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Cover Story: Atlanta Startup Q&A: Kasim Reed

The mayor explains why he’s backing entrepreneurial efforts across the city

Mayor Kasim Reed wants the next generation of Atlanta entrepreneurs to stay put. While Silicon Valley, Austin, and other vibrant tech scenes have long lured entrepreneurs out west, he hopes the public and private sectors can transform Atlanta’s startup community into a place where young firms can prosper.

During his first term in office, Reed says he’s worked hard to improve the startup scene’s reputation. That’s happened, he says, through improving the city’s economic development efforts as well as supporting Georgia Tech’s tech needs. Reed explains what’s been done to support the city’s startups and what he’ll continue to do as one of the community’s strongest allies.

What has your administration done in your first term to help promote Atlanta’s startups?

I think what we’ve done is listen, respond, and be flexible. We also went out and recruited Invest Atlanta President and CEO Brian McGowan from the U.S. Department of Commerce. He had a lot of experience working to attract IT firms because he led the commerce effort in the state of California. He was very familiar with it and he’s built out the staff of Invest Atlanta, our business cultivation arm, along with Invest Atlanta Managing Director Eloisa Klementich. For example, Creative Loafing highlighted our Govathon as a part of your Best of Atlanta series.

We’re all in with regards to techs and startups. We have increased my direct involvement in startup firms. When we hear about tech companies and startups, I’ll get personally involved in recruiting them and attending their events, even though they may be small in comparison to other kinds of events I get involved in. I’m giving a great deal of personal attention to it because you really never know which small startup in the tech space is going to end up being that amazing company.

The other thing I have done during my administration is strengthening our partnership between Georgia Tech and the City of Atlanta. One of the things that we did that’s going to strengthen the tech ecosystem is work with the $100 million supercomputer building that’s going to be built by Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech is really essential to our continued emergence and success in the technology space in the Southeast.

What VCs have learned is that we have the technical competence and capability to support startup and major firms. Everywhere from the small organization to firms like AT&T, which just opened up the Foundry Center in partnership with Georgia Tech.

When folks reach out to us, we’re always trying to ask how we can partner, encourage, and uplift businesses in this space. We did that with Georgia Tech and the supercomputer center. We did that with AT&T and Georgia Tech. We did that with Georgia Tech and their incubators. You’re seeing Georgia Tech move from the Westside across 85/75 into the heart of the city. We think that, along with Atlanta University Center and Georgia State University, is really creating this cool energy that is making Atlanta become a real center in the technology space.

You give a lot of credit to Atlanta’s academic and corporate assets. What else does Atlanta possess that works in its favor toward becoming a startup hub?

We get to show folks that we’ve had over 50 startups funded by VCs since 2012 in Atlanta. We’re also a global hub for mobile technology firms, health care IT companies, and a center for credit card payments across the world because of a number of businesses located here. If you’re an IT firm starting up in Atlanta, you have access to the third-largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in America. We think our local corporations do a very good job of opening their doors to local IT firms. It’s a combination of those things, underlined by the fact we have competent, capable, and qualified individuals to support your work.

What can the city do better?

I’m going to be guided by entrepreneurs and people who actually do this. One of the best dinners I’ve had since I’ve been mayor was with Chris Klaus, who founded ISS, Internet Security Systems, who was a Georgia Tech student. He just spent an hour or two giving me advice on how to be supportive of different kinds of companies. I’m not going to plan what I think is best for the IT community, but I’m going to have people who really embrace technology and entrepreneurship, people like Brian McGowan and his team at Invest Atlanta listen to them. Then we’re going to respond.

What have you heard so far from those people?

Support business incubators. Like the incubation initiative they have at Georgia Tech. Go out of our way to be supportive of Georgia Tech and other local institutions. When he talked to me, he had a great deal to say to me about their program and being more supportive of Georgia Tech coming into the city in general. That’s the pipeline of individuals you need to build outstanding tech firms.

He also advised me to be more aggressive about shining a light on the technology space. When you look at my calendar, at the events that I attend, whether it’s the Govathon or Google awarding the city of Atlanta an eConnectivity award, I’m getting personally involved in these efforts because it shows this is a priority for the city of Atlanta. It shows this is something I care about.

I saw you recently tested Google Glass out at that event. What’d you think of them?

Those things are amazing! They’re absolutely amazing. They’ve got to make them look cooler, but using them was incredible. They’re already working to make them more attractive as ordinary glasses. That’s where they have to go. I love them.

You’re often seen promoting events for companies like Porsche, PulteGroup, and other firms bring hundreds of jobs to Atlanta. Why is it so important for you to back Atlanta’s startups?

Those people are Atlanta’s next great generation of entrepreneurs. That’s why I want them to stay here. ... We’re trying to build a culture in Atlanta so that when people come here, they stay. We’re trying to support the fundamentals. One of the very positive things in Atlanta is we’re one of the three leading cities on the East Coast where young people want to move. What I can say to individuals who want to invest in IT firms is that we have the talent to support whatever your dream is and we’ll be a player in this space for the long term because of Atlanta’s concentration of Fortune 500 businesses.