6 Wild And Weird Ways Cities Are Luring Tech Talent
The Wild Tactic: As Detroit’s economy crumbled over the last few decades, talented kids began fleeing in hordes. Leslie Smith is trying to turn that around, as the CEO of Tech Town, a 43-acre tech park in the heart of Detroit’s downtown. It provides 220 companies with space, feed funding, coaching, and networking, thanks to government funding, philanthropic gifts, and bucket loads of private sector cash.
The Problem: Detroit is a car city, and the public transportation system is underfunded and bordering on crisis. Smith also describes the culture in Detroit as “raw” and “gritty.” Others call it a “crime-ridden,” “decayed” and “racially divided.”
The Pitch: “There's something about being in on the ground floor that attracts entrepreneurs, and Silicon Valley doesn't feel like the ground floor anymore,” explains Jake Cohen, vice president of venture capital firm Detroit Venture Partners. "In 10 years, Silicon Valley is going to be great, and it's great today. In Detroit, the city is going to be totally different in 10 years. Do you want to be a part of that?"
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- Austin, Texas
The Wild Tactic: “Texas has a reputation for this pioneering mentality,” says Julie Huls, the president of the Austin Technology Council. “We are very focused. We are very organized. We are very competitive. We like to win in Austin, Texas.”
But Austin’s greatest recruitment strategy came about pretty accidentally. It happens to host the biggest tech festival in America.
In five years, South by Southwest Interactive has grown from the smallest to the biggest portion of the week-long event. “I hear so many stories of people who came to Austin for South by Southwest and ended up moving here, and finding business partners here,” explains Hugh Forrest, the director of South by Southwest Interactive.
The government has also been more than willing to sweeten the deal. Since 2006, it’s given out over $370 million to promising tech companies.
The Pitch: “Don’t you want to live here all your round?” asks Forrest. “It’s really cool in March, and pretty cool the rest of the time.”
The Problem: Austin has been called "The Allergy Capital of the World." Techies may be renowned for their mighty minds, but not necessarily for robust immune systems.
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- Chattanooga, Tenn.
The Wild Tactic: Chattanooga is the only city in the western hemisphere where every resident has access to gig-a-second Internet, and it’s hoping to take advantage of its status as "Gig City."
“We’re literally 10, 15 years ahead of the rest of the country,” explains Sheldon Grizzle, the founder of Chattanooga’s The Company Lab, which provides resources to entrepreneurs. “If your city had electricity 10 or 15 years before the rest of the country, what would you have done with it?”
Grizzle realized that if they were going to do anything with it, they needed to scoop up a lot of bright minds. “We have to think a little more creatively than places like Boston, New York or Silicon Valley,” he says. “Chattanooga is not on the beaten path, and it's certainly not for tech entrepreneurs.”
So Grizzle came up with a neat idea: give tech entrepreneurs cash. As part of an initiative called "GeekMove," Web developers who move to Chattanooga can have up to $10,000 discounted from their mortgages. Ten startups can get $15,000 for incubating their product in Chattanooga, with a $100,000 grant given to the best. And from a select group of students who are spending the summer in town for a hacker think tank, one will leave with $50,000. Residents who take part in a “Geek Hunt” can score a $1,000 finder’s fee if a tech person they've recommended is accepted to the program.
The Pitch: A chance at a $100,000 prize, and mind-blowing bandwidth.
The Problem: Where exactly is Chattanooga?
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- Orlando, Fla.
The Wild Tactic: In just five years, Orlando has given birth to a 7,000-acre “Medical City.” Orlando was already home to over 100 biotech companies, when the University of Central Florida founded a medical school there, followed by three institutes for medical research. A veteran’s hospital, children’s hospital and another research center are on the way. Orlando is now home to a 600-acre science and technology playground.
To get those students to stick around, 75 percent of the price tag at Florida’s three public universities is covered by the government. And members of the founding class at the University of Central Florida medical school were given a free ride for their entire education. “It shows that we’re serious,” says Randy Berridge, the president of the Florida High Tech Corridor Council.
The council has also given out $57 million, on top of $151 million of private sector money, to bring in professors and graduate students, to act as consultants for real companies. It’s an unprecedented marriage of private profit-making and academic expertise. About 2,400 students have already taken part.
The Pitch: Go to school here, and you’ll graduate debt free and with experience at a local tech company.
The Problem: The public education system is “uneven,” says Thad Seymour, who leads the strategic planning of Orlando’s Medical City. And if you want a lot of talent, you’re going to have to grow some of it yourself.
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- New York
The Wild Tactic: Forget tech towns and tech cities. New York City is building a “Tech Island.”
“We can’t be second at anything; we’re New York,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at IBM's THINK Forum last year, mentioning with pride that New York beat Boston to become the second largest recipient of venture capital funding for tech startups, behind Silicon Valley.
The city still needs more talented minds, though, and so it decided to mold them itself -- on a brand new 2-million-square-foot science and engineering campus that dwarfs the Tyrell Corporation.
The mayor is investing $100 million of city funds toward the university, which will sit on Roosevelt Island, between Manhattan and Queens. Cornell has chipped in $350 million from an anonymous donor -- one of the largest gifts in the history of American education. Bloomberg’s goals are modest: for New York to become “the global leader in technological innovation.”
The Pitch: “New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do.” - Alicia Keys.
The Problem: In March, the average month's rent in Manhattan was $3,418.
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- San Francisco
The Wild Tactic: The Bay Area's Silicon Valley remains the uncontested mecca for American techies. But the region's voracious appetite for talent extends beyond our nation's borders. It's hard to recruit the best and brightest from around the world, however, when there are these annoying visa things you need to let them live here legally.
If they can't live on U.S. soil, thought businessman Dario Mutabdzija, why not park them in international waters off San Francisco? His ocean-going tech-incubator, Blueseed, which is still in the planning stages, would house as many as 1,000 entrepreneurs from across the globe -- 12 miles off the California coast. They would live, work and play on a repurposed cruise ship, which would be outfitted with restaurants, recreational facilities, and office space. A daily ferry service would bring foreign workers to the mainland for meetings and conferences, and bring investors, potential partners and employees to the boat.
The Pitch: Are you a foreign entrepreneur who wants access to Silicon Valley, but can't get a visa? Do you enjoy the fresh scent of sea air in the morning?
The Problem: Living on a ship anchored in the middle of the ocean is a little bit post-apocalyptic.
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