R. Steven Justice, executive director, Georgia Centers of Innovation

R. Steven Justice, the executive director of Georgia’s Centers of Innovation, has access to the official badges which enable him to enter the state’s universities on behalf of companies looking to improve their products or expand their markets.

“If you walk in with the badge, you’re not them, you’re us,” he told Global Atlanta during an interview in his office in Midtown’s Centergy One Building, which also houses the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

“We have the advantage of having folks that live in both worlds,” he added. “It’s a unique set up. We can work very closely with the universities and also the economic development side. Having spanned both cultures, it’s easer to make the connections.”

The six centers connect the state’s research and economic development resources to companies engaged in aerospace, agribusiness, energy and information technologies, logistics or manufacturing.

“What keeps you up at night?” is a likely question that Mr. Justice asks of a CEO, plant manager or the student who has just launched a startup company. The question prompts grateful responses, he said, from as many as a thousand or more companies during the course of a year.

The centers reach out to new arrivals as well as the well-established to explore if there are any resources that they can leverage to make them more successful.

From new components to grubs

And their range is extraordinarily broad from the Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corp. of America to a grub farm.

That’s right — grubs. The center is working Grubbly Farms, a juice company, to use its wasted fruit and vegetable pulp, and an industrial bakery which throws out about 20 tons of food waste a week, to create a paradise for grubs. The grubs are to end up as special treats for chickens.

Chickens aren’t the only customers co-founder Patrick Pittaluga has in mind. “While I do think our pets deserve high-quality food, maybe chicken and fish should be for people, and insects — which may not be appealing to people, but still nutritionally valuable — can go to feed dogs,” he says.

Chickens love ’em, and soon dogs will too.

The centers aren’t leery of high-tech challenges either.

For example, when Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corp. needed to improve the composite material for the personal watercraft, utility vehicles, golf carts, and other products that it makes in three plants in the state, those badges came in handy.

The Center of Innovation for Manufacturing used its access to the Georgia Institute of Technology where the university’s nanotechnology research and development team helped to create lighter and stronger materials that met the company’s needs.  The new materials allowed the company the ability to test locally instead of having that part of the business return to Japan.

From workforce training to NASA projects

Georgia Tech’s tentacles reach across the state, and the Centers like to reach out to new arrivals such as Firth Rixson Forgings LLC, a manufacturer of turbine discs for jet engines, when it came to Liberty County’s Tradeport East Business Center in 2010.

The Center of Innovation for Manufacturing quickly introduced the new arrival from SheffieldU.K., to Georgia Tech’s Savannah campus and the Altamaha Technical College. The company soon partook in the state’s Quick Start program, which provided training for its workforce, and it partnered with the university’s aerospace department to develop new jet engine components.

Before assuming his position as the Centers’ executive director, Mr. Justice was involved in the state’s aerospace initiatives and serves on Georgia Tech’s School of Aerospace Engineering Advisory Council, so he is particularly proud of the Center of Innovation for Aerospace’s involvement with Area I Inc. that started with a prototype for an “unmanned airplane,” a scale model of a Boeing 737 aircraft with only a 12-foot wingspan.

In its own words, the company now develops “technologies that augment aircraft performance through advanced aerodynamic treatments, superior airframe and propulsion system design, and cutting-edge guidance, navigation and control systems.”

Nick Alley, Area I’s CEO, built the prototype with grants from the state, in 2011 and the craft is currently being used at Edwards Air Force Base in California to test new aerodynamic technologies deemed unsafe for a manned flight. 

Mr. Justice said that the craft was conceived at Georgia Tech and the Center was able to shepherd its development and leverage its contacts to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as well as the U.S. Air Force leading to contracts with both.

“Sometimes the Center is just a sounding board,” he said. “But the two people who started Area I today have 15 working at the company in Kennesaw.”

From ‘nanofarms’ to dueling robots

And you never know from whence a new project is to come. For instance, Ruwan Subasinghe, an Indian student at Georgia Tech, became tired of looking at wilted lettuce in his fridge. Instead of just throwing it out, Mr. Subasinghe decided to start Replantable LLC, which manufactures what he calls “nanofarms” — small microwave-sized appliances that encourage the customer to “Put a farm on your kitchen counter.”

