Silicon Prairie: Tech Startups Find A Welcoming Home In The Midwest : All Tech Considered Some entrepreneurs are leaving the high-tech hot spots of San Francisco, New York and the Silicon Valley for greener pastures in a place that actually has greener pastures: Lincoln, Neb.
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Silicon Prairie: Tech Startups Find A Welcoming Home In The Midwest

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Silicon Prairie: Tech Startups Find A Welcoming Home In The Midwest

Silicon Prairie: Tech Startups Find A Welcoming Home In The Midwest

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/392136573/392590094" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now a visit to what's referred to as the Silicon Prairie. Lincoln, Neb. is becoming a hub for technology startup entrepreneurs. They're leaving the hotspots of the Silicon Valley, San Francisco and New York and finding that Lincoln has a surprisingly strong startup community. In fact, it's one of the secrets of the city's success. NPR's David Schaper went to Lincoln to check out the startup scene.

PAUL JARRETT: Welcome to Bulu Box.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Paul Jarrett is showing off his company's cozy work space.

JARRETT: We are all about the open-air office.

SCHAPER: Along with his wife and co-founder, Stephanie, this e-commerce company employs nine people full-time plus a few interns. And if the bright and vibrant office has a homey feel, there's a reason for that.

JARRETT: This is actually an apartment that we converted into an office space.

SCHAPER: There's a kitchen, laundry, shower and a hangout room with couches and video and board games. But for Paul Jarrett, there's another reason it feels like home.

JARRETT: I actually grew up in a trailer park about four blocks from here.

SCHAPER: And here is downtown Lincoln, Neb. That the Jarretts located their startup here is a bit of a surprise. They had left Lincoln to work in advertising and marketing in New York, and then for technology startups in San Francisco. When Jarrett and his wife had their own idea for a startup, a friend told them about a network of technology investors back home called Nebraska Angels. So, they loaded up a U-Haul and back to Lincoln they went, where Jarrett immediately noticed a difference in the high-tech business culture.

JARRETT: In San Francisco and in big cities, people come up to you and they say, what do you do? And they immediately start competing with you and they start sizing you up. And it's almost like they're saying, what can you do for me? And in the Midwest, it is completely opposite. People say, how can I help you? What can I do for you?

SCHAPER: For instance, when Jarrett was setting up his office and needed Internet, local providers told him it would be at least a couple of weeks. Then he ran into a friend on the street.

JARRETT: He literally said, follow me, and he introduced me to these local guys that did Internet downtown. And they're like, yeah, we could wire you up right now. And they actually, like, temporarily ran across the alley a cord, just right into our office. And within one hour, we had Internet.

SCHAPER: In the growing community of high-tech entrepreneurs in Lincoln as well as in nearby Omaha, people pull for one another. They collaborate, commiserate, advise and mentor. Even though they may compete for investors, talent and ideas, Jarrett says there's a belief that any one startup's success is good for everyone else, especially in the same building. In the office next door, 25-year-old startup veterans Adi Kunalic and Blake Lawrence.

BLAKE LAWRENCE: Adi and I started our first company when we were 20 years old, you know, five years ago. And there's been a ton of support ever since.

SCHAPER: Lawrence and Kunalic came to the University of Nebraska to play football, and the ties between college athletics and many of the tech startups in Lincoln are tight. The university's highly touted School of Computer Science and Management is a great resource too. And this small, Midwestern locale helps keep the startups costs down. Here's Adi Kunalic.

ADI KUNALIC: You know, I feel like, Lincoln, you can take a lot of risk. And you can grow your team very fast and not have to pay ridiculous prices just to get your concept out the door.

SCHAPER: Lower salaries and Nebraska's sleepy reputation can make it a tough sell when going after top talent in places like Boston, New York, Seattle and San Francisco. But Lincoln boosters say the low cost of living and high quality of life is a draw, and urban redevelopment in the city's old warehouse district has sparked a vibrant nightlife in this college town of nearly 300,000. Access to capital could be a problem, as Midwest investors can be a bit more conservative. So, Paul Jarrett quietly admits this...

JARRETT: That's why I keep my New York cell number.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHAPER: Jarrett says he keeps his New York cell number so his calls are returned more quickly. But once investors hear a good business plan, he says they don't really care that he's not in the Silicon Valley, but on the Silicon Prairie in Lincoln, Neb. David Schaper, NPR News.

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