When the term “Silicon Alley” was coined to identify the tech hub area of New York City, it was a significant and accurate branding maneuver. As of 2016, however, it seems every city in the United States has a “Silicon” moniker and claims to be the home of a thriving technological renaissance.
This is due to the increasing number of job seekers who are looking to startups and the tech industry as major sources of opportunity. Among the high volume of cities clamoring to be the next big thing, certain tech hubs are genuinely producing fresh concepts and catalyzing economic growth. These unlikely areas, such as Eastern Kentucky and Lincoln, Nebraska, are truly on the forefront of innovation in the tech landscape. With intense competition and staggering real estate prices driving some tech talent out of Silicon Valley, more cities than ever before are becoming real players.
The Tech Hub Claim
But what exactly makes a “tech hub”? One group from the University of Oxford worked to come up with defining attributes for these new and exciting models of tech entrepreneurship. The first was community, with most hubs emphasizing that members share ideologies and motivations for what they do. Hubs are also self-organizing and adaptive, beginning as grassroots initiatives. They are able to constantly adapt to the needs of the group without compromising purpose. This is key, because donors and investors are viewed as supporters rather than being able to dictate an agenda for the group. Hubs offer a space for innovation and entrepreneurship that brings together people with varied backgrounds and skill sets. This is based on a tenet of startup culture that suggests “unlikely combinations of existing knowledge” are the key to great ideas. That’s why, in general, hubs are non-hierarchical and allow for an open community structure.
Though this description provides a good overview of hub and startup culture, personal finance site NerdWallet defined tech hub success in more black-and-white terms. Forbes reports that NerdWallet looked at a number of factors: “the number of patents per 1,000 residents, venture capital received per capita in a particular region … [and] the benefits realized when a high density of startups cluster together.” Based on both sets of criteria, the following four regions are considered on the edge of the “Silicon” scene.
In recent years, the Austin area has gained attention as home to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. Heavy hitters like Facebook, Apple and Google have all opened offices in the city as a result. Big data is the main attraction for techies in the area, as Austin has seen rapid growth in data-focused startups and businesses. And with a growing population of young people, it’s easy to see why the Austin Startup Report found that funding for Austin startups increased 123 percent between 2013 and 2014 alone.
Forbes reports that the Boulder metropolitan area has an impressive density of startups per capita, more than six times the national average. It’s not surprising, considering that Colorado made the top five list of states’ startup activity in 2015. This is due to a focus on environmental issues, sustainability and “green” products that opened up the market to a new kind of eco-friendly business model.
According to Mashable, the Kauffman Index rated Miami as the No. 2 city in the nation for startup activity in 2015. The South Florida region has experienced a surge in health care startup activity, providing “invaluable access to the Latin American demographic — an increasingly attractive market for businesses seeking to expand on a global scale.” A major downtown renovation and tax incentives make Miami an ideal home for professionals seeking to get ahead.
“The Research Triangle,” North Carolina
This region consists of eight counties that include the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. It is home to Duke University and the University of North Carolina. Because the area is so research-focused, it produces startups and innovative products that are “creating ripples” in the scientific community, Mashable says. With a significantly lower cost of living than cities like New York and San Francisco, The Research Triangle is appealing to young tech talent.
Unlikely Tech Regions: Ones to Watch
Though the four regions and cities above have features that distinguish them as ideal locations for tech hubs, some of the up-and-coming prospects are surprising. One is the “Silicon Prairie,” which is centered around Lincoln, Nebraska. It may not be the first city that springs to mind when you think of startup culture, but Lincoln actually has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. The local government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in renovating the downtown area, known as Haymarket, NPR says. This helps the city attract young adults looking to start their working lives in an area they can afford.
Another draw is the decidedly different attitude. As NPR points out, “In the growing community of high tech entrepreneurs in Lincoln, as well as in nearby Omaha, people pull for one another. They collaborate, commiserate, advise and mentor. Even though they may compete for investors, talent and ideas … there’s a belief that any one startup’s success is good for everyone else.” A vast network of technology investors like Nebraska Angels makes it even more compelling. The University of Nebraska adds another layer to the startup scene, working with the city to turn state fairgrounds into an “innovation campus for high tech firms” and providing access to talent. The college town of around 300,000 people also boasts a low cost of living. These disparate elements combine to make the “Silicon Prairie” one of our tech hub regions to watch.
The second on-the-verge tech hub is perhaps the most unexpected of all: Appalachia. With the coal industry experiencing continued decline, former miners and other industry veterans who have lost work are making a career change and learning to code. Bloomberg draws our attention to Pikeville, Kentucky, a town of just 6,900 people that is three hours west of the “Golden Triangle” of Louisville, Cincinnati and Lexington. The Bluegrass State is experiencing a boom in coding talent, with new regional organizations like Shaping Our Appalachian Region driving the entrepreneurial scene, Bloomberg reports. They are interested in moving the state’s economy beyond coal and into the tech marketplace. Developers can expect to earn salaries as high as $70,000 — a wage that matches what miners have come to expect. This is the real draw, as Labor Department grants fund programs that teach Kentucky residents to code.
One notable result is Bit Source, a web design mobile application and game design company that operates out of an old Coca-Cola bottling plant in Pikeville. It was founded in 2014 and employs former miners who have learned to code from Bit Source’s own training program. The company has already completed nine projects, according to Bloomberg, including a website for eastern Kentucky’s career center network. With promising opportunities and former miners who are willing to learn, it’s clear that these “high-tech hillbillies” are becoming a force of their own in the tech landscape.
Silicon Valley and Beyond
Though Silicon Valley’s status as America’s hub-of-hubs isn’t likely to be taken over anytime soon, the regions we’ve profiled make it clear that the tech world is exciting, no matter the location. With innovation moving at a rapid pace and professionals of all ages turning to the tech industry for career success, places like Austin, Boulder, Lincoln and even Pikeville offer significant opportunities. Companies and startups looking to stay competitive are turning their sights on regions that until now were considered little more than flyover states in the tech world, and those locations bring real benefits to the table.
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