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Region’s tech talent believe more spotlight time needed to showcase NWI technology sector

January 2, 2018

Jillian Straub can thank the steel industry for helping her tap her entrepreneurial side.

Working in information technology for ArcelorMittal, Straub became friends with some of her colleagues, including one who had an idea for a website where users share referral codes and earn rewards each time a code was used. The website, www.getreferred.com, which began as a hobby project for Straub and her friends Marty Shankle, Gene Livshin and Donald Donovan, launched in June.

While Straub, a software engineer who earned her degree at Purdue University, and her friends still work their day jobs, the hope one day is for their hobby website to become a money-making venture.

“My family encouraged me to go to college because they didn’t want me to work for the steel industry,” said Straub, a Hammond native who lives in Crown Point. “I did end up working in the (steel) industry, but on the technology support side.”

Igniting the spark
Straub isn’t the only Hoosier with aspirations to be part of a flourishing technology sector in Indiana with an established Region presence.

Some believe Indiana and the Region already have a thriving technology industry, with companies developing a range of products from smartphone apps to security software. Others add that technology drives innovation, which leads to new products or production improvements in established industries including petroleum and steel.

Advocates suggest the sector could raise its profile in the Region and across the state with better marketing to showcase local talent. More initiatives also are needed to encourage tech startups as well as avenues through which entrepreneurs can get necessary capital or find angel investors, who are typically affluent individuals who invest their own money in exchange for ownership equity with a goal of one day getting a return on their investment.

Cameron Banga, of Valparaiso, is a mobile software and technology consultant with 9magnets LLC, which develops smartphone applications. He said the heart of any strong community “is a strong culture of entrepreneurship and an environment where small businesses can succeed.”

The Region is rich with small startup firms, Banga said, and communities working to rejuvenate themselves.

“We have a heavy entrepreneurship culture here,” he said. “I’d like to see our local small businesses work more hand-in-hand with our local tech sector to find ways in which our local small businesses could become national leaders through technology.”

That sentiment is shared by Bill Barnes, operations and entrepreneurial manager at the Purdue Technology Center and Research Park of Northwest Indiana in Merrillville. He sees technology as a sector developing software, finding innovations to help industries advance and creating platforms to better deliver existing products and services.

“Right now, people think technology is just information technology,” Barnes said. “I think there is a lot of technology (development) in Northwest Indiana and there are a lot of businesses using technology in Northwest Indiana.”

He pointed to MonoSol in Merrillville, which develops dissolvable plastics.

“There is a lot of innovation happening there,” Barnes said.

One issue for the Region is its contributions to technology advancement have little notoriety outside the area. This is starting to change, thanks to the Society of Innovators of Northwest Indiana, which annually showcases innovations and the people behind them.

Barnes said if more marketing resources were dedicated to promoting the Region’s technology sector, it would help change how people perceive Northwest Indiana.

“Things are changing in the Region,” Barnes said, “and we have to let more people know about the opportunities that exist here.”

Investments to improve the commuter rail in the Region potentially could lure more talent here. As talent pools grow in the Region, Barnes said, it could become more attractive to new businesses and lead to growth in startups or companies supporting new development.

Barnes said while his organization incubates startups, existing businesses also should be encouraged to use technology to innovate and create new products.

“I’m a big fan of building our existing businesses and seeing them adopt a continuous innovation program of new product identification,” he said. “If a company is continuously innovating and finding new products, it will contribute to their long-term success.”

Bringing ideas to life
Brothers Jay and Neal Phalora had an idea to encourage people to spend less time on their smartphones and more time interacting with people in person.

This led to development of a smartphone app that encourages users to meet by making e-connections. The app, IceBr8rk, which launched in May, restricts the number of texts users can send to others also using the app, so if they want a conversation to continue, they either have to call each other or meet somewhere.

“The hardest part about talking to someone you don’t know is just saying ‘hello,'” said Jay Phalora, of Valparaiso, and co-founder of Seismic Vision LLC, which developed IceBr8rk. The app seeks out other nearby IceBr8rk users.

The brothers actively are working with colleges around the country, including Purdue and Indiana University, which say the proliferation of social media has eroded personal interaction skills. Jay Phalora says the colleges believe this contributes to higher rates of dropout, so the schools want students to spend more time with real people.

The Phaloras have the business acumen — Jay is a lawyer and Neal owns a wellness company and is a motivational speaker — but neither knew where to turn to create the app.

Two years ago, with idea in hand, the brothers sought an app developer to bring IceBr8rk to life, ultimately selecting a company outside the country.

“There is no handbook how to build or develop an app,” Jay Phalor said. If IceBr8rk is successful, the technology could have other applications including use as a business networking tool.

Hurdles to clear
Technology talent exists in the Region but more needs to be done to showcase it, as well as heighten awareness that jobs exist locally for people seeking such work, said Robert Johnson, president and CEO of Merrillville-based Cimcor, a security and compliance software company. It is important, he said, to convince the Region’s college students and young professionals that opportunities are available close to home.

“Recent graduates in technology don’t realize the opportunities that may exist in this local area and as a result, seek work outside of the Region,” Johnson said. More internships at Region businesses for college students could help slow the loss of local talent, Johnson said.

Information from Hoosier Data, which gets information from STATS Indiana and the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, projects by 2024 there will be 33,877 jobs in Northwest Indiana requiring people with skills in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, skills. One-third of those jobs will be open positions.

About 17 percent of the STEM-based jobs include positions in the computer sector as well as engineering and scientific research, according to Hoosier Data.

Johnson added Region-based technology professionals also lack opportunities to interact or network with their peers, which would encourage collaboration. The Region also is devoid of organized investor groups seeking to fund startups, he said.

“We don’t need those entities to necessarily be located in the Region,” Johnson said. “However, we need to actively engage them so they have an opportunity to become comfortable with the Region and to encourage their investment in the Region.”

Addressing the problem
The need to diversify the Region and the state’s economy long has been on the mind of U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville. He helped secure funds that led to creation of the Purdue Technology Center and Research Park of NWI.

Visclosky also supports federal programs that foster research and development.

“They are critical for our country to maintain a competitive advantage in the global economy,” he said. Through the years, many Region businesses and colleges have utilized the Small Business Innovation Research program and received grants through the Department of Energy.

Stephanie Wilson, spokeswoman for Gov. Eric Holcomb, said the state is working to promote Indiana as a tech-friendly state. Assorted programs and resources are available for startups including the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center, the 21st Century Research and Technology Fund, the Venture Capital Investment Tax Credit, the Economic Development for a Growing Economy (EDGE) Tax Credit and the Skills Enhancement Fund.

“Indiana is in a unique position,” she said. “Because of our state’s strengths in manufacturing, life sciences and logistics, and agriculture, a lot of the tech advancements we’re seeing are being put to use to improve those industries.”

Wilson said Holcomb’s Next Level agenda also has a goal of diversifying the state’s economy and preparing the future workforce. Initiatives within that plan call for students across the state to receive a baseline STEM education and adding computer science courses to schools to boost critical thinking skills.

For software developers including Valparaiso’s Banga, he recognizes it will take time for the Region and state to develop a reputation as a technology hub, but he is optimistic for the future.

“Some of the fastest growing companies on the web have been ideas as simple as taking everyday business tasks, and then evolving them for the internet,” he said. “I think the biggest thing we’re lacking is a genuine belief among the young tech people here that the next big idea could be built in our backyard. We have many smart minds here that are more than capable of building the next big web company.”

Article by: Larry Avila, The Northwest Indiana Times (January 2, 2018)

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