High-Tech Still Thrives in Low-Key Boise

Why Boise still tops the list of places innovators do—and should—live



It's no accident that publications such as Forbes, Money and The New York Times continue to look at the Treasure Valley when postulating where tech companies advance and thrive.

In May of this year, NYT talked to Peter Gombert, chief executive of Balihoo, a web-based Boise company that provides technology and services to national companies looking to market themselves locally.

Forbes.com recently listed Boise as one example of out-of-the-way places where the tech sector continues to grow in spite of staggering job losses.

A report from the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institute, written by Heike Mayer, associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech, showed Boise, Portland, Ore., and Kansas City as emerging high-tech metropolitan areas.

The Treasure Valley is not a new player in the technology game. In the 1970s, as new technologies were developing, corporations such as Hewlett-Packard and Micron started in the Treasure Valley, their buildings full of tech-savvy employees. And like these companies, which grew from the seed of an idea, the entrepreneurial spirit took hold of some of these people, and they began to branch out, leaving the corporate environment behind and striking out on their own. They formed companies with innovative services and products in hardware, software, clean technology, Web services, financial services, gaming and biotechnology.

Reminiscent of a high-tech biblical lineage, HP begat companies like Computrol, which begat Synpet, which begat Design Concepts International and so on, with hundreds of companies breaking off from the hundreds that broke off before them. Micron Technology parented the likes of Edge Technologies, Logical Solutions and even upped the tech levels by forming joint ventures with companies like Intel. Micron PC grew out of Micron Tech and from it came businesses like Balihoo and Fiberpipe. Boise State's intellectual pool also had a hand in creating the Treasure Valley's tech sector, many of the matriculated staying in town and forming companies like Valitics and Mobile Dataforce. The world began to see Boise as more than merely the capital of the potato state. The City of Trees' global reputation branched out to include being a place where high-tech workers could not only make a good living, but also one where the living was good. The quality of life in Boise--including the ability to clock out and be hiking or biking a mountain trail 15 minutes later--was seen as a perk on par with a food per diem or company car. So they came.

But evolving technology coupled with a devolving economy has been devastating for companies both large and small. Moving to Silicon Valley may seem like the only answer for those affected by these changes when quality of life isn't enough to sustain their livelihoods. But when those companies leave, their employees' incomes are no longer spent here, their talent is no longer a part of the local pool and other companies and government can no longer use those businesses as examples to companies being courted to move here.

Those moves do, and will continue to happen, but the numbers of tech companies here in town are much higher than might be expected. According to the Idaho Department of Labor, in 2008, Idaho was home to more than 3,800 technology companies. The people who own or operated these companies may fly under the radar, their names nowhere near as familiar as Micron or HP, but they are here and they are as innovative as their counterparts in Silicon Valley.

One such innovator is Jason Crawforth, a local restaurateur/entrepreneur/software developer, and co-owner of Piehole and former owner of Square and Lush. In conjunction with the other software Crawforth develops, he has written a couple of iPhone applications including one called, succinctly enough, "1,001 Ringtones."

At 99 cents per download, Crawforth is not going to become a millionaire selling "1,001 Ringtones." But that's not why he did it. Ultimately, what Crawforth gleaned from writing the app was knowledge of how the process works, and that understanding is a valuable resource in the constantly changing world of Web 2.0.

"Apple created a very interesting concept. They created, arguably, one of the most sophisticated cell phones on the planet," Crawforth said. "They also have a development environment that you can write custom applications on. That in and of itself would have been very cool," he said. "But what Apple did was they brought in iTunes. They created a single marketplace."

According to a May 2009 report at CNET.com, Apple's share of worldwide smartphone sales grew from 5.3 percent in the first quarter of 2008 to 10.8 percent in the first quarter of 2009. That means that the company's unit sales jumped from 1.7 million in the first quarter of 2008 to 3.9 million during the same period in 2009. The iPhone may soon be in more hands than not, and developers such as Crawforth, who understand how the platform works, will have a leg up when that time comes.

Just more than a year ago, Crawforth merged his software company, Treetop Technologies, with Mobile Dataforce, a company that creates innovative mobile products and services that take advantage of the current technologies--technologies that have turned cars, airplanes and dens into offices.

