Monday, January 24, 2022

Intel's Big Build-Out In My Home State of Ohio Spurs the Growth of a Silicon Heartland

In a game changer, Intel is investing $20 billion on a new chip manufacturing hub on 1,000 acres near Columbus, the first semiconductor fab in the Midwest, and is hiring 3,000 employees. 

The silicon chipmaker's bold investment will draw more high-tech employment to central Ohio and spur the development of a Silicon Valley in the Heartland. Already, Google, Facebook and Amazon operate  data centers here, in this New Albany rural suburb of Ohio's capital city. My hometown of Lancaster, just 30 miles southeast, has attracted Google too.  

These investments come as Silicon Valley continues to decentralize. With this move toward the interior of the U.S., the old images of Rust Belt and cow towns could fade fast.  

The emergence of America's Heartland as a tech center comes at a crucial time for the U.S. as it fights back China's rise, deals with supply chain shortages, and jobs lost to lower-cost centers in Asia and Mexico. 

The arrival of Intel to the Midwest signals another Silicon territory, like Silicon Beach, Silicon Alley and Silicon Dragon. Call this Silicon Heartland.

Over the next decade, Intel plans to spend as much as $100 billion in eight factories spanning 10,000 acres of farmland. The Silicon Valley-based giant also intends to partner with local universities to foster new talent. This build out will spur the growth of an already budding tech ecosystem in central Ohio.   

Heartland America has been eager to develop new jobs, and has looked to technology and startups as sources. Now budding tech centers are gaining momentum, feeding upon the region's strong universities and research centers, and digitization of traditional businesses in insurance, healthcare and manufacturing. 

A growing number of talented millennials have been drawn away from the coasts and into the center of the country. The attraction is increased job opportunities in more inland startups and emerging businesses. Other factors driving this trend are lower cost of living and the ability to work remotely.  

Columbus is in the forefront of Midwestern clusters that are forming far away from long dominant Silicon Valley. CBus, as it's known, is emerging as the biggest of the once-sleepy giants. The population has surged 15 percent to nearly 900,000 over the past decade, the largest increase of any major Midwestern city. 

The metro's tech cluster is fueled by the arrival of venture firm Drive Capital and its Silicon Valley style. Drive Capital, set up by two former Sequoia Capital partners from California, has invested in dozens of tech startups in 10 years, and is building businesses for the future from healthcare to insurance to robotics. Further sparks come from spinouts at Ohio State University, startup studios Rev1 Ventures and Converge Ventures, and inventions at world-leading research outfit Battelle Memorial Institute, creator of vehicle cruise control and the bar code.    

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine -- and other Midwestern states -- have been angling for a chunk of this new distributed Silicon Valley. The Buckeye state has allocated billions to develop urban innovation districts in Columbus as well as Cincinnati and Cleveland. The goal? Create thousands of jobs in high-tech, healthcare and smart manufacturing, and educate students in science and technology fields. Now, this Intel facility is touted as the single, largest investment in the state's history, and boosts Ohio's economy that suffered when the steel mills and auto factories left. 

The San Francisco Bay Area continues to be the epicenter of venture capital, attracting half of VC spending nationwide. But the sands are shifting. Investment in Silicon Valley startups recently declined to below 30 percent nationwide for the first time in 10 years. Meanwhile, venture deals in the Midwest have quadrupled over the past decade. 

Unicorn-valued startups, high-ticket acquisitions, and IPOs have popped up in Columbus as well as tech clusters in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Detroit. Each city leverages its strengths in technology to specialize. For instance, Pittsburgh is a hub for autonomous driving. Indianapolis is strong in software as a service. Detroit is into advanced manufacturing and electric vehicles.  

Over the past 50 years, Silicon Valley saw its orchards transformed into high-tech parks. Now, central Ohio is starting to see its fertile pastures changed to data-driven centers. It will take some time for the culture to change for more of a risk-taking nature that is common in the Valley.  As an early spotter of major tech innovation trends such as in China with Silicon Dragon, I'm convinced that a Silicon Heartland will show its power.