Tech Icons

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Patrick O'Neil Headshot
Patrick O'Neil is a corporate marketing and communication executive living in the Triangle. He's worked with all types of companies and people, including entrepreneurs, race car drivers, CEOs, hamburger company mascots, technologists, education innovators and an ironman nun triathlete. He recently started a blog called Venn Works, where this piece was first published.

I love a good conference. You know the sort—dynamic speakers, flowing content, a few surprises and maybe even a photo-op. At the recent CED Tech Venture Conference in Raleigh, I didn’t get the photo-op—but I heard many great startup stories, saw interesting ideas and learned more about what’s happening in the Triangle’s entrepreneurial community. And I learned a few lessons about entrepreneurship and economic development that may interest you, too.

It’s more than apps. In today’s buzz-driven world, many want to make their fortunes by building the next great mobile app. Think Instagram, Snapchat and Shazam, which just reached 100 million users. But the entrepreneurial scene is much more robust and dynamic than what fits on your phone. I found hi-tech yarns, an air filter replacement program, microchips, biodegradable polymers, social-emotional learning games, machine-to-machine communications, juke box music markets and mobile charity tools, among others. Don’t get me wrong, there were great apps, too. But these entrepreneurs presented a wide range of market opportunities, and their creativity and passion were impressive and diverse.

The ecosystem matters. In coffee conversations and stage presentations, I heard it again and again: “We have a great environment for entrepreneurs in the Triangle.” That didn’t happen by chance. The Triangle region wants to be an entrepreneurial success story and has created an ecosystem to support it. For example, the local chambers of commerce coordinate and work together to bring new businesses to the area. The major universities (UNC, N.C. State, Duke, N.C. Central) are producing new ideas and motivated employees. The Greater Raleigh Chamber barnstormed the nation attracting top talent to our area by selling great job opportunities and a high caliber of living. This talent and their ideas are cultivated in locally sponsored incubators and mentored by professional associations and established executives. They are being supported by family, friends and more than 48 different institutional funders. The media gets credit, too, for good reporting on the start-up and business communities, sharing examples, ideas and cautionary tales.

Not just for the young. The startup stereotype is the drop-out or recent college grad, living on pizza and Red Bull, sleeping on sofas in the daytime after trying to make something work in the basement during the night. That’s not what I saw. Instead, picture suburban moms finding new ways to deliver fresh produce to family doorsteps. Seasoned scientists transforming surgical techniques and procedures. Diabetes experts helping medical providers better serve patients. Men and women of every stripe, across the age spectrum, taking risks to make something good happen. None talked up the pseudo-glamorous startup lifestyle. But plenty talked about relocating families, borrowing money from friends and family, and taking their ideas toward the next level of opportunity.

Established companies play a role. The CED event kicked off with a “tech icons” lunch panel featuring the biggest entrepreneurial names in our area – Jim Goodnight, Jesse Lipson, Marc Noel, Chuck Swoboda and Jim Whitehurst (see photo above). These execs now run some of the biggest companies in the Triangle – SAS, Citrix Sharefile, Nomaco, Cree and Red Hat. Because these companies are success stories and models in their own right, they signal community legitimacy to the rest of the world, attracting talent to the area, providing resources (Red Hat is now helping startups make connections in Silicon Valley while Citrix has started its own incubator), and creating energy around their people, their products and the local community. The talent churn level hasn’t reached Silicon Valley proportions yet, but experienced staffers also leave to join other firms while others reinvest their success into new ventures, perpetuating the entrepreneurial cycle. These big firms also sponsor events and venues like this conference and mentor young executives trying to make their way.

Momentum is growing. After the economy tanked in 2008-09, the business slow-down was palpable. Even in a high growth area like the Triangle, the sails fluttered trying to find wind and get moving again. But the stats for 2014 alone make it clear that good things are happening. According to CED, $266 million was raised by mid-year; 127 companies received funding; 78 equity deals done; four IPOs and seven M&As. North Carolina continues to receive “best places” accolades on quality of living despite a legislative assault on public education. A new vision has been offered for Research Triangle Park while more and more well-established firms move to the area in pursuit of talent and new ways of thinking. (Another firm bringing 1,200 IT jobs to Cary was confirmed as I wrote this article).

My conclusion: The Triangle is filled with good people dedicated to making something spectacular happen. But there is certainly more work to be done.

Our community can feel fragmented and unfocused to newcomers and old-timers alike. The Triangle isn’t a big place; it’s lots of places cobbled together across a broad landscape. It can feel exclusive—this school/that school, old school/new school. That causes self-censorship and good ideas are never uttered. We need more diversity—women and minorities—not for diversity’s sake, but because we’re missing out ideas and opportunities that we can’t even imagine from needs we can’t even see. But that’s another article.

For now I’m hopeful that we’re headed in the right direction. I expect these things will improve as our community matures and forges its forward-thinking identity. And I can’t wait to write about the stories and ideas yet to come.

**Read more about startup stats and angel investments in this Wall Street Journal blog from CED’s Joan Seifert Rose: The Rising Influence of Angels.