Geek Austin Eve Richter on the Austin Emerging Technology Program, Austin Biotech, and…

Submitted by Lynn Bender on Tue, 01/13/2009 - 1:00am

If you go to any tech events around town, no doubt you've seen Eve Richter -- coordinator for the city's Emerging Technology Program. I recently met with Eve to get some background on the program, the city's other tech related initiatives, the state of biotech in Austin, resources for startups, and other topics.

Lynn Bender: Could you tell me about the City of Austin Emerging Technology Program? As part of the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office, is the focus more on business development, implementation of new technologies, or...?

Eve Richter: The Emerging Technology program is tasked with increasing jobs and investment in the technology sectors. We do that by attracting new companies to the area (in our targeted sectors, including clean energy, digital media, wireless communications, and biotechnology, etc.), and helping existing companies to grow and flourish. Our focus is pretty much entirely on business development, except to the extent that the implementation of new technologies (or adoption of new technologies) helps our companies to thrive. So promoting the use of technologies created here is something we might do. We also focus on improving the environment for technology companies, by focusing on improving the workforce, regulatory environment, access to capital, and marketing the city as a hub for technology development.

Lynn Bender: It seems that, for the last decade, there has been a concerted effort to make Austin one of the top biotech cities. There have been several sizable venture funds, and a few interesting startups, like Ambion. What is the current state of biotech in Austin? Will we have to have a medical school at UT Austin to truly be a competitor?

Eve Richter: In my opinion, a medical school is the missing piece of the puzzle. The rest of it we have or can get – educated workforce, a good history in medical devices, a support system for commercialization. But without a medical school, it’s hard to see how we can be a top notch competitor in such a hot area. The focused venture fund helps, as does the biotechnology incubator. We are working on it, all of us are. And that’s great. So drop a medical school in, and we’re there. Or at least on the path to “there.” As of last year we had 60+ (I think the number was 66) biotech companies – way more than anyone actually realized. Even folks working in the industries did not realize how many places there could be to land. Some of this may be PR or lack of central information (although the Chamber does have Bio Austin, and that’s a great place to go for info on this). And some of it is that 60+ is not hundreds. There are landings, but not enough. Of course, we’re not going to be number one in everything (won’t stop us from trying, though). But there is no doubt we can be better than we are right now in biotech. I hope the new biotech incubator at ATI will have an impact. And I hope we get that medical school (crossing fingers).

Lynn Bender: Where can someone get a list of the local biotech companies? Is there a website you could recommend?

Eve Richter: I would send them to the Bio Austin website at www.bioaustin.com. They have a list of companies and good resources on biotech.

Lynn Bender: Austin is an incredible place to live and full of skilled individuals. Unfortunately, these are not the only considerations for early stage ventures. How do we prevent companies from following the venture capital trail westward?

Eve Richter: This is a tough one. The obvious answer is to bring more capital here, and that is something we are working on. Last summer we took a trip out to Menlo Park and held a breakfast for venture capitalists. It may sound trite, and attendance wasn’t huge, but what it did is open up an avenue of communication with a huge list of California VC’s. We now regularly communicate with those folks, and invite them to come here for events and to meet companies. This is a slow process, but I believe the results can be meaningful. As I build relationships with individuals there, I can help make meaningful introductions, as appropriate. But it really is a chicken-and-egg problem. The VC’s will come when there are deals. But we can’t reach critical mass of deals without having the VC here to support them. It’s a frustrating quandary – but all we can do is keep working on it.

Another point on this – we may be weak in VC, but our bootstrap community is vibrant, and we are also relatively angel-rich. We also have a network of support systems, like ATI (Austin Technology Incubator), which help connect companies with the capital, wherever it may be. I know other folks help connect companies with California VC, without moving the company out to the west coast. We have so many assets to recommend us here – lower cost of living and doing business, great quality of life, awesome workforce – it’s a shame to lose a company over a venture deal. And where we can prevent that, it’s certainly something we want to do. That incredible place to live thing – it’s a great place for capitalists too. A number of the folks I’ve been corresponding with are just looking for excuses to come here on visits or even permanently. It’s up to us to give them enough excuses to make it worth their while.

