It’s built. Now will they come?
In 2014, there was great pride among Delaware tech leaders that the community had begun — that was a year of starts, after all. Surely, there were more beginnings in 2015 — Zip Code Wilmington’s launch and Girl Develop It’s arrival here — but many seemed more focus on bringing new faces into the ecosystem. Because the pipeline is here, if new, and the goal for retaining technologists and growing businesses is clear.
That was a thread during an afternoon lunchtime discussion of stakeholders convened by Technical.ly to begin Delaware Innovation Week 2015 presented by 1313 Innovation. Two dozen members of the community — startups leaders, technologists, incubator managers, policymakers and business executives — were there to share their own perspectives on how Delaware is faring in the development of the state’s tech and entrepreneurship community.
“In 2014 it was a lot of the same people in the room saying we need to do this, we need to do that. Now when you’re having a conversation with [people new to Delaware tech] they’re more interested,” said Nick Matarese, the founder of Wilmington design agency Barn Creative. “Before, I felt like you showed up and it was the same people. Now there are new people in the room all the time.”
Partly it’s a national story. Post-recession and amid a movement of big companies replacing R&D with acquisitions, every region in the country is working on touting its own entrepreneurship community. So the bet is that Delaware, a state of 900,000, has more people who benefit from and contribute to this locally minded group of technologists, founders and interested business leaders. They just don’t what’s here yet — because they work elsewhere or surround themselves in other circles.
“There’s an incredible population within these big businesses,” like the credit card companies and pharma companies in the region, said Greg Shelton, a cofounder of tech firm Digital Vikings and coworking space 1313 Innovation who once worked for ING Direct. “The population is primed to get out. We just have to make sure as a team we’re providing them really high quality.”
Asked another way: Is Delaware ready for prime time? To be sure, Delaware needs to get to work.
— EEC NewBiz Incubator (@EECincubator) November 13, 2015
More successful businesses are where it starts, said Frank deSantis, the director of the Emerging Enterprise Center (EEC), the incubator operated by the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce and the host for the discussion. “Then it just starts building upon itself.”
There are examples. Look at DeliveryCircle, called an Uber for package delivery, said deSantis. Founder Vijaya Rao brought the concept to the coIN Loft, the state’s oldest coworking space (now operated by Start It Up Delaware). She spent a year there, building a network of support to launch an initial version of her software product. Then she needed something different — a bigger office, more infrastructure — so she grew into the EEC incubator that deSantis operates.
Rao is still very much at an early stage, but she’s already become one of the best known founders in Delaware — DeliveryCircle is up for a Delaware Innovation Award this Friday.
“We need more,” said deSantis. Part of that can come from connecting one of the biggest and most unique assets of Delaware (and Wilmington, specifically): a robust and truly international corporate community.
“How do we reach big industry?” asked Phil Hagen, a Rehoboth-based technologist who works for Red Canary and is behind coworking space startup Beach Desks. He cited the need for using local tech events for introducing those corporate leaders to the excitement that is building here — “get those IT and money guys in the glassy skyscrapers to meet the rest of us,” said John Royer of sales consulting firm InSiteHub.
“How do you make this area attractive so people who work here also want to live here?” asked Tariq Hook, the gregarious lead instructor/”Big Bad Wolf” at Zip Code Wilmington. “Because the jobs are here. But the people in them don’t live here.”
It’s a different problem than other cities. In Wilmington, the work is building up the activity to engage those technologists and business leaders.
“So we find the partnerships that make sense and make the case to the right people,” said Mona Parikh, community builder at creative agency Archer Group. She’s also the frequent organizer and de facto spokeswoman for this generation of Delaware tech, dating from her time at Start It Up Delaware and its coIN Loft coworking space.
That is the unifying message from the existing Delaware community that we take, confirmed Sharon Hake, of women business leaders event series Great Dames.
“Let’s call this the year we hit orbit — some things were sustainable and coming into their own,” said Beach Desks’ Hagen of 2015, playing on the “launches” theme of 2014. “I think next year’s the year we need to start assembling on orbit.”