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Local associations emerging to nurture small tech firms

March 3, 2012

At first, it was Indiana’s technology industry versus the world.

How would upstart firms compete with Silicon Valley, Austin or the East Coast for talent and funding?

Many of the solutions over the last several years came with the help of statewide technology initiative TechPoint. It’s tackled work-force development, entrepreneurship, networking—and capital formation, through its Halo Capital Group.

But increasingly, organizations at the city and county level are emerging to nurture tech companies in their own back yards. Such groups could stoke competition among communities within the state for coveted tech jobs and companies.

The latest such group to sprout is the Technology Association of Hamilton County.

It was formed by the economic development group Hamilton County Alliance, with founding members including Ron Brumbarger, president and chairman of Carmel-based Web-strategy firm BitWise Solutions.

But the newly formed association is focused mainly on the often uncounted smaller tech firms in Hamilton County in the five-to-50-employee range.

Many of these firms need a way to network. That could lead to partnering on bigger projects or simply comparing notes on adopting best practices in areas like project management and technical services, said Jeff Burt, president of the Hamilton County Alliance.

“We need a way to convene [local] tech firms, especially because the majority of these businesses are small,” he said.

Burt went so far as to drive around to local office parks to attempt to better assess what’s out there, which even for him is hard to nail down precisely. “Some of them are working out of their homes.”

By year-end, he’d like the group to have 40 or 50 companies engaged in the new association. Members needn’t necessarily be tech firms, per se, but may also be those that have IT-intensive operations as part of their business.

The annual membership fee is $750.

The association also plans to develop relationships with universities to help recruit students to the county. Policymaking is beyond the association’s agenda, at least at the moment. Tech businesses “know what they need. We’re not presuming to know,” Burt said.

Nor is the association trying to step on the turf of TechPoint, he said.

Jay Jay

The latter is focused on the state’s tech sector as a whole, noted TechPoint President and CEO Jim Jay.

“I take it as encouraging that the tech sector is growing to the level that the local economic development companies recognize the opportunities in the tech sector,” Jay added.

“I think every one of the counties should up the game a bit,” said Mat Orrego, CEO of Bloomington-based Cornerstone Information Systems, which creates data management tools for the travel industry.

Orrego serves on the advisory committee for the Bloomington Technology Partnership, which formed in 2008 and is one of the state’s leading local technology initiatives.

Bloomington’s association was the brainchild of the city and the Bloomington Economic Development Corp. It was modeled after the successful Bloomington Life Science Partnership.

“We definitely saw a need to have an avenue for technology businesses to come together,” said Danise Alano-Martin, director of economic development for the city of Bloomington.

“We saw pretty much immediately the need for assistance in talent recruitment.”

Early on, the Bloomington Technology Partnership aligned itself with the Indiana University School of Informatics as a key source of talent to seed local tech firms.

That partnership has paid off. Recently, Virginia-based Cigital Inc., which makes security software used by Fortune 250 companies, announced plans for an office in downtown Bloomington that initially could employ 25 people.

“One of the main attractions [for Cigital] was the School of Informatics and Computing,” Alano-Martin said.

Recently, Bloomington’s technology partnership launched a sophisticated social media and talent-attraction portal to help its tech-firm members fill jobs.

Orrego concedes talent emerging from IU often leaves town for the Silicon Valley after graduation to pursue dream jobs at Apple or Google. But he reckons some of those IU grads might want to return to Bloomington’s even-more-laid-back atmosphere someday “when they get tired of driving up the 101,” he said of the busy highway running through California’s tech towns.

But might these emerging local tech initiatives stoke rivalry among cities and counties in Indiana?

“Yeah, a little bit,” Orrego said. However, “I don’t think it’s that big a deal. I think we could use a little more competition.”

Alano-Martin contends growth of the tech sector in places like Bloomington and Hamilton County ultimately benefits everyone by creating a bigger critical mass of talent and tech companies in the state.•

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