Triangle can be the Silicon Valley of the emerging Data Economy – here’s how

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In the late-70’s and early 80’s North Carolina legislators recognized the importance of the emerging semiconductor market and invested into the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina to attract semiconductor firms to RTP. While there was some success, with Mitsubishi and Harris Semiconductor setting up shop, the battle for supremacy had already been lost to the San Francisco Bay area, which in January of 1971 was dubbed Silicon Valley by Electronic News.  California led the subsequent Internet Age for the last several decades.

Today the most rapidly emerging and economy-impacting technologies relate to the Internet of Things and Data Automation. These technologies include data analytics (machine learning, artificial intelligence, natural language processing), data security (cybersecurity, blockchain), data visualization (augmented and virtual reality, 3D holographics), and data motion (5G/6G, NB IoT, LoRa, advanced networking, edge computing).

Already, regions are competing to become the global capital of the Data Economy. What chance does RTP have to be crowned the victor?  Let’s look at the resume of the region.

At the top of the pyramid of emerging technologies sits AI.  While numerous universities were involved in the early research and development of AI, when it comes to commercialization, it is pretty clear that Dr. Jim Goodnight and SAS (headquartered in Cary) were the first to apply analytics to enterprise problems at scale.

  • It is fair to claim that the Triangle is the birthplace of commercial analytics.

Every ranking that I could find consistently ranks SAS as one of the top 4 analytics companies on the planet today.  Notably, the number one analytics company is IBM.  IBM runs its watsonx generative AI and ML toolsets in RTP, less than 10 miles from SAS. As you look to the future, quantum computing presents the most promising opportunity for a step-change improvement in analytics. No company has more quantum computers than IBM (>60 worldwide) including one right on NC State’s campus.

  • With SAS and IBM, our region has twice the concentration of analytics strength as competing tech hubs like Seattle (Microsoft #2), Germany (SAP #3), and Austin (Oracle #5).

A good indicator of the strength of a tech hub is to look at where the federal government is investing. And in terms of government investment in technology, nothing gets a higher priority than national security. Since 2013, the National Security Administration (NSA) has invested more than $60M in the Laboratory of Analytic Sciences (LAS), a partnered research effort with NC State. LAS works on some of the most complex challenges, like anticipatory thinking (to detect threats before they emerge), improved intelligence analysis and advanced cyber threat detection.

We also see interesting new collaborations happening in the region. Just this week, IBM and NASA jointly announced the open sourcing of more than 250,000 terabytes of geospatial data (satellite imagery) on the open AI platform Hugging Face. Their goal is to crowdsource environmental research as a means to accelerate mitigations of climate change. Never has NASA open-sourced data in a partnership like this but chose IBM and Red Hat as key private industry partners, with their respective watsonx and Open Shift tools.

Next month, RIoT is proud to announce that NASA is coming to Raleigh to reveal how the agency is reinventing how it partners with entrepreneurs, startups and private industry. A key project where NASA is seeking to partner is the Artemis project, a bold goal that brings US Astronauts back to the moon. [Note – register to attend, RIoT Demo Night at the Raleigh Convention Center for free on October 16th].

  • The highest visibility projects around the US’s most difficult analytics problems are being solved here in the Triangle.

Despite the clear current and legacy strength in data science and analytics and numerous examples of activity and momentum, other factors are also important if the Triangle and North Carolina are to become globally recognized at the Center of Excellence in the Data Economy. Talent, media coverage and government policy are also important.

Our region has 3 times as many tier 1 research universities as Austin or Seattle does, and just as many as Silicon Valley. We have the strength of diversity with NC Central, Shaw and NC A&T which bring some of the best and largest engineering and computer science programs of any HBCUs.  NC State has been increasing computer science and engineering enrollment by 1,000 students every year since 2021 to feed the talent needs of the Data Economy.

  • Our region is building as strong or stronger a talent pipeline as anywhere in the US.

It remains to be seen if a modern equivalent of Electronic News will crown us with a clever name. That component is somewhat out of our control – but is influenced by continued successful projects and partnerships in the region.

An area in our control – or at least the control of our legislators – is around policy. Will the state make investments to attract top talent and grow new technology companies? Oracle moved its headquarters to Austin 3 years ago without any tax incentives at all. I’m not in the Oracle inner circle, but believe that move had a lot to do with Austin’s investment in tech entrepreneurship.

Our region, by comparison, promised $1B in incentives to get a satellite office of Apple. While the Apple announcement drew headlines and may have helped a few elected officials to get re-elected, it is a huge miss in terms of investing in where the economy is headed. The media headlines that validate or invalidate claims of leadership, were mixed on the Apple announcement, equally praising and panning the incentives. Indecision and doubt in the media is not a win for the Triangle.

Silicon Valley became Silicon Valley because of strong research universities and a bunch of startups that eventually grew to become household names. Oracle wants to be where the action is. The Data Economy is not going to be the next generation of Google, Microsoft and Amazon. It is going to be a bunch of new companies that are just startups today, moving fast and inventing the future.

Today we are missing the mark in terms of business incentives for those startups. To be crowned the global center of excellence, we need corporate headquarters – not satellite offices. We need to grow the next generation of SAS and IBM’s by investing in startups, incubators and accelerators. The good news is that there is a strong base of entrepreneurial support organizations (e.g. CED, RIoT, First Flight Venture Center, NC IDEA and many more). But there is a big gap in local and state funding for tech-based entrepreneurship.  If we close the gap or leapfrog past other states with those kinds of incentives, versus the Amazon HQ2 and Apple satellite campus style ones – the positive media headlines will follow.

I think it is a fair argument to say that the Triangle has a head start lead as the capital of the Data Economy. Our policies, efforts and investment over the next 3-5 years are critical if we want to solidify that position.

Original Article Source: WRAL TechWire