Seed money from venture capitalists starts to sprout

This is the year of the venture capitalist, the high-tech community here has proclaimed. Georgia trails neighboring North Carolina and Florida, at some distance, in the high-tech race. But Atlanta has become a lively second-tier technology center, with 150 firms, mostly in software and applications, or communications hardware.

Though many high-tech centers are principally concentrations of branch plants of national heavyweights such as Digital or International Business Machines, Atlanta is notable for its many homegrown entrepreneurial firms.

But the missing link has been venture capital. Business leaders complain that start-up firms have had to rely on outside money.

There are clear signs that the situation is turning around, particularly over the past year. Venture capital funds are being launched here. And programs of the Advanced Technology Development Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), ''have brought venture capitalists out of the woodwork,'' says Ronald White of the center's ''incubator'' program.

Atlanta's high-tech industry rests on foundations similar to those of other silicon capitals: Sunbelt life-style appeal, including mild winters, and academic support from Georgia Tech and other institutions.

One Atlanta economist says that Georgia Tech is not MIT or Stanford, but drawing as it does on a student body with a strong practical, agrarian background, it does produce good undergraduate engineers ''who aren't all theoretical but can start earning money for their employers right away.''

Also, IBM's major marketing office here has made for a large pool of talent potentially enticeable to joining new firms.

Asked to describe high tech in Atlanta, John Imlay, chairman and chief executive officer of Management Science America Inc., calls it ''about to explode.''

Mr. Imlay should know an explosion when he sees one. MSA, which specializes in standard applications packages, is the biggest independent software company in the world and has grown an average of 46 percent a year for the last 10 years. ''That's not too bad,'' he observes. Sales are projected at $135 million to $140 million this year, up from just $2 million a decade ago.

Georgia Tech's Mr. White stresses the growth not only of high-tech firms, but of what he calls the ''high-tech infrastructure,'' a community of lawyers, bankers, and other professionals who understand high-tech industry.

Accountants, for example, are learning to appreciate that a line of software is an asset to a computer company, just as an inventory of widgets is to a widgetmaker.

The incubator program is providing support for some 20 new start-up companies ranging from ''raw'' to ''medium-rare'' enterprises.

Individual entrepreneurs are looking for new firms in which to invest their fortunes, often made in technology-related fields.

A new venture capital fund, Noro-Moseley Partners, is also attracting attention in Atlanta. Its general partners are Charles D. Moseley Jr., a former investment banker, and Jack R. Kelly Jr., formerly of Scientific-Atlanta, a communications equipment firm.

The partners were aiming to attract $25 million when they started out a few months ago; they ended up with $43 million, from a broad mix of institutional and individual investors.

They feel their timing is right. Mr. Kelly says that profits made in the bull market have helped get their fund together. On the other hand, the recent cooling of the market has helped them as they start to make their investments: Companies that might have gone to the stock market for capitalization are now looking for venture capital instead.

Edward Turville, an analyst at Robinson-Humphrey/American Express, is bullish on high technology in Atlanta, but plays down the need to get local money for start-up companies. ''Money's green all over the country.'' Good ideas, he insists, will get funded - somehow.

He characterizes the high-tech industry in Atlanta as already active enough. ''I don't know why we need to go any faster.''

He does foresee the continuation of a wave of mergers that has already begun in Atlanta, including MSA's acquisition of Peachtree Software.

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