Tech leaders say increasing support for new graduates, investors can strengthen tech sector

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Eli Lilly and Co. CEO David Ricks made waves last week with his remarks that Indiana needs to improve on numerous metrics—education, health care, diversity, green energy and workforce development—to compete for jobs in the fast-growing technology, life sciences and engineering sectors.

Local tech leaders say they have some concrete ideas about how to achieve some of these things.

Ricks made his remarks April 20 at an Economic Club of Indiana luncheon. Then, during TechPoint’s Mira Awards gala on April 23, Angie’s List co-founder and long-time local tech leader Bill Oesterle referenced Ricks’ speech.

Calling Ricks’ speech “courageous and objective,” Oesterle challenged his audience of more than 1,200 to do their part to tackle the concerns Ricks had highlighted.

The Indiana Technology and Innovation Association, a lobbying group for the state’s tech industry, said attracting more venture capital is one way to bolster the state’s tech sector. To that end, it’s pushing for an expansion of existing state tax credits designed to spur investment.

“I think that we need to immediately shift more funding into making capital formation happen,” said association board member and Launch Fishers founder John Wechsler.

READ MORE: Lilly CEO has leaders talking about whether state is doing enough to grow Indiana

Wechsler pointed to Indiana’s existing venture capital investment tax credit program, which provides tax credits to those who provide debt or equity capital to Indiana companies. This year, up to $20 million worth of tax credits is available for investors.

Wechsler said the VCI tax credit is a valuable program that should be expanded. Half of that $20 million has already been committed for the year, Wechsler said, which makes it “highly likely” that the program will run out of funding by year’s end. This is especially problematic, he said, because the end of the year is typically a busy time for investors as they seek to deploy investments and lock in year-end tax advantages.

Megan Glover, who is also co-founder of Zionsville-based tech startup 120Water and an association board member, said availability of VCI tax credits can have a huge impact on how much—or whether—an investor is willing to put money into a company like 120Water.

“I’ve had to postpone [funding] rounds because the VCI has expired or that the allotment for that year is over,” Glover said. “I’ve had people decrease their check size because of the amount that they will get in return. So it’s absolutely impactful for entrepreneurs.”

Investment is tied to another issued that Ricks touched on in his April 20 speech—the need to improve workforce development and talent attraction in Indiana.

Glover said potential investors always want to know about access to local talent—whether the company in which they might invest will be able to find enough qualified employees to execute on its growth plans.

“We’re not going to have more investment here if we don’t have the talent to put to work,” Glover said.

Scott Dorsey, managing partner at Indianapolis-based venture studio High Alpha, said early exposure to tech education is one way to help develop that talent within Indiana.

Dorsey pointed to Nextech, a not-for-profit that formed seven years ago from an entity formerly known as the ExactTarget Foundation. The entity transformed into Nextech in connection with Salesforce’s acquisition of ExactTarget.

“And at the time—and this is a startling stat—only 15% of high schools in the state of Indiana taught computer science, and we were really, really lagging the country,” Dorsey said.

Nextech worked with the Indiana Legislature and Gov. Eric Holcomb to pass a bill requiring all K-12 schools to offer computer-science instruction.

The challenge now, Dorsey said, is that only about 10% of Indiana’s high-school students have taken a computer-science course because the class is an elective.

So Dorsey said he’d like to see computer science coursework become a high-school graduation requirement. To date, Dorsey said, only two states in the country—South Carolina, and Nevada—have taken this step. He said six other states are either considering or in the process of enacting similar legislation, and he’d like to see Indiana do so as well.

“I think this is kind of a wide-open opportunity to be progressive and be leaders in computer-science education,” Dorsey said.

Getting students introduced to computer science early, he said, could go a long way towards helping fill the state’s need for skilled tech employees.

Dorsey said he also favors expanding internship and post-college programs that help college students and recent graduates build careers in the tech industry—programs including TechPoint’s Xtern summer program, the Mitch Daniels Leadership Foundation and the Orr Fellowship.

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