Boise-based Mobile Dataforce provides innovative services to everyone from the U.S. government to "storm chasers"--people who track damage done to cars during hailstorms in the Midwestern and Eastern United States--to building materials suppliers. CEO Mike Freeman said that some of the technology Mobile Dataforce has created "is changing those industries ... by solving age-old problems."

In the case of building materials, Freeman gave an example. "People have to go find [building] materials in a yard. They have to find it, pick it up, measure it out, get it where it needs to go and do the accountability for it," he said. "I tasked all the smart people working here at Mobile Dataforce to bring some of these technologies together to eliminate that. Now a device can read the barcode or RFID [Radio Frequency Identification] tag. An individual or automatic scan takes the reading, which can then reach the sky and pinpoints [the material's] exact location. We then force that information onto Google Earth. You can actually see the product on Google Earth."

For a building materials yard owner, that means he or she won't have to be on site to make sure the inventoried material is where it is supposed to be. As long as the owner has an Internet connection, he or she can be vacationing in Maui or Machu Picchu and still be running the business.

Faisal Shah, who was a partner in a law firm in Los Angeles before moving to Boise, is another locally based innovator. He moved to Boise to take a company public and, as many visitors do, he liked it here and decided to stay. He co-founded MarkMonitor, a company that helps other companies avoid online fraud, brand abuse, phishing attacks and cybersquatting (someone buying up domains that contain a company's trademark name, and then selling it back to that company for an exorbitant profit). Shah also co-founded First to File, an online patent management system that manages thousands of patents for each of their clients. The changes in Web development have made it possible for innovators like Shah to start and run--and expand--businesses almost anywhere in the world that has Internet access.

"I started technology companies in Boise because we had initially looked at Silicon Valley, but felt we had a large pool of developers and engineers that we could access here," Shah said. "We found the quality of talent here was just as good as the quality of talent anywhere else. That's really what made the company successful was the talented pool of people we had access to. It's remarkable the number [of] engineers and computer scientists there are in Boise ... we have talented individuals coming into the market from Boise State."

The success of MarkMonitor was such that the company expanded internationally, and the headquarters did eventually move to Silicon Valley. However, along with offices in London, New York and Washington, D.C., MarkMonitor still has an office in Boise as well.

For each MarkMonitor and Mobile Dataforce, hundreds more small- or medium-size tech companies exist. But the quest to keep them here, as well as court those outside the state to come here, is a continuing one.

Cece Gassner and John Brunelle, assistants to the mayor for economic development for the City of Boise, spend 75 percent of their time working on growing and expanding the businesses already a part of the Boise community. The spend the other 25 percent of their time working with the Boise Valley Economic Partnership--an economic development organization funded by the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce--to attract companies and talent from around the country and the world.

"The mayor does go out and do business visits once a month," Gassner said. "That can range from [visiting with] manufacturers and tech companies to health companies. We are also in contact with HP and Micron. We talk to large companies and small companies and across the sectors."

The city partners well with the state, and someone hoping to move or start headquarters in Boise will receive information on state and property taxes, including incentives and exemptions.

But regardless of how much money a company may potentially save by moving to Boise, corporations like Microsoft are not likely to up and move their headquarters here. They might, however, be looking for a place where they can open a branch or a group of offices where the people who will manage those offices will want to live.

"We have two different sets of information we present to these companies [considering Boise]," Gassner said. "One is the business case, what they can achieve in real estate and labor and taxes. Then on the personal side, what they will see in this community. It's a community that cares about each other, we have one of the best park systems in the West if not the whole country, we have a true commitment to the environment, lower cost of residential real estate."

In the 25 percent of outside businesses Gassner spends her time talking to, the majority of them have 50 to 100 employees--companies considered small in other markets but relatively large here. They are businesses that are probably going strong and may be poised to grow even larger, and by moving to Boise, those tax incentives and a lower cost of living may make that expansion easier. Ultimately, however, the commodity Gassner and Brunelle are dealing with is people.

"A big part of what we do every day is to connect people," Gassner said. "It's one of the best services we provide and it's free. Getting companies talking to each other and learning about each other is really helpful."

