Justin Hoffman and Dan Popovic had only recently met, but on Wednesday, April 24, they were huddled at a table at Digital Ignition having a serious conversation about their new start-ups.
Hoffman was just a few weeks away from launching Agency Hydra, a technology-based talent agency for the entertainment industry in Georgia. Popovic was hoping to launch his pet-centric social media platform.
“It’s neat meeting different mixtures of folks and what they’re doing,” said Popovic, who recently moved to Forsyth County from Atlanta. “You never know how two paths can cross.”
It was exactly the kind of interaction that local business and community leaders hope to see more of in Forsyth County, and exactly the place they hope to see them occurring.
The Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce is partnering with Convergent, a digital signage company, to reboot Digital Ignition, the tech and startup incubator first launched in 2016 at Convergent’s facility at Exit 12 off of Ga. 400.
The 45,000-square-foot space offers all the kinds of amenities that are common at incubators — an open co-working and lounge area, conference and training rooms, a variety of office and workspace options, full kitchen and access to the Big Creek Greenway.
More and more regions outside of the major hubs of technology innovation in San Francisco-Silicon Valley, Boston-Cambridge and New York are investing in their local entrepreneurial community, and one of the most popular methods of doing that is by creating incubators. They provide start-ups with a dedicated workspace, collaborative environment, access to resources designed to help their business grow and often better proximity for workers in suburban areas.
That was one of the recommendations for Forsyth County from TIP Strategies, an Austin, Texas-based consulting firm that authored an economic development strategic plan for the county in partnership with the Chamber, county government and a group of community stakeholders.
The plan serves as a guide for the county’s economic future, and a major part of it calls for attracting more companies to ease the tax burden for homeowners.
“If you want to reduce your tax burden on your homeowners, then what you do is you make it an area that’s conducive to create jobs,” said Scott Evans, senior project manager-technology with the Chamber.
There was work to be done there, according to the plan. As of 2015, 75 percent of the county’s workers commuted to jobs outside Forsyth, in particular, those who work in the technology field. Indeed, another study by Georgia Power found that Forsyth County is one of the top sources in metro Atlanta for software developers and programmers.
That talent base was the resource the county needed to leverage to attract companies, the plan said, and one way to do that was by becoming “a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship,” partly by “encouraging the development of attractive collaborative space,” it said.
In other words, start an incubator.
Enter Joanne Sanders. The Forsyth County resident has been working out of Digital Ignition almost since it opened. She loves the building’s sci-fi design and open floor plan. It’s the perfect place for her marketing firm, she said.
But Sanders saw more potential in the incubator. Occupancy was down to 20 percent last year, she said. Sanders approached Convergent president Kyle Cerminara and offered to take over as general manager.
“I could see potential through it all,” Sanders said. “... I think what they needed was a different marketing perspective.”
Sanders immediately approached the Chamber, and they devised a partnership to invigorate Digital Ignition.
Their vision is to turn Digital Ignition from a co-working space into a true incubator with resources available to members to help their company grow. Mentors, like accountants and attorneys, will have office hours, and they’ve partnered with ATDC, Georgia Tech’s technology incubator, to host a program of regular classes and workshops on relevant topics.
“You’re bringing the resources to them so they can spend more time at their business running their business,” Evans said.
Occupancy is now up to almost 90 percent, Sanders said, ahead of the incubator’s official relaunch on May 1, and the majority of Digital Ignition’s members are companies working with the hottest technology on the market, like blockchain, artificial intelligence and IoT. Sen. David Perdue even made a recent visit for a roundtable on Georgia’s tech industry.
The hope is that Digital Ignition members become successful enough to outgrow the incubator. When they do, Forsyth County hopes to keep them with an array of commercial spaces to be developed over the coming years.
For example, in November, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners approved to move forward with plans for building three large-scale commercial and industrial buildings totaling 404,000 square feet off Shiloh Road near Ga. 400. Chamber officials estimate the $36 million project will eventually accommodate 900-1,100 new jobs.
Another option will be right across the street from Digital Ignition: Halycon Forsyth, the mixed-use development slated to open this summer and, eventually, have 350,000 square feet of office space.
For now, Evans and Sanders are working to make Digital Ignition as attractive as possible to local entrepreneurs.
So far, Hoffman and Popovic approve. It’s close to their homes — Hoffman lives 10 minutes away in Alpharetta, he said, and Popovic lives in north Forsyth — and they relish the chance to be around other skilled, motivated people working at the cutting edge of technology.
“Plus, the coffee’s pretty good,” Hoffman said.