Fixin' To Innovate 3.0

Making The Future.

Does Southern hospitality provide an innovation advantage? To the extent that hospitality is equated with food, gracious service and careful craftsmanship, it just may.  In fact, maybe hands-on, experiential “making” – whether that means making supper or making shoes - is the true Southern Innovation secret sauce?

Story by Andrew Dietz | Photographs by Bill Boling

Lebanon Plantation | Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Lebanon Plantation | Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Ag-Innovation Is Thriving In The South.

We have James Oglethorpe, in part, to thank for that. When Oglethorpe settled Savannah in 1732, his ambition was to create a colony based on farming and agricultural innovation. Within two years of landing, Oglethorpe and his backers established the Trustees’ Garden – a ten-acre plot dedicated to botanical and agricultural experiments. During its first 15 years, the Trustee Gardeners tried to figure out what would grow in the Savannah dirt. They experimented with grapes, oranges, capers, olives, ginseng, sassafras, figs, pomegranates, plums, flax, and rice. 

Two hundred years later, agricultural experimentation remained a part of Savannah’s early 20th Century plantation culture. Henry Ford made sure of it. Through the late 1920s and early 1930s, the auto-tycoon stitched together large swaths of plantation land on the Ogeechee River just outside of Savannah in the area known as Richmond Hill. Should the U.S. be pulled into another major war, Ford feared, the ensuing shortage of tire rubber might stifle his auto empire and hinder the war effort. Ford’s assemblage of coastal Georgia land provided a place to grow his own rubber plants. Even with the help of Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone, however, Ford ultimately failed to develop new sources of rubber. Regardless, Ford’s plantation research lab carried on other efforts to transform agricultural products into automotive materials. And, Ford himself urged his fellow plantation owners to do the same. He gave his neighbor, Mills B. Lane of Lebanon Plantation, tung-oil seeds so that Lane might grow a supply of raw materials for engine lubricant. Lane didn’t comply. He was busy producing Satsuma oranges and pecans and building empires of his own.

Today, the master of the Lebanon Plantation manor is Howard J. Morrison Jr., Lane’s grandson. Morrison is a big man. When he sits back on the sofa his long legs stretch out before him like Live Oak roots wrapped in khaki pants. Morrison is in his early 70s but a much younger version, with hunting jacket slung over a shoulder and shotgun in the crook of an arm, watches from a portrait above the arched fireplace mantle. We are discussing innovation while lounging in his red brick residence adjacent to the Plantation Main House. Mills B. Lane Sr. bought the 256-year-old Lebanon Plantation 100 years ago. The estate now serves as the base of operations for a new agricultural experiment:  Verdant Kitchen

Howard J. Morrison, Jr. | Lebanon Plantation, Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Howard J. Morrison, Jr. | Lebanon Plantation, Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Morrison calls Verdant Kitchen, “a gourmet and wellness company focused on the ginger and turmeric family of spices.” Wellness refers to the healthful properties of Verdant’s certified organic spices. Ginger is often called a “Superfood” and credited as an antioxidant, an anti-inflammatory and an aphrodisiac. Ginger is the new Kale. Ginger is the fruit of the Lebanon Plantation soil. Browsing the company’s online store, I am reminded of Bubba in Forrest Gump. “Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey's uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan-fried, deep-fried, stir-fried. There's pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich,” Bubba said. Bubba forgot ginger shrimp but Verdant didn’t. If it can be made from ginger, Verdant Kitchen probably makes it. Dey’s bare ginger, chocolate coated ginger, crystallized ginger, ginger infused honey, ginger sauce, ginger syrup, ground ginger, ginger snaps, turmeric dusted baby ginger and three flavors of ginger ale (the Artillery Hot Spiced Ginger Ale will blow up your taste buds). Oprah Winfrey included Verdant’s Ginger Syrup And Ginger Infused Honey Gift Set in her Favorite Things of 2015 list. In December 2015, the Savannah Morning News named Verdant Kitchen its “Entrepreneurial Business of the Year.”  Morrison, it seems, has unearthed innovative opportunity in his own fertile soil.

Innovators and entrepreneurs see opportunity in adversity.
— Howard J. Morrison Jr.

Howard Morrison explains how his family tree has produced a bounty of problem solvers. Out of the dirt-farming ditches of Reconstruction-era Valdosta, Morrison’s great granddaddy, Remer Lane, started one of the first post-Civil War Southern banks in 1874. Remer’s son, Mills B. Lane Sr., merged that bank with another in Savannah to form C&S Bank in 1906 and kept it growing through World War I and the Great Depression. Along the way, he served on the boards of major Southern companies (like the original makers of Dixie Crystal sugar) and acquired personal interests in others like the former textile giant, Bibb Manufacturing. Mills’ son, Mills B. Lane Jr., took leadership of C&S at age 34, in the tumult leading to World War II. Mills Jr. was an exuberant marketer and a civic champion who built C&S into a 20th Century banking powerhouse over the next three decades. Mills Jr.’s nephew, Howard Morrison, joined C&S in the mid-1960s. 

