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Trigaux: Metro areas need more than nerds to be called an innovation hub

Published Mar. 5, 2015

"Nerds love Orlando." So starts the Upshot column, headlined What Is The Next 'Next Silicon Valley'? and published Thursday by the New York Times.

The nerd pitch arrived at the New York Times in public relations materials from the city of Orlando. "But as Orlando seeks to rebrand itself as 'a high tech hub for innovation,' " the column says, "it faces a lot of competition."

That's an understatement. But that's the way of these regional games of one-upmanship. Orlando, convinced it's got some tech mojo in the making, is daring to say: "Look at us."

Many metro areas beyond Silicon Valley and Seattle seek recognition as a technology hub. Tampa Bay is one of them. My column Sunday in the Tampa Bay Times was headlined At the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, it's time to stake a claim as a tech hub. It focused on the tech group's growing confidence that this metro area needs to tell the story that the depth of tech activity here deserves more respect and awareness.

The region's tech feedback I've received so far seems to boil down to this: Before we talk the talk, let's walk the walk. We need a breakthrough tech company started here to achieve enough size and innovation to spark questions like "What's up in Tampa Bay?"

"Painting the tech community with one big brush not only diminishes the efforts of those actually developing new products and organically generating high-skilled jobs, but it also perpetuates the notion that all we need is better PR to draw attention to our region," Ken Evans, an area technology executive, said in an email.

Then there is the geography game. Grow all the startups you like. But if they move to California for the venture capital or get bought and moved elsewhere by a bigger company, does that help build the local startup community?

The New York Times story pours statistical cold water on Orlando. It notes the metro area ranks low in tech assets. Citing Brookings data, it shows that among the 100 largest U.S. metro areas, San Jose (Silicon Valley) ranks first in "advanced industry" employment as a share of total employment. Orlando ranks 73rd.

And Tampa Bay? It ranks 58th, above Orlando but just below Boise City in Idaho and just above the Buffalo area in New York. I'm just not sure these rankings best identify which metro areas really have the sizzle and the steak to become significant tech hubs.

The New York Times article does make a good suggestion. Places like Orlando and Tampa Bay might first pursue a more modest goal of becoming destinations where quality startups not only can take root but feel confident they do not have to relocate to survive.

I recently toured some of Orlando's young startup efforts. Nerds do like downtown Orlando. Just as nerds like many parts of the Tampa Bay area. So if you meet one today, be nice. And ask them to stick around.

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.


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