Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Shrinking Tech World 2.0

I live in New York City, but like I have done for the last 13 years, spend a lot of time in Akron Ohio. Before 2008 this was because I was an owner, along with my parents and cousin, of a technology company, called Tech Pro, which made sophisticated laboratory instruments. We sold this business in 2008. I don’t mention that “sophisticated” part to in any way seem smart, clever or elitist. Instead I mention it because here is an inherent disconnect in many peoples’ minds between thinking of Ohio and technology sophistication together. I am not even sure that I don’t share some of this prejudice. I live in New York, I teach at Columbia University, and I have important collaborations for my new company Nanotronics Imaging in Silicon Valley. That said, I have just opened another office in Akron, Ohio, where we are putting together a team of programmers and engineers that I hired not because I like to be in Ohio, but because I think they are the best. I hadn’t thought about this much, as it was perfectly obvious to us at Nanotronics why we would want to do this. For one thing we had worked with some of these people before. Jeff Archer, our first hire, was an early Tech Pro employee, and he had, along with my father, developed the first data acquisition systems for polymer labs. (For more on these early Tech Pro days, and Jeff, check this out here.) Since his time at Tech Pro, Jeff has worked for ABB, and brought along some great talent with him. We then brought back two other former Tech Pro engineers. This was natural, as we all spoke similar languages of business. I also thought we lived in a post regional age, where a company, as tiny as we are, could be spread around, making decentralization not a burden, but instead a benefit. After all, why not work with the best people for your company, no matter where they are?  Also I like the idea of developing talent in places where there is not already a legacy tech culture like Silicon Valley, but instead places like Akron where the legacy of rust belt industry has already faded from the memory of currently working people. I grew up in this region for example, and my grandfather was a director for BF Goodrich Tire Company. Though the city was still full of bursts of carbon black smog when I was young, my grandfather was already retired. My father’s generation tried to redefine the Midwest, by creating these old industry upgrade type businesses. Dad and his cousin started making custom rubber, and having an independent testing lab. Finally he had Tech Pro, which extended the scope beyond Akron, and even Akron type businesses, by computerizing and automating new material testing. Tech Pro, by the time we sold, was 60% international.

My generation in general moved away. Even with all the background, and memory of these past two generations of redefinition of purpose, the action certainly did seem like it was in Silicon Valley or New York. The reason I thought this had changed is not because I consider Ohio to be vibrant, but because I think that collective memory, and some of those creative people are still there. Also, and maybe more importantly, there is good reason for them, and entrepreneurs to come to Ohio and places like it. Two things made me think of this lately, other than my own little office there. The first was MarkKvamme being put into a position by Ohio’s new governor in order to attract technology business and investment to Ohio. Kvamme is a well known successful Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist, who has only two reasons that I can think of to do this: 1. great civic duty, to bring the whole country to the kind of creative and financial success seen in Silicon Valley, and 2. because he believes that it is possible for creative engineers and entrepreneurs to be trained and found in this region. This is encouraging. I must admit to being a Democrat, but this move by Ohio’s newest Republican Governor is very exciting to me, and I give both he and Kvamme a lot of credit for thinking it.

The second thing was the realization that I am still in the minority to think that we are in a post regional tech world. I was listening to the Web 2.0Summit where John Doerr (Kleiner Perkins), and Fred  Wilson (Union Square Ventures) were having as much of a debate as I am used to hearing in tech conferences. I liked it because I respect both of these guys a lot. They have enriched the Venture model so many times that Americans have remained innovative regardless of the many problems we may have had in science education. This model is changing I believe, but I was happy to hear that both Wilson and Doerr are funding so many good ideas. What surprised me, though, was that Doerr said that he felt that it was still important for a start-up to be located in the Bay area. He extended the reach from Silicon Valley all the way up to San Francisco, which I found funny, because from my perspective in New York this is all pretty much the same, as I fly into San Francisco Airport either way. Wilson made a case for New York, which as a New Yorker was nice to hear, and he did seem open to the idea that creativity could be found anywhere, that with new technology location wasn’t as important. Still, and I may be wrong, there was an assumption that tech talent was either an east coast or west coast phenomenon, with India breaking through as well. I am not sure if I even disagree completely, but I find it unfortunate, and feel that some entrepreneurs are missing out on great opportunities in places that are only an hour flight away.

I fly to a tiny Airport in Akron, drive 10 minutes in no traffic to my nice Sheraton Suites hotel, and walk to our cozy, and extremely inexpensive, offices where I work with an incredible group of people. I have local machine shops, local banks, and even Universities to turn to when needed. This isn’t my whole solution for Nanotronics. We are on both coasts, and will be in India, China and Korea among other places, but it is right now one of the most important places for us and ideal for us. I think that it could be for a lot of others as well.

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