By the mid-1970s, following the rampant growth of Atlanta technology pioneers like Scientific Atlanta, Morrison shifted his business development efforts towards banking the budding tech community. Morrison has had an enormous influence on Georgia’s technology ecosystem ever since. He helped create C&S Bank’s High Technology Banking Group. He co-founded the predecessor organization to the Technology Association of Georgia. He got the C&S to fund local venture capital pioneers like Noro-Moseley Partners and the Atlanta Technology Development Fund. After retiring from banking in 1996, Morrison served as Chair of the Innovation and Technology Committee of the Georgia Department of Industry Trade & Tourism. He has been board chair of the Georgia Tech Research Corporation and is an inductee in the Georgia High Tech Hall of Fame. In his hometown of Savannah, Morrison helped launch what is now the Creative Coast Alliance and influenced the creation of a Georgia Tech Savannah campus. In 2008, Morrison co-founded a consultancy to develop biomass energy technologies. More recently, he’s been working with health care technology start-ups when he’s not selling ginger and turmeric.

Morrison carries himself with an easy self-confidence and attentive courtesy as he mixes with members of the local Farm Bureau under a drapery of Spanish Moss. The visitors are sampling Lebanon Plantation’s ginger harvest and studying Verdant Kitchen’s approach to farming. Pragmatism and experiential knowledge are as important as science and experimentation when it comes to agricultural innovation and Morrison gets as much as he gives at these interactions. His friendship with Pete Waller is an example. Morrison counts on Waller’s advice when it comes to Verdant Kitchens. Waller is a Chatham County Farm Bureau Board Member. He’s also the President of the Georgia Strawberry Growers Association and on the Coastal Georgia Resource and Development Council and a member of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and of the Georgia Cattlemen’s Association, and he makes time for the Water Policy Planning Committee and the State of Georgia Farm Service, too. 

Howard Morrison and Pete Waller | Lebanon Plantation, Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Howard Morrison and Pete Waller | Lebanon Plantation, Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Y’know…what ya did a hunnert years ago ya gotta improve on.
— Pete Waller

Morrison gently guides Waller over to say hello. “This is the man I was telling you about,” Morrison says. “He’s got wisdom based on experience. And, he’s a real good friend as long as he doesn’t have a gun – he sure knows how to shoot birds.”  Waller sniffs and a small smile cracks his stoic mouth. His head is covered with a white cap. Ottawa Farms, Bloomingdale, GA, it says. “Quality Produce Since 1878.” The place has been in the Waller family that long. Waller’s chin is covered with a curtain of wiry growth running down from his sideburns and along his jawline. The man is country as all get out. He’s country as turnip greens. He’s also smarter than a tree full of owls when it comes to growing things. Waller can grow anything but he’s mainly a berry and melon man. Ottawa Farms produces strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, watermelon, cantaloupes, pumpkins and pomegranates. “Right now, we tryin’ to put a breedin’ program together for the Southeast for strawberries ‘stead of using the ones outta Canada and California. Time we did it here,” Waller says. Waller is also an agricultural entertainment impresario – hosting rodeos, corn mazes, pig races and duck races at Ottawa Farms. He points out, “Y’know…what ya did a hunnert years ago ya gotta improve on.”  

Oil Can Innovation

Wisdom based on experience breeds do-it-yourself, dirt beneath the nails innovation that’s endemic to the South. Visceral down-home knowledge feeds the booming craft and maker movements in the region. 

The Makers Collective in Greenville, SC is the brainchild of Lib Ramos, Erin Godbey and Jen Moreau with a mission of helping to cultivate a thriving Maker community in the Southeast and to connect it to the modern craft movement that is brewing across the U.S. They host The Makers Summit, an annual two-day conference that helps creative entrepreneurs, independent artists and makers turn their handcrafted products into revenue. They also lead the Indie Craft Parade, an annual three-day conclave showcasing Southern makers.

“We really care about the emergence of Southern artists and we see our organization as part of the continuing Southern Renaissance that has been in the works for the past decade or so,” Moreau says. She believes that there is a “noticeable, deep camaraderie among artists” at Makers Collective events that avoids “destructive competitiveness between makers” and is, rather, characterized by “a genuine Southern hospitality that flows throughout.” She adds, “In our experience, entrepreneurs are willing to share their knowledge and experiences with each other, which results in accelerated innovation and business growth.”  In fact, many Makers Collective alumni have seen commercial success like Billiam Jeans, The Landmark Project, Emily Jeffords and Lovelane Designs.