With guidance from engineers at the Center of Innovation for Energy Technology, the company’s founders, Mr. Subasinghe and Alexander Weiss, developed vacuum-formed molds for the nanofarms’ trays.

“Instead of using wilted lettuce that’s been sitting in your fridge and took two weeks to get to the grocery store, you can pick it while it’s alive and put it in your sandwich. And with our system, there are no pesticides,” Mr. Subasinghe is quoted as saying in a trade publication, which helped launch the company’s Kickstarter campaign that raised enough money for them to begin manufacturing the units.

While Georgia Tech is a font of new ideas such as those that gave rise to Replantable, Area I and Grubbly Farms, Mr. Justice emphasized that the Centers’ net is far wider and pointed to the success of ESCOGO LLC, which makes the “Smarter Starter Fluid,” a natural charcoal lighter.

Since the fluid is made from plant-based materials, it can fire up your grill without leaving a petrochemical taste on your food since it is made from plant based materials.

This time it was the University of Georgia‘s agricultural expertise that helped the Monroe-based company transform biomass into a commercially viable product. 

In addition to the Centers’ agribusiness expertise, Mr. Justice underscored the full-fledged assistance the innovation centers were able to provide, taking ESCOGO’s “Smarter Starter Fluid” from Georgia, across the country and internationally as well, enabling it to register a 400 percent growth rate in the past year.

Without logistics expertise, the company needed logistical counseling that the Center of Innovation for Logistics was able to provide on how to transport the “Smarter Starter Fluid” nationally as well as into Mexico and elsewhere abroad.

Mr. Justice’s list of success stories hardly stops here. He mentioned the Sumo Robot League, which in its own worlds is a STEM education platform that offers an affordable competitive robotics curriculum for middle and high school students.

The program provides lessons that give middle and high school students the opportunity to build electrical circuits, design and 3D print adaptive components and code sensor-based autonomous response algorithms.

All this so the students can build robots that compete in a sumo wrestling-like pushing contest. By combining sports and robotics, the winners turn out to be the student competitors who learn about coding and are exposed to a wide range of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.

He also cited the achievement of Hogan Bussey, the Nigerian CEO of LivFul Inc. who has been able to commercialize with the Centers’ help his “Akiva” mosquito repellant which he developed after having suffered from bouts of malaria while growing up.

Fighting malaria and other mosquito born diseases across the world.

In a global economy, Mr. Justice realizes that Georgia obviously isn’t the source of all innovation. The Centers of Innovation work with any international companies that already are working with the Georgia Department of Economic Development in some way. The state’s international representatives are located in 11 overseas offices including  Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Europe, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico and the U.K. and IrelandThe Centers assist through these offices overseas companies that still haven’t moved to Georgia but are contemplating doing so.

Those that have gone a step further and want to test new products have been able to do so due to some innovative thinking on the Centers part. In view of the state’s 20,000 miles of roadways and 1,200 miles of interstate highways, Mr. Justice determined in partnership with the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, an environmentally dedicated non-profit, that the state was an ideal location to test new transportation related technologies.

Beneficiaries of this innovative initiative include COLAS, a leading French transport infrastructure company that has installed its “Wattway” at the Visitors Information Center in West Point, just past the Georgia-Alabama lineto test its drive-over solar panel technology. The drive-over solar panels are durable and provide renewable energy in the form of electricity to power everything from public lighting and road signals to bike paths, shopping centers and electric vehicle charging stations.

COLAS is not the only beneficiary of this initiative. The U.K.-based Wheelright Ltd is testing an innovative tire pressure monitoring system that measures tread depth, tire pressure and overall health of a vehicle’s tires through sensor plates. Under-inflated tires put strain on the sidewall, increase rolling resistance and increase the wear rate and reduce fuel efficiency.

No doubt, Mr. Anderson, who was a pioneering environmentalist and textile executive, would approve of this mission to develop a regenerative highway ecosystem into the world’s first “sustainable highway.”

To learn more about the Georgia Centers of Innovation, Mr. Justice may be reached by email at sjustice@georgia.org or by calling 404 962-4926.