Local tech champion: Savannah must be ‘forward thinking’ to become an innovation

The following is an excerpt from the latest “Difference Makers” podcast interview with Creative Coast Executive Director Jennifer Bonnett. “Difference Makers” is presented by the Savannah Economic Development Authority and features Q&As with Savannah community leaders. Full episodes are available at or through mobile device podcast apps by searching “Difference Makers with @SavannahOpinion.”

Question: The technology sector is one local economic development leaders have long seen as an opportunity for Savannah. You came to town two years ago after leading Georgia Tech’s famed Advanced Technology Development Center to make that a reality and were given two jobs: One as the Savannah Economic Development Authority’s vice president of Innovation and Entrepreneurship; and the other as the executive director of the Creative Coast. How are the two roles defined?

Jennifer Bonnett: “My role at SEDA is to recruit technology businesses to relocate to the area and then my role at the Creative Coast is to support creative technology businesses, and the people that work within that space that are already here or move here. What components do we have? What can we strengthen?”

Question: The Creative Coast has been around for more than a decade and its leaders have always talked about “fostering” an environment for knowledge-based business. How do you do that?

Bonnett: Community building is vital to the success of a technology startup. I need a techie coder, I need a marketing/user-experience design person and I need a business person. Those three people — those three skill sets — are all you need to have to start a successful tech company. You need talent. We’ve got SCAD. We’ve got Georgia Southern University. We have a lot of executive talent. Those are must haves, and you have to be able to both attract talent and grow it out of those already in the mark.”

Question: What’s your vision for Savannah in terms of tech-related economic development?

Bonnett: “My vision is for what I call innovation hubs — that we have multiple innovation hubs in different neighborhoods, that are all focused on a different industry. I kind of envision a innovation hub around logistics, in Savannah proper, but towards the port. (I’m) hoping to connect all of those spaces, such that we have a vibrant community together.

“We have successful companies in tech that are already here. I call them hidden gems, because not a lot of people know about them. How do we get somebody talking about the story of those companies? How do we get more of those companies here?”

Question: What difference will the logistics technology corridor make in Savannah?

Bonnett: “I think it’s a great opportunity. I see the change coming. I see automation coming to these warehouses and manufacturing. I think a lot of people have tried to think like, ’Oh, that’s not going to happen here.’ But it is, and because of that, we have to plan for how we proactively educate the workforce that’s in those jobs today, such that they can hope to have the jobs of the future.

“What’s logistics look like in 10 years? I think it’s incredibly important to think about that. The port is growing like gangbusters. At this current rate, this could be the most popular port in the country — or right behind Long Beach — within the next 10 years. You have all of these distribution centers and warehouses.

“I think we have to be creative. I think we have to be inventive. I think we can say that we can do this better than anybody else. I think we have to be forward thinking. By doing that, we can figure out training programs to help with that.”

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