| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter LinkedIn RSS Feed


National spotlight: Tech hubs bloom far from Silicon Valley

Denver's Erik Mitisek, co-founder of travel startup NextGreatPlace

Baltimore-based Digital Steamworks' software

Luis von Ahn, founder of Duolingo in Pittsburgh

Craig Howe

The following article, by the editor of Elevation DC's sister publication in Denver, Confluence, takes a broad look at one of the most significant trends of the century so far--the growth of tech hubs in cities far from Silicon Valley. It's a trend you don't have to look far to see that D.C. is a part of. After reading this piece, read Innovation & Jobs editor Allyson Jacob's companion story on how these trends are playing out here.

AOL Co-Founder Steve Case has a great perspective on the country's vast and varied startup universe. Now Chairman of Startup America and CEO of Revolution, a venture capital fund based in Washington, D.C., Case wrote a February blog post for the Wall Street Journal describing what he's dubbed the "rise of the rest."
"I'm convinced that we’re beginning to see a regional 'rise of the rest' as cities like Washington D.C., Denver, Chicago, Atlanta, Raleigh, Cleveland, Detroit and many others experience unprecedented growth in startups," wrote Case.
Case is the unofficial pied piper for this "rise of the rest." He recently crisscrossed the country in search of investments for Revolution outside of established tech hubs like Silicon Valley and Boston.  But he's not alone in recognizing it.
"We're just seeing the beginning of this trend," says Craig Howe, Founder and CEO of Rocket XL, a Los Angeles-based social media agency.
Howe is involved in no less than seven startup accelerators and incubators from South Carolina to California as mentor, advisor or investor, and seeing entrepreneurialism blossom in unexpected areas. "I never imagined in a million years that one of the strongest accelerators in the country -- the Iron Yard -- would be in Greenville, South Carolina."
Silicon Valley set the template of academic institutions and companies feeding off of each other to create a first-rate ecosystem for tech startups and innovation. Now it's being replicated in all sorts of places with all sorts of specialized technologies, says Howe, with a boost from government subsidies and successful entrepreneurs coming back to their roots and helping catalyze local networks of investors and advisors.
"A lot of people are returning home," says Howe. "There's such energy and excitement for successful businesspeople to invest and be part of a startup community."
Pittsburgh: Language Tech Hub
Home to Duolingo, Jibbigo and Carnegie Speech, Pittsburgh's strong translation tech cluster is in large due to the presence of Carnegie Mellon University. But there's a lot more to it than that.
"One of the problems startups in other areas have is finding engineers," says Luis von Ahn, CEO and Founder of Duolingo. "In Silicon Valley, they say it's so hard to find engineers. We don't have that problem. It's not like that here."
He says Duolingo has four computational linguists on staff. "Those are really hard to find." But Carnegie Mellon has one of the biggest and best computational linguistics departments in the world in its Language Technologies Institute.
Von Ahn is known as one of the godfathers of crowdsourcing. He was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellows "genius grant" in 2006 and started Duolingo in 2011. The company teaches people languages on the Internet and uses their lessons to crowdsource translations to a wide variety of customers.
Duolingo has 24 employees in Pittsburgh (12 of its 14 engineers are Carnegie Mellon grads) and is growing at a rapid pace. "We're scaling and we're continuously hiring," he says.
Pittsburgh is not a hard sell to new recruits, he adds. "Affordability is a big deal," he says. "When you compare New York and Pittsburgh, it's almost laughable. Here you can buy a four- or five-bedroom home for what you could maybe rent a two-bedroom apartment in New York."
And the city over-delivers in terms of quality of life. "It's not the middle of nowhere, "says von Ahn. "It's a cool city."
Mile High Rising
Denver is another city that's proving fertile ground for software and web technology startups, and quality of life enters most every conversation on the topic.
Erik Mitisek is something of the ambassador of the city's booming startup scene. He's co-founder of travel startup NextGreatPlace and chairman of Built In Denver.
"Denver is in the midst of an entrepreneurial renaissance," he says. "There's a lot of activity." He points to enterprise software and mobile technology as growing areas, and says local companies Rally Software, Ping Identity, FullContact and iTriage are some of the companies to watch.
"A lot of people are returning home. There's such energy and excitement for successful businesspeople to invest and be part of a startup community."
Mitisek cites local higher education and easy access to technology as critical factors underpinning the current boom times. But if Denver has one trump card, it's quality of life, he says.
"It's a great place to work, but it's also a great place to live," says Mitisek, highlighting a "trifecta" of development in the central core, access to capital and several companies on the cusp of going public.
Lasting Legacy

Baltimore's been a computer gaming hub for a long time, and it's poised to bolster that status as a new generation of creative game-makers settle down in the city.
The local ecosystem for computer games can be traced back to a singular event in 1982: Sid Meier and "Wild Bill" Stealey co-founded MicroProse and based the company outside Baltimore in Hunt Valley. The company's flight simulators were popular in the early days, and Meier went on to develop Civilization, one of the top computer games of all time. He lives in Hunt Valley today.
After peaking in the 1990s with 220 employees in the Baltimore area, MicroProse has been since acquired many times and is now based in California, but this legacy has made metro Baltimore a gaming hub ever since. Murray Taylor, Founder of Digital Steamworks, is one of many former MicroProse employees to have gone off to launch their own startups.
"We started making computer games when the industry began," says Taylor. "It's just natural now. We see the evolution clearly and can see what's next."
Digital Steamworks takes computer-game concepts and technology to new markets, having developed 3-D rendering software for NFL coaches and interactive exhibits for the General Electric Visitor Center in Atlanta. Others, like BreakAway Games, have fostered a market with the strong local military presence. A who's who of military leaders has used BreakAway's software.
And Baltimore attracts the right talent to fuel visual and conceptual innovation. "Baltimore's kind of quirky," says Taylor. "It's kind of like Austin in a way. A lot of creative people are attracted to the city. People like funky things."
And the Silicon Valley types who come out for a job tend to like Baltimore. "People come out from California and they stay," says Taylor, citing public schools and climate as prime selling points. "They love it here. It's lush here. It looks like a tropical rainforest compared to California."
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts

Related Content