Techie.com’s Most Promising Tech Hubs to Watch in 2014
Where are the country’s most innovative and creative tech hubs? The answer to that question used to be easy. There was Silicon Valley, and maybe a couple others, with maybe Bangalore thrown into the mix to keep it interesting. Today, the answer is not so easy. Thanks to easily accessible cloud technology, increasing democratization of the startup’s “means of production,” and a startup culture that has excited new entrepreneurs in every corner of the world, Silicon Valley is in an increasingly crowded marketplace and must fight to hold onto its once-dominant role.
Techie.com’s editorial staff researched some of the most exciting and innovative up-and-coming hubs for 2014. We looked for several factors, some of which are a little less tangible than others:
- Cities that have, or are building out physical infrastructure including fiber optic rings; offer lower costs for utilities; and have available and low-cost office space.
- Presence of high-tech industrial parks and incubators/accelerators.
- A “startup culture” evident with smaller, informal meetups, “startup weekends” and co-working spaces.
- People who are willing and anxious to spread the word about why their city is on the rise.
- Presence of one or more universities.
- Support from city government with innovative programs designed to encourage tech startup growth.
We were pleased to hear from nearly a hundred cities, all wanting to make our list. We truly are at the beginning of a new era — the dotcloud boom that is already changing the way startups launch, the way work gets done, and the way people live. We found every one of the cities on our list worthy, but our immediate goal was to select ten. Here are the ones that stood out. Click on the name of the city below to jump to that city.
|Atlanta, GA||Burlington, VT|
|Champaign/Urbana, IL||Detroit, MI|
|Ft. Collins, CO||Huntsville, AL|
|Kansas City, KS/MO||Orlando, FL|
|Sioux Falls, SD||St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN|
Atlanta, Georgia’s tech community is just peachy
The South is getting a lot of attention this year from tech entrepreneurs, and Atlanta, Georgia is leading the charge for the New South. Although there are plenty of big companies like AT&T, Dell SecureWorks, and First Data in Atlanta, the city is also home to more than 150 mobile tech-related startups, and one of the most exciting small business entrepreneurship communities in the country. Atlanta is 12th in the nation for number of tech startups, and over the past few years, there have been several new coworking communities, startup incubators, and funding organizations, all working together to develop and retain Georgia’s homegrown talent.
One of the biggest players is Atlanta Tech Village, a coworking environment for emerging tech companies. The Tech Village just launched this year, but in that short time has grown from 20 members to 300. David Cummings, serial entrepreneur and founder of the Atlanta Tech Village, found himself with cash to spare after his company was sold to Salesforce.com, and bought a mid-rise office building in the heart of Atlanta. At 103,000 square feet, it’s one of the largest entrepreneurship centers in the country. Atlanta Tech Village is so much more than just an incubator or coworking space. It’s a complete ecosystem with everything imagineable, located in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta that is just plain fun to be a part of.
The Atlanta Tech Village does have an incubator, with turnkey rooms and suites. “Just show up with your laptop, and everything you need is right there, ready to go,” says Cummings. There’s a coffee shop in the building, a 300-person conference center, co-working space, video production studio with a green screen, a full gym, and even a rooftop patio. Cummings bought the building in December 2012, opened in the first week of January, and has over 100 startups already. The attractive building, college-type atmosphere, and complete environment is attracting people from all over, says Cummings. “We have one startup from New Orleans, one from Orlando, one from Charlotte. Most of them were already in Atlanta, but we’ve definitely had some that have moved to Atlanta just to be in the village.”
Atlanta, especially the area around the Atlanta Tech Village, has a strong nightlife, and it’s a very walkable area. To join the Village, Cummings says he vets based on core values, which are, “Be nice, dream big, pay it forward, and then work hard and play hard.”
