In the U.S., the Southeast’s tech ecosystem is traditionally strong in a few defined sectors: Fintech, SaaS, and health IT are among the industries thriving in terms of successful exits, high-growth companies, and venture dollars.
But just as the broader tech scene is constantly changing, new industries will emerge and pick up steam in the region. Over the next year, driven by support from public and private entities, as well as innovation from new startups, these disruptive technology sectors stand to grow in the South.
It’s no secret that cybersecurity is mission-critical to every company, but this year several highly publicized and far-reaching hacks have gotten the South’s state and local government bodies to think about how they can increase their cybersecurity investments.
The state of Georgia, which already generates more than a quarter of worldwide information security revenue, is developing a $90 million dollar plus cybersecurity training center in Augusta. This multi-building campus will be one of the country’s few state-owned cyber ranges. Currently, only four states (Michigan, Virginia, Rhode Island, and Arizona) have state- owned cyber ranges, though others have indicated interest. The campus will also house the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s cybercrime unit, cybersecurity startups, and academic partners.
“Given Georgia’s growing status as a technology and innovation hub, this additional investment will further cement our reputation as the ‘Silicon Valley of the South’,” said Georgia governor Nathan Deal in a statement about the center.
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The affiliated universities include seven public schools designated as National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense. Georgia Tech was one of the first schools to offer a master’s program for cybersecurity and remains a leader in the field. These schools continue to invest in new programs to ensure they are graduating the caliber of talent the cybersecurity field will need to fill this rapidly expanding, unfulfilled job market.
Public sector groups also collaborated with private entities in the first ever Atlanta Cyber Week, a week-long conference with over 1,000 attendees that aimed to bring together the region’s top minds in the industry and set the stage for Atlanta to become a globally recognized cyber hub.
Smart city tech
For the last several years, larger cities like Atlanta have been keen to utilize smart IoT (internet of things) technologies to tackle urban challenges like traffic congestion and public safety. Now, smaller cities in the South are piloting innovative programs that stand to have a big effect on streamlining operations.
In the heart of the tech-friendly Research Triangle of North Carolina, the city of Durham has kicked off a 12-week incubator program that gives select startups a way to test their products or services using city data and infrastructure. In its first round, Innovate Durham received 34 applications from startups. A review committee selected four, ranging from a real-time parking solution to a VR/AR company that will showcase new proposed construction projects in a virtual environment.
In the nearby town of Cary, North Carolina, officials are letting startups test smart city projects at the town hall. They’ve created a living lab on government property — what they’re calling a Simulated Smart City — to test such technologies as smart parking sensors and smart streetlights. This approach can allow officials, whose budgets are often tight, to collect data and analyze which technologies will actually help solve pain points before investing taxpayer dollars in new infrastructure.
Commercial space industry
It’s well known that Huntsville, Alabama, nicknamed Rocket City, has deep roots in the space program. Florida, Virginia, and Mississippi are also home to federal space centers. But with the growth of the commercial space industry, the South stands to further its space legacy.
Georgia, a state that counts aerospace products as its No. 1 export and ranks fourth in the country for aerospace workers, has not been shy about its intention to break into the private space business.
The first step was a bill informally known as the Georgia Space Flight Act — signed into effect this past summer — that limits liability for space companies launching from the state. The act was intended to signal that Georgia is welcoming and open to the commercial space industry.
Shortly after the passage of this bill, commercial space startup Vector conducted a low-altitude test launch of its micro rocket from Spaceport Camden, a campus located in a sparsely populated county in the southeastern corner of Georgia. Over half a century ago, the area around Spaceport Camden was considered by NASA as a potential site for the Apollo moon missions. Now, the county is leading an effort to turn it into an FAA-licensed commercial spaceport.
Spaceport Camden project lead Steve Howard has said the spaceport would be a major boon for the state as a whole.
“You’re really seeing a new renaissance with the new space race,” said Howard. “What an opportunity to play a part of it. And I think the sky’s wide open for Georgia to be able to really play an active role in the space race.”
For startups, the benefits of going through a fully commercial spaceport are considerable. For starters, it’s less expensive and may take less time to launch from one of these sites. That’s important for competitive private companies as more and more startups enter the field.
Should the spaceport become licensed, it could be a viable place to attract aerospace talent in the region, as well. Georgia Tech’s Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering is one of the largest programs of its kind and ranked No. 2 in the country, but many graduates move out of the state to seek jobs, says Howard. Officials want to keep those minds in the South.
Of course, nobody knows what the future will hold, especially when it comes to new technologies. This time last year, would anyone have guessed that ICO (initial coin offering) would be the tech term of 2017? But the building blocks that have already been put in place this year in cybersecurity, smart city technology, and aerospace suggest that these are industries that could truly thrive in the South. If they stand the test of time, they could create jobs, spur innovation, and help the region continue to develop as a place where game-changing technology can develop — outside of Silicon Valley.
Holly Beilin is the editor-in-chief of Hypepotamus, a publication that covers the southern innovation ecosystem.