When Jay Larsen talks about Idaho technology companies, he uses the word “ecosystem” a lot. He envisions a matrix of private and public entities that nourish and draw strength from each other to further the state’s industry, workforce and economy.
The effectiveness of that collaboration, and lawmakers’ receptiveness to it, is shown in two recent legislative accomplishments designed to foster business growth: The creation of IGEM (Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission) and law that ensures cloud-based services are not taxable transactions in Idaho.
A Boise native, Larsen, 54, earned a bachelor’s degree in organizational development from Brigham Young University and a master’s of business administration from Boise State University, then spent 20 years as a manager for sales and marketing at telecommunications companies. In 2006, a desire to learn more about public policy prompted him to join the campaign, then the staff, of one-term U.S. Rep. Bill Sali, a Republican defeated in 2008. He served as Sali’s director of economic development and says that experience was vital to determining his next step: founding an organization aimed at revitalizing Idaho’s tech economy.
Q: What was the need that spurred the Idaho Technology Council?
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A. Idaho had been a leader in innovation, but we lost some of that. We needed to get back on the map.
In 1997, Time magazine had a story [about flourishing technology areas], and their illustration had signposts pointing to Boston, the Silicon Valley, Austin — and Boise.
In 1998, I met with the governor of Utah and he said, “We’re envious of Idaho. You’ve got HP, you’ve got Micron, you’ve got more Fortune 500 companies than we have in Salt Lake City. You have the INL.”
All of this stuff was going on in Idaho. It was amazing. We had Albertsons, Simplot, Ore-Ida, Boise Cascade. They might not be considered technology companies, but they were innovators. Joe Albertson and J.R. Simplot were two of the greatest innovators we’ve ever had, and innovation is use of technology.
But later, when I moved back up to Boise, I didn’t see the same fervor. Utah had what we didn’t have. They looked at it like an ecosystem.
Utah was like a gazelle, quick-moving. We were a little too dependent on the big companies, and we lost the ability to be nimble and quick because we didn’t focus enough on the startups and the smaller companies.
Do we have it now? Absolutely.
Q: Is the ITC a framework for tech industry growth or an engine, or both?
A: Our mission is to help the tech companies in the state of Idaho start, grow and thrive. We help bring the framework of where our strategies will come from.
Our main focuses are on information technology, agriscience and energy. It’s a private and public partnership, but it’s really led by industry. That’s the legs. That’s the engine.
We have done a lot of work, and the Legislature wants to support tech and innovation. They’ve approved IGEM and the Cloud Services Protection Act. They’re supportive.
The first meeting we had with Governor Otter, he said, “We want industry to tell us what we need to do.”
It’s important that industry leads this effort. Eighty percent of our funding comes from industry investors, and the rest from memberships and the events we hold.
Q: What are the keys to enriching Idaho’s tech ecosystem?
A: Research and development is a huge need, and training. Particularly in software jobs, Idaho just doesn’t produce enough trained workers to do the jobs.
Last year in one three-month period there were 1,200 jobs open. That could be a good thing, but if you can’t fill them, it’s a bad thing. We’ve had some companies that have had to relocate to get the workers they needed.
Developing the tech workforce is essential, and we need to address it both organically — produce more homegrown software developers and engineers through Idaho colleges — and efforts to attract qualified workers from elsewhere.
All three [state] universities are increasing their R&D. And all three are industry investors in the technology council.
Q: Is the recent proliferation of small startups a good sign for the industry?
A: Yes. Those companies, with 20 employees or less, have been growing in this state over the past two years, and that’s what we want to see. We have about 300 companies in that (size) that are really strong. We want to see that grow to 500 or 1,000.
Q. How did working for Congressman Sali lead to founding ITC?
A. I’d been told, once you get a chance to work on a congressional staff, you get a great vista into how things work, how government and businesses intersect, how they interact. You get to see where we’re competing and where the federal dollars go You learn how to get help from the federal government or get the federal government out of the way, either one. I probably would not have started the Technology Council had it not been for that experience.
Q: Tell me about the ITC’s early days.
A: I came up with the business plan for it and got together with Mike Reynoldson [government affairs manager at Micron]. We met with members of the Utah Technology Council to see how they were doing it.
We started putting it together in 2008, but didn’t start approaching companies for investments until 2009. Micron was in the middle of mega-layoffs then, so there was no funding from them yet [Micron’s now a gold-level ITC investor], and other companies said they would participate, but they couldn’t be first. I think they wanted to see if we’d make it.
Our first investor was Mark Solon from Highway 12 Ventures. Then we got companies like Keynetics to come in. Then law firms and other services that support the knowledge-based economy.
Q: So how is Idaho progressing toward regaining tech prominence?
A. Let’s say we’re climbing Mount Everest, trying to get to 21,000 feet. We’re at base camp right now, about 16,000 feet. We’ve got the sherpas, the oxygen supply, the things we need. But we’ve still got a lot of climbing to do — R&D, education.
I think by 2025 Idaho will be recognized as one of the most innovative states, and the private sector will be leading the way.
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447