One of the biggest areas of emerging tech is mobile tech, and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce’s new Mobility Initiative is adding more fuel to the fire. Mike Zeto, co-chair of the Chamber’s Mobility Task Force, first came to Atlanta after launching a tech company based on mobile technology. Having raised some angel money, he knew he had to go somewhere with development talent. “We started to look at all the usual suspects,” said Zeto. “I had been in technology for 15 years and had contacts in Boston, out in the Valley, and there was a large mobile ecosystem in Austin. I was referred by a friend to Atlanta. I met some of the folks at the Chamber and some of the large companies here in Atlanta, and I started to see that from a cost of doing business perspective, and being an entrepreneur and making the money stretch, Atlanta was the best place to do that. You had a market with a lot of Fortune 500 companies, access to talent, and an airport that you can easily get anywhere else in the world you need to go, and a community that’s really business-friendly.”
Zeto also notes that Atlanta has a large group of high net worth investors that participate in the Atlanta Technology Angels. “It is one of the most well-run angel groups I’ve seen in the U.S., and I’ve pitched in front of a lot of them,” says Zeto.
Along with the tech community, Atlanta has an important ingredient for startup culture, and that’s a great music and foodie scene as well. “There’s a very vibrant live music scene. It’s obviously a big sports town. The restaurants are fantastic, and this is turning into a foodie heaven. You’ve got that cultural aspect that an entrepreneur likes, but at a much lower cost of doing business and living. And one of the things that I’ve found, both working for companies here in Atlanta and owning a company and having employees, is that there is a level of loyalty here in Atlanta in this tech scene that you will not find in Silicon Valley, and I guarantee you that.”
Burlington, Vermont leads on innovation and community
The city of Burlington, Vermont, also has a promising future as a tech hub. Ranked 38th in the nation on Lumosity’s recent ‘100 smartest cities’ report, it is the community itself that we find so promising. There are active, overlapping networks in Burlington both physically and in virtual space.
The BTV Web App Group meets several times a month for presentations and networking. Laboratory B, the local hackerspace, holds regular events. The
sustainability-focused Green Drinks meets twice monthly, once in Burlington and one in Montpelier. CodeForBTV, a civic hacking group that meets weekly, enjoys support from Code for America, and they’ve produced several improvements to local systems and organizations. The meetup group Burlington Net Squared also hosts regular meetups that cover many different tech angles. Tech Jam Vermont is a well-attended annual event sponsored by Dealer.com, which is headquartered in Burlington.
Burlington’s tech scene is also burgeoning in virtual space. There’s a dedicated local forum – the Front Porch Network; there’s an active facebook community; and Burlington has a sizable subreddit—with its own IRC channel. These digital spaces form bridges between all of these groups, and directs new talent where they can best be utilized.
This sort of energy and community engagement is vital to innovation. This culture affords tinkerers a laboratory in which to learn and to practice, and participation in this culture builds valuable business connections. Moreover, the work they are doing – online and ‘IRL’ – sets an example for others in the community while establishing permanent improvements in the community’s digital resources. We’re excited to see where this leads.
Pop the cork in Champaign, Illinois
Champaign-Urbana is home to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (or ‘NCSA’, famed for installing one of the earliest web servers, and for developing the Mosaic web browser) and to Wolfram Research, which operates the sophisticated Wolfram Alpha search engine. [link - “Read about our visit to the Deep Waters Supercomputer in Champaign Illinois”]
Intel, too, has a campus in Champaign, and Research Park at the University of Illinois has some impressive tenants, including Yahoo, Dow, Anheuser-Busch, and Cytrix.
“Academic-industry partnerships [that are happening in Champaign-Urbana] are essential to ensure that leading-edge research addresses key sector needs”, says Professor William Sanders, interim head of the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UI. He is working with energy company Ameren Illinois on smart grid technologies – and sees these relationships between entrepreneurs and academicians as a major factor in fostering Champaign’s tech boom.
The proximity to Chicago, the presence of a prestigious University, and the availability of Fiber all afford the city significant privilege as an emerging tech hub. Being centrally located, Champaign-Urbana is also home to a number of distribution centers, an industry itself on the forefront of our present tech boom.
Smaller startups have a solid opportunity at finding the support to grow in this ecosystem, thanks to a thriving tech social scene and support services from organizations like the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, which operates a Small Business Development Center that will advise business owners and direct them to any number of local resources.