Lynn Bender: There has been a tremendous amount of local buzz surrounding green and clean energy. Is the Emerging Technology Program currently involved in initiatives in this area?

Eve Richter: Indeed, clean/green energy and clean/green tech are at the top of our radar. This is an area where we can legitimately claim to be number one or near number one. We have so much going for us that we’re really well set up to move forward and move FAST. The Mayor’s efforts in Climate Change Protection, a population that is very receptive and interested in these kinds of technologies, the kinds of technologies that make a difference – we have all those things going for us. What we do in my program is help to encourage and support clean/green companies and technologies, and encourage the support systems they need, like degree programs and university research, incubation efforts (the Clean Energy Incubator), conferences and expos held locally, and so on.

Lynn Bender: With the recent economic downtown, many folks in Austin's tech community are having a difficult time finding employment. Are there any current city-sponsored initiatives to improve Austin's technology workforce? Other than the university-based programs?

Eve Richter: The city sponsors Skillpoint Alliance for workforce development initiatives - giving technology training to under-served communities, as well as working with high school kids to get them interested in technology careers; they also work to bring together industry and educators. The City also manages a contract with Capital Idea for adult workforce development. They can create a program for pretty much any large need – so if a company comes in and needs 150 people trained on a certain technology, they can make that happen. We are also working with the Chamber on attracting skilled workforce in target areas – particularly “c-level” talent.

Our Small Business Development Program also provides various classes for entrepreneurs and small business owners – from “how to start a business” offered weekly to more detailed classes on finance or marketing or other areas that business owners need. They also have advisers available to speak with entrepreneurs and small business owners in a walk-in center at One Texas Center, and some pretty nifty software available free of charge –from business plan writing to searching for government RFP’s. If there isn’t a job available out there for someone, maybe it’s a good time to start a business. Particularly services, or even SAS, can thrive even in a down economy. I think Bootstrappers are going to do particularly well in the coming years.

Lynn Bender: No doubt you are going to SXSWi. Are there any panels or speakers that you are particularly looking forward to?

Eve Richter: I’m really looking forward to seeing some of our local folks speak, and I always hit the panels that cover industry-wide issues rather than technically-detailed topics (did I mention that technology is in my title, not my skillset). For me, SXSWi is an opportunity to connect and reconnect with many of our local tech folks and companies, and to work as hard as I can to get as many of them showcased as possible – get them in front of the media, get them introduced to folks they should meet, get them in front of funders, and so on. There are a number of VC-focused events (like the new Accelerator, which I’m really curious to see take off, and how it goes), and I’d really like to see some of our success stories get out there. At the same time, this is a great time for me to showcase Austin to the “others” – those who might come here to fund, to provide services, or to relocate. This is a chance to attract some of that workforce we were talking about – every year I meet folks who want to make Austin their permanent home, and I work with them as I can to make that happen.

SXSWi is the best and worst 10 days of my life, every year. Exhausting and exhilarating! And my birthday always falls in the middle, and it’s funny because I can’t get to see any of my family or friends – except my peeps in the tech community, of course. I am looking forward to seeing Guy Kawasaki’s talk (on my birthday). I love the Web 2.0 stuff (lots of it this year), the marketing panels that help me apply what I learn to my own job, and anything to do with funding or strengthening the industry. Every year I learn something new that I can apply to my work, and to make me better at what I do. And then I always go to see some stuff just for fun, or to catch the viral buzz (like the lolcat panel last year). Looks like we’ll have a few of those this year too. Basically, I keep up with Twitter, do my homework, and do my best to catch it all. Ha!

Lynn Bender: I'm sure I'll see you before then -- most likely on my evening downtown walk. Only now I won't be bugging you for an interview!

Financial support for this interview provided by Smart Bear Software.