Given her role fostering a creative Southern community, Jen Moreau ought to have a good idea of how the burdens and benefits of Southern history, arts and culture shape our unique approach to innovation. “As a general rule, I think Southerners are particularly good at passing creative skills from one generation to the next,” Jen says. “Also, I think some of the memory of the darker portions of our history have helped creative a new culture where creatives want to be inclusive and fair. And, since Greenville is located so close to the Appalachian mountains, there is a lot of history and creative culture that makes its way to us. The legacy of schools like Black Mountain College and Penland School of Crafts looms large throughout Western North Carolina and Upcountry South Carolina. The efforts of artists in our area have both kept alive and helped rebirth traditional forms of arts and craft.”

Southern craftsmen are creating all kinds of small batch, high quality products ranging from clothing and furniture to beer and bourbon. They’re innovating using old-school production values and eco-friendly approaches. They’re turning up in every Southern cranny and in every product category: from Alabama Chanin Skirts, Ledbury Shirts and Raleigh Denim to Terrapin Beer, American Spirit Whiskey, and Cathead Vodka; from Fern & Roby Turntables and New West Records to Baxendale Guitars remanufactured with mother-of-pearl inlays and mink-lined cases. Some are fueled by the rise in 3D printing. Robohand is an Atlanta-based company that 3D prints prosthetic hands while Feetz is a Chattanooga company that 3D prints custom shoes. Others are driven by a folksy, friendly Southern authenticity like Bohemian Guitars made from salvaged oil cans.

Bohemian Guitars’ founders, Adam and Shaun Lee, are Southern makers who got their inspiration from street musicians in South Africa that played homemade instruments ginned up from old cans and other found objects. The brothers were smitten with the unique sounds resonating from scrap metal guitars and decided they could make their own. Operating out of their parents’ basement, they first built ukuleles with lunch box bodies. Then they built a batch of oil can guitars and convinced themselves they had a business in the making. Bohemian was born. Now the company’s hand-made recycled metal and repurposed oil can guitars are played onstage by major artists like Hozier and Shakey Graves. 

Sterling Bacon – son of John Bacon of IP2Biz who is related to actor Kevin Bacon but not to urban designer Kevin Bacon – most recently served as Bohemian’s VP of Artist Relations & Corporate Partnerships. “The electric guitar was invented 85 years ago and has been nearly the same ever since. Bohemian has invented a whole new class of guitar. The tones you can get with our products are unlikely anything else,” Bacon says. “Our designs are definitely informed by great old Southern brands. Take a look at our Boho Moonshine guitar or our Boho Honey and you’ll see what I mean. Rock has a colorful history in the South. Our guitars lend themselves well to music rooted in the South. We love that we get to tap our musical heritage and put metal instruments in the hands of artists who are continuing the legacy.”

Something in Particular

You know the quote from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!  “Tell about the South. What's it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?”  Three young creative professionals set out on a road trip to find answers among artists and innovators across the South. What, they wondered, is that particular something that motivates regional artists to create work that is distinctively Southern. Melonie Tharpe, Cubby West, James Martin’s proposed documentary film, “Something in Particular,” aspired to capture the elusive intangibles that define the source of Southern creativity. 

“We are on a mission to bring Southern artists as a whole to the forefront of the creative landscape and develop a collective interest across the region and beyond,” the “Something in Particular” web site explains. The filmmakers believe the Second Southern Renaissance is on its way and they aimed to document it in real time. After raising nearly $10,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, in early 2012, Tharpe, West and Martin visited 17 cities and interviewed over 200 creators in just over a month. They interviewed luminaries like artist Radcliffe Bailey and musician Jimbo Mathis and they interviewed lesser knowns like the proprietors of the Idea Hatchery in Nashville and the Mojo Coworking space in Asheville. They got so far as to post a film trailer online and to mount a gallery exhibition featuring the art of ten Southern artists in 2013 before they ran out of money and momentum and the documentary was put on indefinite hold.

Still, the remnants of Something in Particular reveal distinctive attributes of Southern innovation.  Its sound bites speak of an expressive freedom emerging from scarcity in a “if you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose” kind of way in many parts of the South. Tension, too, is cited as an important innovative influence here:  the ever present dualities of good and bad, black and white, what’s apparent and what’s hidden behind closed doors. Tolerance and togetherness, even in the midst of a segregated history, provide a support system, a sense of story and a tolerance for the iconoclastic oddity inherent in many innovators. 

Failing Forward

The South’s vivid contradictions carry seeds of innovative advantage.

If turmoil is rich fertilizer for innovation, the region is ready to burst with buds. “There has to be an element of tension and disorder in order for a genius cluster to succeed; Comfort is the enemy of creativity,” Geography of Genius author, Eric Weiner, says. Six Southern states rank in the top ten for worst poverty rates in the U.S. Eleven Southern states (that is, nearly all) rank in the top twenty most impoverished places. A map of the worst health care systems in the U.S. published by The Atlantic shows the entire Southeast in stark negative contrast to the rest of the nation. There’s plenty of discomfort to go around in the South. Is that why inventions like anesthesia or advances in open-heart surgery happened here before they caught on elsewhere? 