If you’re in the area and looking for a place to start, someone has compiled a very useful list of tech-oriented social organizations over at github. Check it out.
Is a tremendous Tech Turnaround transpiring in Detroit?
Some people say that a time of disaster is also a time of great opportunity. If that’s the case, then Detroit has been brimming with opportunity for the last 30 years or more. Things really hit a low recently, with the city declaring bankruptcy and its former mayor heading off to a lengthy prison term.
Sounds like the perfect recipe for a major rebound.
The truth is that Detroit is in a position not only to recover, but to thrive. With extremely low prices for real estate, massive incentives, and a very high level of technical knowledge in the area, the table is set for a technological renaissance.
The biggest surprise for many outsiders may be that there is already a strong and healthy tech culture in Detroit. What’s going on at the M@dison Building downtown is a well-cited example. Making use of an old brick behemoth, 35 or more startups call this newly-renovated space home now.
It was a perfect fit for Stik, a former Silicon Valley startup focused on online business referral. Stik executives Nathan Labenz and Jay Gierak have ties to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg going back to their days at Harvard, and the business model itself seems to be aware of this fact, using Facebook as a platform.
Why Detroit? Labenz explains that the seemingly counter-intuitive is actually a no brainer when one examines the talent level in the Detroit area. He cites the fact that Detroit is home to exceptional design and engineering talent in particular – talent that is normally not even looked at by competitive firms like Stik.
The Big D still has a long way to go before anybody can say the word “recovery” with full confidence. But it’s clear that rock bottom has already been hit. With continued explosive tech growth, anything is possible. It’s definitely a place worth keeping on your radar.
Ft. Collins is Colorado’s Greenest
Colorado as a state has the highest level of education per capita. It is no surprise, then, that technology firms are thriving here. Unless you’re tight in the loop, however, you may have never heard of some of these places in Colorado where technology is playing such a large role in local economies.
Ft. Collins is one such hot spot. Though obviously not as recognizable a name as Denver, it is home to Colorado State University – a center of learning heavy on technology resources and facilities for research. Numerous major companies have decided to relocate here for this reason, most notably HP, Intel, and Avago.
But with this being Colorado, you’d expect something green as well. You have it in spades with Ft. Collins’ Rocky Mountain Innosphere, which recently launched an expanded clean-tech program in concert with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory down the road in Golden, CO. This has been billed as “the only federal laboratory dedicated to the research, development, commercialization and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies”.
This partnership seems to be mutually beneficial. This past December, five different Innosphere clients were selected to present at NREL’s annual Industry Growth Forum. Avivid Water Technology, Fabriq, OptiEnz Sensors, PneumatiCoat Technologies LLC and Solid Power LLC., have all brought plenty of innovation to the table, but they are just five of many more exemplary companies under the Innosphere’s aegis. “We are always looking for more companies, exciting technologies, sponsors and investors to join our startup ecosystem,” said Mike Freeman, Innosphere CEO.
An impressive green tech environment is merely part of a bigger picture; Ft. Collins is consistently rated one of the top places to live in the U.S., including #7 most recently on Forbes’ Business and Career list. The environment is ideal, recreational opportunities abound, and the potential for growth is still very high.
Huntsville, AL is the heart of Sili-Cotton Valley
In a nod to Huntsville’s geographic location in the heart of the deep South, Brandon Kruse, native entrepreneur and creator of Huntsville’s vibrant Small Business Meetup Group, calls it “Sili-cotton Valley.” Kruse sold his long distance company to Magic Jack when he was 21 years old, and is currently starting a new incubator in the old Huntsville City school to provide free office space to entrepreneurs to invigorate the local scene. It is precisely this type of grass-roots techie sensibility that made it obvious to us here at Techie.com that Huntsville would have to make the list of 2014′s most important emerging tech hubs.
The most obvious tech research in Huntsville is Cummings Research Park, and a large hub of aerospace and military tech companies, as well as the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. But it’s not all government and academia; Huntsville is rapidly emerging as one of the best places in the South for small, emerging tech businesses.
