Georgia Research Alliance 'at a pivot point,' refocusing for the future
Friday, February 15, 2019 12:00 AM

By Maria Saporta  – Contributing Writer, Atlanta Business Chronicle 

Leaders behind the Georgia Research Alliance are seeking to gain traction under the administration of newly-elected Gov. Brian Kemp

The Alliance, launched during the administration of the late Gov. Zell Miller, is a well-respected organization of top business, university and government leaders dedicated to increasing the state’s technology portfolio.

At its quarterly board meeting Feb. 7, a combination of old and new faces were present. David Ratcliffe, retired CEO of Southern Co., was named board chairman – a role he had held in 2005. It also was Russell Allen’s first board meeting as president and CEO of the organization. 

“We are on the verge of taking this to the next level,” Ratcliffe said. “I think we are at a pivot point with a new administration and a new focus." 

Already Ratcliffe, Allen and Mark Sanders, who is GRA’s lobbyist and a longtime friend of the new governor, have met with Kemp, who has promised to attend future meetings. Ratcliffe said Kemp understands the success the Alliance has had over the years and appears open to exploring new opportunities to work with the organization.

That is a significant change from the past two administrations. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue had never been a strong advocate for the Alliance, and he even proposed to incoming governor Nathan Deal to drastically reduce state funding to the organization. Over the years, state funding for the Alliance has gone from about $40 million a year to about half that amount.

Allen called GRA’s funding levels “inconsistent” with a trend line that has been “going in the wrong direction.”

But now the Alliance is working on a new strategic plan, and it is seeking input from the Kemp administration to make sure there’s a close partnership.

“This is historic,” said Larry Gellerstedt, executive chairman of Cousins Properties Inc. and GRA’s outgoing board chair. “We’ve been defensive for many years. We now can refocus GRA for great things in the future.”

Allen said the Alliance has been instrumental in helping grow the state’s research funding to more than $1 billion a year. About half of those dollars come from the National Institutes of Health, which has had a 20 percent growth rate in grants to Georgia universities since 2010 (compared to a national growth rate of 7.5 percent).

“I’m not viewing this as a blank slate,” Allen said. “GRA has a really strong foundation." 

But Allen said there are areas that need attention, such as a need to increase endowment levels given to eminent scholars the Alliance is trying to lure to the state. There also is increased competition from other states for scholars and commercialization support.

Allen listed several opportunities for increased support – investing more in brain health research and “translational” agriculture, that encompasses food security and research.

A draft strategic plan will be presented at the May board meeting, which the governor is expected to attend. The plan will be delivered to Kemp during the summer for his input, and an implementation plan will be presented at the September board meeting.