Posted by JR Reagan on May 29, 2013
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There’s a new crop sprouting in states long known for their amber waves of grain. In the great plains and America’s Midwest, not far from fields of corn and soybeans, startups are finding the ground fertile, and calling it home.
Don’t call them the flyover states anymore. Far from the traditional hubs of technology in Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, and the Pacific Northwest lies a wide swath of the country that’s been dubbed “Silicon Prairie.” The name used to describe Texas during the era of Electronic Data Systems, Silicon Prairie now refers to a sprawling area that ranges from Ohio west to Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas.
The term has taken root in our lexicon, and thanks to the efforts of public and private sectors, venture capital, and a big dose of entrepreneurial spirit, startups are thriving there.
Making the list
As they’re making names for themselves, startups are making the news, and drawing attention to the area. The cities and states of the Silicon Prairie show up on a lot of lists these days.
According to Venture Beat, Kansas City ranks near the top of U.S. cities in terms of app creators per square mile.
Helping to put the area in the national media spotlight is the Silicon Prairie News. Founded in 2008, SPN reports on and fosters entrepreneurial activity in Omaha, Des Moines, and Kansas City. It also hosts Big Omaha, a Technology/Entertainment/Design-like conference on innovation.
But there wouldn’t be anything to report on if developers with the next killer app hopped on planes and headed for California to nurture their ideas there.
If you build It, will they will stay?
With abundant land, lack of natural disasters, wind energy, and the much-touted work ethic of its residents, the Midwest is drawing major investments from some of the biggest players in the industry.
The ultrafast Fiber project went live in Kansas City in November, offering 1gbps connections for just $70 month. Though some blogs cited the density of mobile app creators in the city as the company’s main reason for choosing the location (from among 1,100 contenders), the company’s VP of access services instead listed the city’s infrastructure and business-friendly environment as specific drivers behind the decision in a Forbes article.
It takes a village
Kansas City provides a case study for fostering innovation, not just for other Midwest cities, but for the rest of the country as well. And it’s not simply because of the availability of Google Fiber.
According to The Start Uprising: 18 Months of the Startup America Project (December 2012), the primary lesson learned by Startup America since the White House launched the non-partisan program in 2011 with support from the Kauffman Foundation and the Case Foundation, is “What entrepreneurs need, far more than the fine words or advice of politicians or academics, is the support, solace, and help of other entrepreneurs. They crave role models and colleagues, mentorship, and fellowship on their journey.”
One of the big drivers promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in the Midwest is the Kauffman Foundation. Headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, the foundation is one of the largest in the country, with assets of about $2 billion. Its goal is to foster entrepreneurship and improve education.
Working with a community builder, the Kauffman Foundation launched 1 Million Cups, a weekly event to draw entrepreneurs together. Named by the idea that if they shared a million cups of coffee, they could change Kansas City forever, the foundation plans to take the 1MC on the road to 18 cities in 2013.
A future in the Midwest
Outside of Kansas City, other parts of the Midwest are working hard to promote innovation. In 2010, ground was broken for the Nebraska Innovation campus, an $80-million dollar private/public research park to be completed over the next 25 years. University of Nebraska officials foresee an increase in startup activity as researchers break off to launch their own companies (just think of MIT and Stanford, and the concentration of new companies spawned by their alums). And Invest Nebraska, a not-for-profit endeavor of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, links entrepreneurs with venture capital.
Media darling Dwolla, based in Des Moines, has likely gotten more coverage than any other Silicon Prairie company. The online payment startup, founded in 2009, is a virtual ambassador of the Midwest, inspiring confidence in others that tech companies don’t need to be on a coast to achieve greatness.
It takes seed money to make it grow
Backed by capital, and with the insights of technology leaders, non-profits, and universities, the companies of the Silicon Prairie demonstrate how others can foster thriving entrepreneurial communities, and create jobs.