Gary Tauss, CEO of Huntsville-based incubator Biztech, says “Huntsville has a long history with NASA and the Department of Defense, and we have a tremendous number of engineers.” But Huntsville is not satisfied to simply rely on NASA and the DoD. “When the government budget goes down, all those people need something to do. So the thought is to develop an alternative economy that would help the region grow.” Biztech incubates ten to 15 companies early stage at any given time. Tauss says that Huntsville is definitely not “a sleepy little Southern town.” Huntsville points to the revitalization of downtown, and the emergence of a great startup culture. Part of the idea behind Biztech was to go beyond the research park to build a downtown coworking space “where people can get together, have collisions, and meet other people. We’ve been finding people coming out of the woodwork and loving it.” There is a constant influx of new people, great schools, a mayor that continues to push the city and the people in it to do great things, and all of the ingredients necessary to make Huntsville a great place for a tech startup.
Kruse’s goal is to help out the local entrepreneur scene, and he has already made some impressive moves with the creation of the Meetup, and the launch of a new co-working space. Kruse’s own fledging incubator will work alongside Huntsville’s BizTech, and the two complement each other. “They’re following the ‘let’s bring a bunch of people in to interview in the Huntsville area, and then choose three, and invest in them and give them office space;’ whereas ours is more of a ‘if you already have a business you can come and have a free office, depending on where your company is at, or a very cheap office with Internet.’ It creates a collaborative community that is much bigger. We aren’t doing the one-on-one training and investing in each individual company that Gary is doing. Gary likes to take those three to ten companies, whereas our new school we want to buy should be able to facilitate about 60 small offices just to get people in there, and have a place for general collaboration where everybody can jump on each other’s back in terms of inspiration and motivation.”
Successful Dot Cloud tech communities all have one thing in common: Besides the presence of formal incubators and co-working spaces, it’s also easy to find informal meetups. Huntsville is no exception, and the meetup group Kruse founded has grown quickly. And with world-class culture and great restaurants like the Cotton Row Restaurant, traditional Southern hospitality, a nice four-bedroom home going for about $150,000 in Huntsville, and just one of the coolest atmospheres for young startup entrepreneurs around, who needs Silicon Valley?
Kansas City, Here I Come…
The Greater Kansas City area got a big leg up when Google announced they would be bringing Google Fiber to the city, and local tech entrepreneurs were eager to take advantage of it. The Kansas City Startup Village sprouted up at Hanover Heights, and they were off to the races. The mayor’s Innovation Task Force put together LaunchKC with a broader, city-wide scope.
A central hub of the network is the Kauffman Foundation’s One Million Cups KC meetup group (these meetups happen in over a dozen cities now, but Kansas City’s is particularly active), where a sizable number of tinkerers, entrepreneurs, investors and social media mavens meet every wednesday morning for a presentation and networking. Kansas city is also home of the Spark Lab KC business accelerator, where small startups can find help with mentorship and securing capital. The Technology Council of Greater Kansas City is helping to drive the vehicle with advocacy and media relations featuring the area as an attractive option to tech industry entrepreneurs and CEOs.
On the Maker end of things, the Cowtown Computer Congress operates a hackerspace with active online and meatspace engagement. The notorious, influential and long-lived internet humor site Somethingawful.com—itself a bit of a hacker haven – is headquartered in the nearby suburb of Pleasant Hill. All in all, not a bad place for a geek to settle – and a decent opportunity for an adventurous VC to work out something to make real value – and money—with.
Enhancing the Orlando’s Creative Side
When you think about Orlando, it’s automatic that you’d think about Disney, the hospitality industry, and/or retirement communities. Thus it’s understandable that the Orlando tech scene is somewhat overshadowed. But if you look around town, you’ll have no problem finding all kinds of creative tech ventures.