Eric Weiner tells this story: “I talked to a venture capitalist not long ago and asked about who he funds. He said, when someone comes in for funding, he looks for the chip. The microchip? No, the chip on their shoulder. The South has chips to spare.”  Maybe so. That chip-on-the-shoulder is what led to the South’s greatest media success: Ted Turner and the invention of 24-hour news. Turner’s father was born to a Mississippi sharecropper and carried plenty of his own insecurity. He believed instilling insecurity in his own son would push him to greatness. It worked. According to biographer Hank Whittemore’s account of Ted Turner’s creation of CNN, Turner said, “All during my life I had this gnawing feeling that maybe I wasn’t going to be a success.”  His father once told an 18-year-old Ted Turner that his son’s choice of educational path “appalled” him to the point that he “almost puked” and that the boy was “ rapidly becoming a jackass.”  Edward Turner’s suicide when Turner was just 24 seemed to ignite a passionate hatred of failure in his son. “I just love it when people say I can’t do something,” Ted Turner has said. “There’s nothing that makes me feel better because all my life people have said I wasn’t going to make it.”  

Double Barrel Cannon | Athens, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Double Barrel Cannon | Athens, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Failure hovers over the South like flies on roadkill. A constant reminder of The Lost Cause and how the South’s innovation deficiency contributed to this failure is publicly displayed in Athens, Georgia. The Double Barreled Cannon is a 154-year-old, 1300-pound, cast iron weapon built in 1862 but never saw battle. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Link two 6 lb. cannonballs by a chain, simultaneously blast them out of neighboring barrels and you could literally chop the enemy off at the knees. In testing, though, the balls flew from the cannon at slightly different times and the erratically spinning twins ploughed an acre of land, dismembered trees, demolished a log cabin and executed a cow. 

The badge of failure seems to carry greater weight in the South than elsewhere, mingled as it is here with feelings of personal disgrace. “In San Francisco, failure is a badge of honor that you wear on your sleeve. Whereas here if you fail than YOU are a failure,” says Tim Adkins one of the co-founders of FuckUp Nights Atlanta. If failure is shameful, nobody is going to talk about it and, therefore, no one learns from it. FuckUp Nights are celebrations of screwing up where entrepreneurs confess failures to their fellow founders. The point is to pivot off of failure and use its energy to propel you to the next success. While some Southerners may take failure more personally than others, resilience has long been a staple of the South. “Failure is just a resting place. It is an opportunity to begin again more intelligently,” Henry Ford once said. The South is more than ready to begin again. 

If the South has real innovation to offer, it doesn’t sprout from the mind of a Stanford PhD or the wallet of a Sand Hill financier. It isn’t conceived in an Ivy Hall in Cambridge and it is rarely the result of artificial incubation. The South’s innovation advantage is rooted in authentic scrappiness and the hardscrabble ability to reinvent itself. Its advantage is grounded as much in its universities committed to the arts as in those committed to scientific research. The South’s innovation edge unfolds from its people’s ability to form and protect close relationships and from community and familial loyalty. The South’s agricultural intimacy and the passing of skills from one generation to the next give it an innovation edge. And, the South’s innovation advantage is born from unfettered creativity, music and literature and an obsession with self-expression regardless of circumstances. It springs from the burdens and benefits of our history and the promise of what’s next.

Is Southern Innovation an oxymoron or a runaway train?  

A litany of innovative geniuses grace the South’s recent history: like Lonnie Johnson - who has over 80 patents to his name ranging from a Thermo-Electrochemical Converter to the super-soaker squirt gun – or like Chris Klaus who formed the trailblazing cyber-security company, Internet Security Systems, in the early 1990s while still a student at Georgia Tech and sold it to IBM in 2006 for $1.3 billion – or like Dr. Dennis Liotta and Dr. Raymond F. Schinazi and Dr. Woo-Baeg Choi who invented the revolutionary HIV drug now known as Emtriva. Meanwhile, Liotta’s son Matt has his own innovation success in a company called PodPonics – an urban hydroponic farming system that produces lettuces within recycled shipping containers. 

While still falling far behind California, the number of annual patents issued to Southern innovators grew nearly 60% between 2001 and 2014. One Southern innovator, Magic Leap, added almost 100 patent applications to the South’s intellectual property trove:  Magic Leap is a virtual reality venture based in Plantation, FL, that raised over $500 million from Google in 2014.

Especially if you extend innovation to include non-technological advances, Southern inventors and entrepreneurs have produced more than enough innovation to prove the inventive power of regional quirks, losses, passions and problems.