Over the years, whenever I’ve tried to calculate the cost-benefit analysis of living in a small town rather than a metropolis, the small town has always looked like the better choice.
It used to be that cultural amenities and cosmopolitanism gave big cities significant boosts in this either/or match-up, but developments in technology have changed all that. Sure, electronic entertainment and communication are only virtual, but when weighed against the advantage of having real-life nature right next door, as you do in a small town, the big cities look weak to me.
Recently, I considered all this once again, when a press release appeared in my email at my office in Boise, population 212,000. Based on scholarly research, the release declared Boise to be the nation’s number-one “under-the-radar tech hub.”
The bestowal of such a surprising and rather vague honor on my town got me to thinking about technology in this valley between the Rockies and the Owyhees, where Boise and several other nearby towns have a combined population of about 660,000. Everybody here is familiar with our two high-tech big dogs, Hewlett Packard and Micron Technology. Way back in 1973, HP moved its printer division from Palo Alto to Boise and proceeded to develop its first laser printer here. Micron Technology, founded in Boise in 1978, now ranks among the world’s largest producers of computer memory.
That’s not enough to make Boise a high-tech center, whether over or under the radar. But thinking about it, I realized that there’d been instances of local innovation for quite a while.
For example, the father of one of my daughter’s grade-school classmates is CEO of Balihoo, which made the front page of The New York Times a few years back. Balihoo automates software to help companies run personalized marketing campaigns. Also, my office used to be located across the street from a business-technology development company that was absorbed by Xtreme Consulting Group in 2013. And in an impressive building a few blocks from my house, Healthwise produces online health information for companies and consumer portals like WebMD.
Economic geographer Heike Mayer published a book in 2012 that examined the emergence of "second-tier" high-technology regions in the United States. It included a case study of Boise. Mayer, a professor at the University of Bern and Virginia Tech, wrote that Boise and other second-tier, high-tech communities such as Portland emerged through the influence of large companies acting as “surrogate universities.” These companies took the place of the world-class academic institutions that play central roles in major high-tech centers like Palo Alto and Boston. In the second-tier communities, corporations provide not only jobs but also access to innovative ideas, which their workers later take to the marketplace as independent entrepreneurs. The big companies then establish business links with their former employees’ startups.
A map of the “TechBoise Universe” created by Mayer shows the rings of many satellite companies orbiting Hewlett Packard and Micron, with a smaller cluster around Boise State University. Mayer suggests that innovation at Boise State has benefited more from the proximity of these high-tech corporations than the other way around.
It turns out the Boise Valley harbors more than 400 such businesses, creating everything from software and semiconductors to online services and nanomaterials. The nonprofit Idaho TechConnect says that, for the past five years, the state has been ranked first in the nation for patents issued per capita.
In March, Time magazine called Boise “a techy boomtown with a thriving cultural scene.” The government-funded Boise Valley Economic Partnership notes that the number of high-tech companies in Idaho grew by 61 percent over the first decade of this century, and these companies comprise about 14 percent of all enterprises here.
I had already read about Clearwater Analytics, which soon will occupy a big new building in downtown Boise, and I knew the founder of Keynetics had been inducted into the Idaho Technology Council’s Hall of Fame. I’d also heard that the famous computing cloud has a physical presence in Boise’s Fiberpipe Data Centers.
But I hadn’t heard about what some of these high-tech firms have created -- like the mouse transgenics software, the toy robotic dinosaur with emotions, the proprietary alfalfa seed, the camera-computer device for people with poor vision, or the app that lets presenters display their slide shows on the hand-held devices of conference attendees.
I’ll probably encourage my daughter to go away to college when she’s of age. (She won’t play football, so Boise State is out.) But when she’s ready to join the workforce, she might be able to do so anywhere she likes -- even here -- without fear of compromise. And that’s thanks to high-tech.
Steve Bunk is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. His book, Goliath Staggered: How the People of Highway 12 Conquered Big Oil, was published in April by New West Books.