of CNN, Turner said, “All during my life I had this gnawing feeling that maybe I wasn’t going to be a success.” When he was 18, Ted’s father told him he was “appalled” with his educational path to the point that he “almost puked,” and that the boy was “rapidly becoming a jackass.” Edward Turner’s suicide when Turner was just 24 seemed to ignite a passionate hatred of failure in his son.
“I just love it when people say I can’t do something,” Turner has said. “There’s nothing that makes me feel better because all my life people have said I wasn’t going to make it.”
The badge of failure seems to carry greater weight in the South than elsewhere, mingled as it is here with feelings of personal disgrace.
“In San Francisco, failure is a badge of honor that you wear on your sleeve. Whereas here, if you fail, then you are a failure,” says Tim Adkins, one of the co-founders of FuckUp Nights Atlanta. But FuckUp Nights are celebrations of screwing up, where entrepreneurs confess failures to their fellow founders. The point is to pivot off of failure and use its energy to propel you to the next success.
If the South has real innovation to offer, it doesn’t sprout from the mind of a Stanford Ph.D. or the wallet of a Silicon Valley financier. It isn’t conceived in an Ivy Hall in Cambridge, and it is rarely the result of artificial incubation. The South’s innovation advantage is rooted in authentic scrappiness and the hardscrabble ability to reinvent itself. Its advantage is grounded as much in its universities committed to the arts as in those committed to scientific research. The South’s innovation edge unfolds from its people’s ability to form and protect close relationships and from community and familial loyalty. The South’s intimate relationship with agriculture and its passing of skills from one generation to the next give it an innovation edge. The South’s innovation advantage is also born from unfettered creativity, music and literature and an obsession with self-expression regardless of circumstances. It springs from the burdens and benefits of our history and the promise of what’s next.
So, is Southern innovation an oxymoron or a runaway train?
A litany of innovative geniuses grace the South’s recent history: people like Lonnie Johnson, who has more than 80 patents to his name, ranging from a thermo-electrochemical converter to the Super Soaker squirt gun; or like Chris Klaus, who formed the trailblazing cyber-security company Internet Security Systems in the early 1990s while still a student at Georgia Tech and sold it to IBM in 2006 for $1.3 billion; or like the team of doctors Dennis Liotta, Raymond F. Schinazi and Woo-Baeg Choi, who invented the revolutionary HIV drug now known as Emtriva. Now, Liotta’s son Matt has his own innovation success in a company called PodPonics — an urban hydroponic farming system that produces lettuces within recycled shipping containers. The number of annual patents issued to Southern innovators grew nearly 60 percent between 2001 and 2014. One Southern innovator, Magic Leap, a virtual-reality venture based in Plantation, Florida, raised more than $500 million from Google in 2014. Magic Leap alone has added almost 100 patent applications to the South’s intellectual property trove.
Whether it’s a runaway train remains to be seen, but it’s clear that “Southern innovation” is not an oxymoron. Southern entrepreneurs and artists have produced more than enough innovation to prove that our regional quirks, losses, passions and problems may very well be the mother of our re-invention.
Andrew Dietz is President of the B2B marketing firm, Creative Growth, and author of "The Opening Playbook" and "The Last Folk Hero: A True Story of Race and Art, Power and Profit." He is also the editor of the online publication, IdeaMonger.org - uncovering innovation in uncommon places.