Idaho TechConnect is another organization, albeit not a governmental one, that is also in the business of connecting people. The statewide nonprofit links people with other people and a large number of services.

"We help people who have an idea make it a reality, make it a business, make it a product, whatever it is. We focus on business and technology. We're a service provider. We work with small business and we like to say we turn Idaho ideas into Idaho businesses," said Krissa Wrigley, vice president of research and evaluation for ITC.

Each year, ITC holds an event called Tech Launch in conjunction with the Idaho National Lab and the Idaho Economic Development Association, as well as other private and public entities. The purpose of the event to is to gather university students with science and technology companies, government agencies, economic development professionals and business investors.

"It's a friendly face environment for them to get up and talk about what they're doing and get feedback from everyone," Wrigley said. "We coach them through [starting a business]."

In the six years since ITC's inception, Tech Launch has helped 39 companies raise more than $37 million in investment capital and for research and development. ITC welcomes anyone, but the focus is on innovation and technology. "We have an open door policy here," Wrigley said. "But if someone wants to open a cupcake shop, we'll probably point them to in the direction of the Small Business Development Administration."

But they don't just help with funding. ITC also assists start-ups with prototyping, accessing the universities and the Idaho National Lab, obtaining equipment and even helping would-be business owners prepare investor pitches, regardless of whether they're pitching to an angel investor, a venture capitalist or a best friend or brother. ITC also helps with market research, a complicated but vital component of a small high-tech business.

"Sometimes someone will come in and say, 'It's a $10-billion market and I'm going after 1 percent.' We tell them that's great, but that's probably not going to happen. We help them hone it down and find out exactly who their customer is."

The mayor's office and ITC can provide valuable resources to local start-ups or tech companies looking to expand, but is that enough to retain the tech talent that's already here? Or more importantly, encourage outside innovators to come to Boise? James Hepworth doesn't think so.

Hepworth is co-founder of MarkMonitor and chief technology officer for First to File. Hepworth is a tech person who moved to Boise in 1989, and he believes that, from a technology standpoint, Boise is at an "inflection point."

"There are a lot of people here who will probably not stay here," Hepworth said. "I think Idaho will suffer greatly in the next five to seven years if somebody doesn't do something dramatic. My view is probably a lot different than what people like to talk about."

Hepworth doesn't think Boise is in a technology start-up mentality right now and without some serious measures by Idaho politicians, not only will that fail to improve, it will falter. Tax breaks and incentives were germane to companies 25 or 30 years ago, but the big tech companies of today don't consume the massive amounts of resources that they did back then.

Even in regard to real estate, tech companies like Google, Yahoo or Microsoft are not leaving the same giant footprints Micron did.

"If you go into Google's buildings, you see a lot of people packed into small offices and cubicles. So I think that the new technology that Boise and Idaho need to go after needs to be modeled after what they do in Seattle or the Bay Area ... biotechnology and nanotechnology."

That kind of technology can be prohibitively expensive to develop, but software-based technology, which Hepworth also thinks Boise should be pursuing, can cost very little at the outset.

"The only thing we needed when we started MarkMonitor was two people. Me to write a little software and Faisal out there [telling people] about it," Hepworth said. "The critical paradigm shift for people is that we need to convince smart people out of high school or college to try something they think they can do."

Hepworth thinks the government can and should play a much larger role in that quest. To make Boise an appetizing choice for start-ups, the state needs to decide what kinds of businesses it wants coming here. And it takes money to do that.

"They have to do more marketing. I think what it comes down to is that they need a person or a group of people assigned by only one person that are in charge of building a roadmap of where [Idaho] wants to be in 10 years. And this isn't a city job. This is a big salary guy who sits down and executes that road map. To me, it's that simple."

That person wouldn't need an unlimited budget. He or she would need to be resourceful, be able to work with the state's universities, and then decide how many new businesses to bring in and a timeframe in which to do it.

"If it were me, I'd be at Stanford and places like that advertising the crap out of Boise. I'd ask, 'Look at the businesses that are [in Boise]. Why would you want to sit in traffic for four hours a day when, on the weekends, you can go to McCall? You can still put in 14 hours a day at work, but be home in 10 minutes."

