TITLE: Growing a Tech Industry Instead of Corn AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 14, 2006 5:29 PM DESC: ----- BODY: One of the enjoyable outreach activities I've been involved with as department head this year has been the state of Iowa's Information Technology Council. A few years back, the Iowa Department of Economic Development commissioned the Battelle corporation to study the prospects for growing the state's economy in the 21st century. They focused on three areas: bioscience, advanced manufacturing, and information technology. The first probably sounds reasonable to most people, given Iowa's reputation as an agriculture state, but what of the other two? It turns out that Iowa is much more of a manufacturing state than many people realize. Part of this relates back to agriculture. While John Deere is headquartered in Moline, Illinois, most of its factories are in Iowa. We also have manufacturers such as Rockwell Collins and Maytag (though that company has been purchased by Whirlpool and will close most or all of its Iowa locations soon). But information technology? Des Moines is home to several major financial services companies or their regional centers, such as Principal Financial Group and Wells Fargo. Cedar Rapids has a few such firms as well, as well as other companies with a computing focus such as NCR Pearson and ACT. IDED created the IT Council to guide the state in implementing the Information Technology Strategic Roadmap developed by Battelle as a result of its studies. (You can see the report at this IDED web page.) The council consists of representatives from most of Iowa's big IT firms and many of the medium-sized and small IT firms that have grown up throughout the state. Each of the three state universities has a representative on the council, as does the community college system and the consortium of Iowa's many, many private colleges and universities. I am UNI's representative. The council has been meeting for only one year, and we have spent most of our time really understanding the report and mapping out some ideas to act on in the coming year. One of the big issues is, of course, how Iowa can encourage IT professionals to make the state their home, to work at existing companies and to create innovative start-ups that will fuel economic growth in the sector. Another part of the challenge is to encourage Iowa students to study computer science, math, and other science and engineering disciplines -- and then to stay in Iowa, rather than taking attractive job offers from the Twin Cities, Chicago, Kansas City, and many other places with already-burgeoning IT sectors. To hear Paul Graham tell it, we are running a fool's errand. Iowa doesn't seem to be a place where nerds and the exceedingly rich want to live. Indeed, Iowa is one of those red states that he dismisses out of hand:
Conversely, a town that gets praised for being "solid" or representing "traditional values" may be a fine place to live, but it's never going to succeed as a startup hub. The 2004 presidential election ... conveniently supplied us with a county-by-county map of such places. [6]
Actually, as I look at this map, Iowa is much more people than red, so maybe we have a chance! I do think that a resourceful people that is willing to look forward can guide its destiny. And the homes of our three state universities -- Iowa City, Ames, and Cedar Falls -- bear the hallmark of most university towns: attracting and accepting more odd ideas than the surrounding environment tends to accept. But Iowans are definitely stolid Midwestern US stock, and it's not a state with grand variation in geography or history or culture. We have to bank on solidity as a strength and hope that some nerds might like to raise their families in a place with nice bike trails and parks, a place where you can let your kids play in the neighborhood with fearing the worst. We also don't have a truly great university, certainly not of the caliber Graham expects. Iowa and Iowa State are solid universities, with very strong programs in some areas. UNI is routinely praised for its efficiency and for its ability to deliver a solid education to its students. (Solid -- there's that word again!) But none of the schools has a top-ten CS program, and UNI has not historically been a center of research. I've sometimes wondered why Urbana-Champaign in Illinois hasn't developed a higher-profile tech center. UIUC has a top-notch CS program and produces a lot of Ph.D., M.S., and B.S. graduates every year. Eric Sink has blogged for a few years about the joys of starting an independent software company amid the farmland of eastern Illinois. But then there is that solid, traditional-values, boring reputation to overcome. Chicago is only a few hours' drive away, but Chicago just isn't a place nerds want to be near. So Iowa is fighting an uphill battle, at least by most people's reckoning. I think that's okay, because I think the battle is still winnable -- perhaps not on the level of the original Silicon Valley but at least on the scale needed to invigorate Iowa's economy. And while reputation can be an obstacle, it also means that competitors may not be paying enough attention. The first step is to produce more tech-savvy graduates, especially ones with an entrepreneurial bent, and then convince them to stay home. Those are steps we can take. One thing that has surprised me about my work with the IT Council is that Iowa is much better off on another of Graham's measures than I ever realized, or than most people in this state know. We have a fair amount of venture capital and angel funding waiting for the right projects to fund. This is a mixture of old money derived from stodgy old companies like Deere and new money from the 1990s. We need to find a way to connect this money to entrepreneurs who are ready to launch start-ups, and to educate folks with commercializable ideas on how to make their ideas attractive to the folks with the money. Here at UNI, we are blessed to have an existence proof that it is possible to grow a tech start-up right here in my own backyard: TEAM Technologies, which among its many endeavors operates the premier data center in the middle part of the USA. A boring, solid location with few people, little crime, and no coastal weather turns out to be a good thing when you want to store and serve data safely! TEAM is headed up by a UNI alumnus -- another great strength for our department as we look for ways to expand our role in the economic development of the state. -----