The city is doing everything that it can to promote itself as more than just a Mouseketeer’s paradise. One major venture to this end is the Creative Village, a massive renovation of the former Amway Arena site. According the City of Orlando’s website, this particular project “builds on the success of Orlando’s digital media industry by transforming the former site of the Amway Arena in Downtown Orlando into a 68-acre mixed-use, transit-oriented, urban infill neighborhood that will be home to leading higher education providers”. With a dynamic computing program nearby at the University of Central Florida, the Creative Village sounds like a big win for Orlando.
Video game development in particular seems to be a big deal in Orlando. Florida’s high density of youth and tech support provide the ideal environment for developers to set up shop. Iron Galaxy is a perfect example of one such firm. Although based in Chicago, Iron Galaxy’s explosive growth since 2008 has brought the need for creative minds on the outside. Enter Orlando.
“We chose to open a second studio in Orlando because there is a great pool of talented developers and graduate students to choose from in that area” says Tom Carbone, Iron Galaxy’s Orlando Studio Head. This game developer’s creative and youthful flair is obvious when you take a look at titles like Wreckateer and Divekick. But it’s not just about the creativity in Orlando, it’s also about the cash. “Overhead costs are generally lower here in Orlando than they usually are in other major development cities like San Fran, or Chicago, or LA,” surmises Carbone.
The gaming boom in Orlando, and Florida in general, however, may be threatened. Although the State of Florida had been offering generous incentives for gaming companies to relocate or set up offices here, those incentives have recently been cut off. We don’t like to think about how politics can influence popular technology, but the proof may be in the pudding. Until we see an across-the-board negative reaction to these cuts, however, Orlando is definitely still a hotspot, with great potential, and we hope they keep the momentum going.
Sioux Falls, SD is a tech hotspot even in the heart of winter
Technology blooms – even in the heart of South Dakota winters – in unexpected places.
When one mentions Sioux Falls, South Dakota, rarely is the response “Oh, that place is a mini Silicon Valley!” Generally, the idea is that it is very cold and very flat. There is more than winter to Sioux Falls though! It has, in recent years, been heralded for its low unemployment rates of just 3.5% as of July 2013 and its growing economy. With that growth, many entrepreneurs and unlikely startups have appeared in the area, utilizing new technology in different ways. Gateway closed its plant in the city, but those workers didn’t go to the unemployment line—many of the skilled and tech-savvy workers started their own small businesses and ventures to create new business technology in the area.
The South Dakota Technology Business Center in Sioux Falls offers training and advice to up-and-coming tech businesses, as well as an accelerator program to fast track small businesses to success. They also work to network those in the tech business with each other to mutually expand their business pools and connections. Unlikely stories like Faye Wright’s, who had just retired and then went on to learn about 3D printers, purchased one, and is now in the business of making bronze casts from photographs with it, are growing in Sioux Falls. Many are using innovative technology to keep progress moving forward.
It’s a common Silicon Valley narrative for employees of larger tech firms to break off on their own to create something great, and that narrative is now part of the Sioux Falls landscape. Many of the former Gateway employees are using their Fortune 500-company training to contribute to new and existing tech companies in the area. Some who started at the company back in the nineties have become business owners themselves, now that the once-giant company has ceased to exist. Their training and specialization, however, has not ceased to exist, and continues to help expand their businesses beyond their specialized field.
Another example of success in the tech-world of Sioux Falls is Workplace I.T. Management. Joe Zueger, owner and president of Workplace I.T. Management, sent us some comments on Sioux Falls and their technology business.
A short introduction to Zueger: a Sioux Falls native, relocated back to his home city after attending college out of state and seven years in other markets. He founded Workplace Technology in 1997, and since sold part of the company (the Audio/Visual Integration Services) to a national firm. “Our pure play Managed IT Services business is now providing flat-rate solutions that include 24/7 monitoring, proactive procedures, Help Desk and projects to clients in the SMB segment (<100 nodes) on a national basis. We are also providing Private Cloud services where our clients have a need.”
