This from Mr. Jerry Kurtyka:
EL PASO – WHAT’S THE NAME OF THE GAME?
Game #2 – I Have Dream (High Tech)
I have a dream, a fantasy
To help me through reality
And my destination makes it worth the while…
- ABBA, I Have a Dream
It was around 2001 as the Dot.com boom was imploding in Silicon Valley, that I first heard of local efforts to develop a software technology cluster here. Certain individuals in the Chamber conceived of a Camino Real “research corridor” stretching from Los Alamos to Santa Fe to Albuquerque to El Paso and Juarez. They were inspired, in part, by the late visionary George Kozmetsky, UT-Austin business school dean and the co-founder of Teledyne, who noted that this corridor had several components needed to develop a tech industry – a research university; national labs; access to venture capital (in NM); entrepreneurs and labor – but it needed to create an “angel investor” group to provide seed capital to nurture new products along until they were ready for VC expansion.
Ron Munden, CEO of a small tech company here, was the main driver of this idea and did succeed in getting Camino Real Angels, the seed capital group started. It consisted of local investors with deep pockets. They developed screening methods to evaluate deals and even vetted a few with one of them being a healthcare software venture.
Concomitant with the angels, Ron (and others) started what eventually became SITO, the Software Information Technology Organization. I was very interested, volunteered to help, and became its program person who recruited speakers for the monthly meetings for over two years. SITO had a big vision to put together tools and systems that solve industry problems here, not just software: Education; healthcare; defense; intelligence community; government and other sectors. Mostly, though, we just met every month at the Chamber for breakfast and a speaker. Its members were local tech entrepreneurs and CIOs, not really R&D types. So, very little came out of SITO in the five or so years I was involved with it other than a local conference, Biz-Tech that the Hispanic Chamber organized. The same, I think, could be said of the angel investors as a robust deal flow did not materialize for them.
A few other ideas surfaced in this era, the most ambitious being the Bi-national Sustainability Laboratory (BNSL) that was initially funded by Sandia Labs in Albuquerque. The concept was to be a campus spanning the border that developed new products and businesses as an “incubator.” There were other incubator efforts underway, too, at UTEP, one of which (The Hub) is still around and located downtown.
Well, 9-11 put an end to the idea of the border-spanning campus. But it created an opportunity for a local tech entrepreneur, Hector Holguin, and his Secure Origins concept. Secure Origins managed to get financing from the State of Texas with, I think, several million dollar plus injections of research funds to bring its product to market. The City of El Paso also gave them $195K in 2012 to pilot a technology-based tracking mechanism to expedite the cross-border movement of commercial shipments. The main thing Secure Origins seemed to do well is to secure government funding for its now, 7 or 8 year “incubation,” though I hear it has some paying customers. The BNSL similarly failed to find a way to sustain itself beyond grants and is no more except as a corporate shell.
Recently, the Medical Center of America (MCA) Foundation has backed RedSky, a company whose mission is to be a launch pad for healthcare startups, combining angel and venture capital funds, a science and technology team, R&D, and a clinical trials network. RedSky has hired some impressive talent and aims to commercialize intellectual property coming out of Texas Tech and the MCA. Also, Beto Pilares, a UTEP PhD grad, is representing Woody Hunt in a VC business, but as of last Fall it had few if any prospects here.
So, don’t criticize El Paso for not having a serious interest in high tech ventures; it does. You could ask why so few of these efforts have born any fruit yet or even become self-sustaining, not counting the few successful tech companies here that pre-existed these efforts. Really, you could ask the Embarrassing Question: Is there even one tech company in El Paso that originated in any of these efforts, that has existed for five years, has more than one employee and is not on welfare (grants, facilities)?
The easy answer is, this ain’t Silicon Valley that is more aptly described as an “ecosystem” of innovation, talent and capital unique in the world. It is a culture as much as it is a place, a culture that sees mega-deals formed over a power lunch at Birk’s in Santa Clara or new ideas vetted in the cafeterias of the companies along First Street in San Jose. Those cafeterias, if you’ve ever been in one, are a mini United Nations of talent come to these shores to seek fortune and opportunity, peopled with engineers and scientists who consider a 60-hour work week the norm and who obsess with staying ahead of the technology curve in their careers. Sorry, but that is not El Paso’s work or business culture. Some tech companies may develop here, especially with the talent RedSky is importing, but I would expect that their patents and processes will migrate to California and east coast pharmaceutical and med-tech companies, not to local startups.
High Tech lessons learned? First, technology is as much a culture as it is applied theoretical knowledge. It is a culture alien to the El Paso we see every day and experience in our jobs here. If a development strategy is to succeed here, IMHO it needs to be congruent with the local culture and be something that culture can embrace and grow with, a ladder of economic and social mobility (unlike the garment industry). A second lesson is that government has no business in business, because it will always invest politically, not in what works. We are captive to our stories.
NEXT: Game #3 – Give Me Land (Growth)