Economic Development

Valley Resources Impress Technology Delegation

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – More than a dozen technology leaders visited the Mahoning Valley Tuesday and Wednesday to explore opportunities to create jobs by partnering with companies here, investing in local firms or establishing branches of their own operations.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio, arranged the visit by the 13 technology entrepreneurs, led by Patrick McKenna, founder of High Ridge Global, an investment and advisory firm based in San Francisco.

“I just want everybody to know in our community that we’re not sitting around, hoping that somebody does something to help us, that we’re going out to the areas of the country that are doing really well, that are creating jobs,” he said.

“We’re trying to learn from them and we’re trying to bring that investment here, not out of charity but because there’s a good business argument to be made,” Ryan added.

Ryan, McKenna and Ankur Gopal, founder and CEO of Kentucky-based Interapt, a firm that specializes in the development of mobile applications and wearable technology, addressed local reporters during their visit to the Youngstown Business Incubator Wednesday afternoon. The night before, the delegation met with representatives of the economic development community.

The delegation was composed of representatives primarily from Silicon Valley, New York and Kentucky. “We are exploring opportunities for them to help drive investments in jobs, technology jobs, in our community,” the congressman said.

“We know that the economy is not working broadly across this country,” McKenna said. “We also know there’s a lot of job dislocation. A lot of the results of this technology and this [intellectual property], the cost is being borne by other parts of the country.”

Several years ago, McKenna, who had previously launched successful technology-based startups he later sold, wanted to explore whether a “really valuable company” could be developed outside Silicon Valley. He and a partner ended up starting a company in Portland, Maine, that grew to “great success,” he said, and he has since launched companies in other cities, including four in Baltimore, where people there are solving business problems based on their expertise.

Ryan met McKenna about five years ago at a conference in California, the congressman said. During the course of their continuing discussion over the years, he discovered McKenna was working on ways to bring technology jobs to cities beyond Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and New York.

In November, Ryan urged McKenna to come to Youngstown, McKenna said. Based on the 13 entrepreneurs who took the trip, “there are a lot of people who care about helping solve this problem,” he said.

Part of the business case is cost. Office space is $72 per square foot in San Francisco compared to $8 in Youngstown, Ryan said. Engineers coming out of college are paid $125,000 there while graduates coming out of Youngstown State University begin at $40,000 to $50,000, “a great” starting salary here,” he said

Gopal offered an example of how the goal could be accomplished. When his company opened an office in eastern Kentucky, it established a training program for the workers it needed. Workers who completed the program were guaranteed a job, and of the 50 who participated, 35 completed the program, more than expected.

“It takes a lot of forces for this to work properly. There’s 50 ways it should have failed but it didn’t,” Gopal said.

“You all have more dots already here than we had to artificially create,” he added. “It’s just a question of connecting a few more. … This is a community that’s going to be very impressive in a very short period of time.”

Prosperity must be developed more broadly across the county, McKenna said.

“We need to think more nationally about where we’re incentivizing the jobs,” he said. “If the global economy works in only three ZIP codes in northern California, two in southern California and five in New England, we don’t have a national economy.”

While overcoming obstacles might take something along the lines of a “sister valleys” partnership, some hurdles aren’t as high as believed before this week’s trip, he said.

In some cases, assistance could mean simply providing connections to customers while in others it might mean infusion of capital and equipment upgrades. It could also mean encouraging out-of-state tech firms to set up operations here to capitalize on local talent that meets their needs at lower costs than in larger cities.

“You have a lot of things here that do not exist in some of the areas we’ve looked at already,” he said.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.