Gassner said that Boise does have a long-term plan on the table and thinks Hepworth's idea is a valid one.

"It strikes me as a decent tactic that may reside within a larger strategic plan to attract more companies to the Boise Valley and Idaho," she said. "If you look at the City of Boise's strategic plan, the overall goal is to make Boise the most livable city in the country, in part to attract and retain the employers and talent to take part in creating a vibrant and healthy place to live, work and raise a family."

For tech people who are already in Boise, grass-roots groups like TechConnect, Girls In Tech and Jelly may play a large part what they consider the "vibrant and healthy" aspects of their environment. They are part of a community that fosters the kind of high-tech development they trained for, sometimes in a low-key way.

One major marketing tool in the business model of the 21st Century is social media. Web sites like Twitter and Facebook are virtual meeting places where businesses find consumers, consumers find products and services, and the creators of those products and services find each other. But typing 140-character messages to a faceless entity whose profile and status may be anything but true, negates the "social" part. The desire to move from cyberspace to meatspace has only grown over the years.

TechBoise was created about a year-and-a-half ago to offer support to people in the tech sector.

"The purpose [of TechBoise] was to highlight what was going on with technology development in the Treasure Valley that most people don't know about," said Chris Blanchard of TechBoise. Blanchard, a Web developer since 2001, is a professor of social science at Boise State, as well as the founder of Pronetos, a social networking site for scholars, and Open Access Press, a business that helps companies convert their print products to digital. One of the main elements of TechBoise is its Web site and blog, but the physical aspect was always a function of the group.

"Meeting was always meant to be part of it," Blanchard said. "It was always meant to be grass-roots, more raw, less polished. TechBoise is meant to be 'geeks helping geeks over pizza.'"

Candace Sweigart is a software engineer and architect at Wirestone (a national marketing firm with offices in Boise). She works in what is still a male-dominated industry. Sweigart wanted to meet other women in her field, women like herself. So she founded the Boise chapter of the grass-roots organization Girls In Tech.

"Girls In Tech is an international group that was started in Silicon Valley. The group was started because there aren't a lot of women in technology and statistics are showing that fewer and fewer women are entering the field even though as a culture we're becoming more technically aware," Sweigart said.

For the women who are drawn to tech fields, a sense of solidarity can be a valuable resource.

"Girls In Tech was formed to get women collaborating and to help build their confidence. A lot of the women working in technology are like me: They're in a 'tech pit.' I work in a room with only men. I'm never really given the opportunity to collaborate with other women, people who think like [me]."

Girls in Tech has 50 members in its Facebook group and 17 women attended the first meeting in June. It may not sound like much, but for Sweigart, it was incredible.

"It was fantastic. We had this speed networking event where everyone talked to each other for three minutes and told each [other] why they were into technology and how they came to be passionate about it and what they wanted from the group."

Allison Ashburn, a marketing project manager, was laid off twice in one year and rather than try to get back into the workforce, she decided to create something out of nothing for herself and work from home. But working from a home office can be a lonely proposition. She attended networking events like TechBoise, but found the colleague camaraderie, people to bounce ideas off of and the general energetic atmosphere of an office was something she missed. And then she heard a National Public Radio story about Jelly.

A Jelly is a "work-together event," and hundreds of them are taking place all across the country and getting notice from the likes of NPR and Wired Magazine. Once or twice a month, people get together in an office, someone's home or a coffeeshop--a place that offers comfortable chairs, sofas, workspaces and Wi-fi. It's that simple.

The next Micron, HP, Microsoft or Intel may not be incubating in the Treasure Valley, but that's not because Boise isn't the right place for them to grow. High-tech corporations of that size and breadth are becoming a thing of the past. It's not a question of whether Boise can support high-tech; people like Jason Crawforth prove it can. Boise is viable location for the next wave of high-tech, but it needs to start reshaping its future now. The next Bill Gates may not be living in Boise right now, but if he or she is somewhere out there looking for a place to move a new high-tech company, the Idaho Department of Economic Development would love to talk to him or her.

Comments (11)

Showing 1-11 of 11


Comments are closed.