ShareThis Page

Cities across country vie to be next Silicon Valley

| Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — A tiny light bulb hooked up to a computer lit, and Antonio Rojas-Rodriguez smiled.

“I did it!” the 20-year-old business student at the College of Charleston said of writing his first software program.

Light on, light off. It seems simple, but teaching students to write code is one way this grand old lady of iron latticework and history is trying to become an entrepreneurial haven.

Cities and states across the country are promoting entrepreneurship, especially in technology. With dreams of becoming something like Silicon Valley, they are providing money and expertise to startups and clustering tech companies in millennial-friendly neighborhoods.

These small and midsize cities, where centuries-old mills, foundries and factories closed, are trying to build 21st-century economies.

The Interdisciplinary Center for Applied Technology program at the College of Charleston is funding the business dreams of students like Rojas-Rodriguez.

The center, established this year with a $250,000 state grant, raised $250,000 from private sources. Six of eight projects in the first class became businesses.

“We don't promise kids that they'll be millionaires or even successful entrepreneurs,” said center director Christopher Starr. “But we give them the whole experience. They'll be ready if they want to do it, and we want them to do it here.”

Luring millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — is essential. They want to live, work and play in one place, so cities need bike paths and lanes, affordable apartments near workplaces, and clusters of restaurants, bars and music venues.

Chattanooga, Tenn., redesigned its downtown with city money, tax incentives and private investment to include a river walk, green space, aquarium and soon an “innovation district” that will include nearly 400 apartments as small as 300 square feet.

Developers have plans for a nonprofit enterprise center and accelerator downtown. Chattanooga's city-private partnership will spend $500 million to develop tiny apartments and redevelop open space.

“We've transformed from a dying foundry town into a growing technology center,” said Mayor Andy Berke, a Democrat.

Chattanooga credits its superfast Internet — 1 gigabit per second — for its burgeoning startup culture. The city of 173,000 calls itself “Gig City.”

Having major research universities nearby is a huge bonus when encouraging a startup culture. Graduates can work in tech startups or start their own.

That's how Research Triangle Park near Durham, N.C., became one of the country's most successful startup incubators.

Starting in the 1950s, the park worked with Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University to provide low-rent space and training for students. The goal was to keep bright graduates in North Carolina.

Many stayed to start and run companies. The counties between Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill became “The Triangle” and attracted employers such as IBM.

Tech hubs in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and other cities benefit from world-class universities.

“The flow from these universities can have a huge impact,” said Bjoern Herrmann, CEO and founder of Compass, a San Francisco software company.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.