The success of Sioux Falls as a tech hub is no surprise to Zueger: “The combination of a Midwestern work ethic along with very competitive wage rates gives us access to great talent. The cost of living is low, so we can pay competitive or above-market local rates that are still below what it could cost in Minneapolis or even Omaha and our staff maintain a great quality of life.”
Zueger pointed out that South Dakota is a “very low tax state (no personal income tax, no corporate income tax), which also makes this an attractive home base for any business. Growth in the tech sector is just one of the boats that rises with this tide.” Zueger noted the importance of talking to friends in other markets and the importance of the great access they have in Sioux Falls. “Access can refer to a lot of things; access to decision-makers, access to capital, access to affordable/scalable broadband, access to mentorship, access to political leaders, et cetera.” Zueger referenced the South Dakota Technology Business Center, and how the facility helped drive “incubation of several new businesses.”
The region’s community focus and leadership is a strong proponent of success in the area as well, according to Zueger. “We have had a couple generations of strong leadership locally and regionally, and they understand that we really do need to invest in the next generation of business leaders, and some of the latest have been young tech entrepreneurs.”
So what does the future hold for Sioux Falls? Joe Zueger is not shy about about the success his community has found, and left us with a few comments that looks for further blossoming of tech and community business: “Sioux Falls is home to a number of great success stories but we have probably been a little too humble in telling the broader population what can and does get done in this community. It’s like a winning college football team: If you continue to focus on your unique strengths and celebrate your successes, you develop a culture of success that very simply breeds more success in the future.”
Startup culture thriving in twin cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota
Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota have a median age of 36.6 years old, making them young cities with lots of new ideas and growth on the horizon. The city has the second largest economy in the Midwest (Chicago claims the largest), and it is fostering an ever growing tech-start up community.
CoCo (a Coworking and Collaborative space) is in Minneapolis, with three locations in uptown and downtown Minneapolis, and a location in lower-town St. Paul; the work space has been chosen for Google’s tech hub program. The tech hub program aims to “create a strong network, providing each hub with financial support alongside access to Google technology, platforms and mentors, and ensuring that entrepreneurs at these hubs have access to an even larger network of startups.” (Source: Google Official Blog posted September 25, 2013) CoCo is a collaborative office space with space to rent to solo workers, traveling workers, groups, or corporate groups. There is a built-in social network that members get when they become part of CoCo, and high speed Internet is included with membership, as well as the services provided by Google. Other cities with Google’s tech hub program include: Chicago, Denver, Durham, Nashville, Detroit (which also made Techie.com’s list of cities to watch in 2014),and Waterloo, Ontario.
Renting a shared space means that the worker(s) no longer has to directly fund all of the electricity, Internet, and materials that a naked office rental would need. It also harbors an environment where people working on many different projects work in the same space, can meet and discuss, get fresh angles, and collaborate on projects together. Collaborative efforts and mobile work spaces are just one way that the Twin Cities are entering the tech-savvy realm of start-up cities.
Don Ball, a founding member of CoCo, expresses that he thinks that the Twin Cities have a lot to offer in the tech arena. “In 2014, the Twin Cities will begin to pay off on its latent potential. Home of 20 Fortune 500s, the most per capita of any metro in the U.S., the Twin Cities have deep expertise in essential areas, like financial services, retail, med tech, CPG and health care.” The twin cities have lots of potential. “This last area” he continued, “health care, is where we’re seeing a particularly sharp rise in activity. I believe we’ll see a boom in healthcare startups, investment and acquisitions in 2014.”
A quick peek online at tech-related Meetups and groups shows that ideas are sure to be kicked around and fostered. From a monthly Meetup calendar for December 2013, there are Meetups from a Data Visualization group to presentations from Minnesota Healthcare IT start-ups. There are also a number of expos (such as TechPulse) that have popped up to present ideas and exchange others.
There is a lot to watch in the Twin Cities for 2014. The city is at the forefront of collaborative efforts with CoCo, and have embraced the Cloud as a way of developing tech. With those not involved in CoCo still creating a community through Meetup and undoubtedly other social networks, there will definitely be things to report on in 2014 coming from Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, other than their ice cold temperatures in the winter.
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