I asked a bunch of experts. Do you remember that Indigo Girls song “Closer to Fine?” I was an Indigo Girl last month, asking everybody my question. Maybe I can put that earworm inside your brain for the rest of the day. “I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains…” You’re welcome.
I collected six answers from as many experts, which I’ll summarize and let them expand upon: Proximity, Practice, Leadership, Unique Advantages, Real Problems, and Patience.
Those were the answers, and clearly are some of the ingredients. Combining them to make a tech city probably takes a dash of luck and a bit of magic as well.
The UT San Antonio Dean of Engineering Dr. JoAnne Browning proudly showed me the architectural plans for her department’s key ingredient to building a tech startup city: Proximity. Outside of her office window, trucks moved earth in preparation for constructing a 17,000 square foot “Maker’s Space,” intended to bring together under one roof engineers, entrepreneurs and industry experts – a tech lab to launch the next generation of startups, and startup founders.
Meanwhile, on another part of the university campus, Diego Capeletti, Coordinator at the Center for Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship (CITE) runs an annual startup competition to give undergraduates startup practice even before leaving university. Twenty teams typically enter the annual CITE competition, teams made up of both engineers and business students, paired with industry mentors. They are winnowed down to 10 teams that receive funds for building prototypes, and then a final group of 5 teams make a pitch to a Tech Symposium. Winners receive a $5,000 cash prize plus generous in-kind services such as legal, public relations, office space, and patent help. The big idea here is that a startup city needs to produce young people with practice in startups.
I asked Michael Girdley, who wears many hats as the founder of a software coding school CodeUp, co-founder of investment firm Geekdom Fund and startup incubator Real Co about the city’s key missing ingredient. He added the third element beyond the UTSA’s folks’ proximity and practice.
When I pushed for the tech startup city’s most important single missing piece, Girdley settled not on training undergraduates but rather on the dearth of business leadership.
“There are not enough startup founders. We need the experienced professionals, in particular, who can start companies and swing for the fences.“
Congressman Will Hurd (R – 23rd District) brought an intelligence agency and cybersecurity professional background to serving the district which stretches from northwest San Antonio all the way nearly to El Paso. When I asked about San Antonio’s key missing ingredient, he immediately pointed to one of the city’s natural, unique strengths – cyber security.
“It requires us to understand why San Antonio is Cyber Security City USA. Very simply, the 24th [LINK: http://www.24af.af.mil/] and 25th [LINK: http://www.25af.af.mil/] Air Force in SA, TX. This is what’s driving the talent,”
he commented, naming the two cyber warfare groups stationed at Lackland Air Force Base. The first key to building a tech startup city would be building on that unique strength, to retain people leaving those jobs who want to remain in the city, but also to build private companies to serve the Air Force groups’ needs.
And that, according to Hurd, requires the second ingredient: the need to solve specific, real problems.
“To create an ecosystem…you‘ve got to have problems to solve, and you’ve got to have people that can solve them.“
If the Air Force cyber units can identify and make specific problems available to the private sector through something called the Cyber Proving Grounds [LINK: http://www.24af.af.mil/CPG/] Hurd argues,
“then we get everybody like all these smart private sector entrepreneurs in a room, and tell them ‘Here’s our problem, give us a 30-day, 60-day, 90-day solution.’”
The big idea here is that local startups shouldn’t focus on solving Silicon Valley problems, but rather San Antonio-specific problems, as posed by the city’s unique cyber security strength.
I called Dr. Ben Jones, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago, who independently echoed Congressman Hurd’s key messages, and amplified them. It sounded to me like they’d been reading the same books on startups.
“We think in innovation that it’s easier to work back from real problems. By being close to a real problem you can pivot and innovate toward real solutions.
You might have a company that has a real problem they are trying to improve on, and you need to bring those problems to people who can work on that.
Why do clusters of innovation happen? Because it’s a thick market on both sides. There’s a large variety of needs and a large group that can meet those needs.”
Jones’ theory echoed Hurd’s focus on San Antonio’s unique advantage – cyber security – and the identification of real problems that need solving, as the basis for startups and innovation.
For one more element, I turned to one of the original three Rackspace founders, Dirk Elmendorf, for his unique perspective as an entrepreneur who helped build the city’s only recognizably large tech company.
His pitch for the one missing piece for everyone eager for a tech and startup city: patience.
“The real challenge of being a tech city is that unlike technology itself, cities don’t change overnight. So the challenge is sustaining the ambition, to be willing to stick it out even if you’re not sure the plant is going to grow.”
He also urged a two-track approach to encourage patience.
“Our idea is to continue to build small things that may survive, because small achievable things sustain excitement, but also aim for large ambitious things that make a bigger impact.”
So proximity, practice, leadership, unique skills, real problems, and finally, patience.
There’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing us in a crooked line.
A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.
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