Go West, Young Man…to Omaha

April 10, 2013

Both coasts are in high demand for technology startups, but what about the Midwest? Learn how the Midwest is earning the name Silicon Prairie.

You’ve heard of Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley in New York, but how about Silicon Prairie? Omaha, Nebraska is pretty much smack-dab between the two and it has a creative vibe that is starting to rival its coastal counterparts.

The city is best known as the home of Warren Buffett – the Sage of Omaha – but aside from its established financial firms it also has a thriving tech start-up scene. The Silicon Prairie News – a blog covering the start-up scene in the Midwest – lists 30 tech start-ups, incubators, angel investors, venture capital firms and co-working spaces in the Omaha municipal area alone.

They include MindMixer, which is connecting community members with their officials, SkyVu, a games designer firm, Sojern, which sells ads targeted to travelers’ itineraries, Hayneedle, an Internet retailer, and Proxibid, an online auction marketplace.

The city hosts a conference every year for Midwest start-up founders called Big Omaha, which attracts hundreds of innovators and entrepreneurs from across the country. Sister conferences are held in Des Moines, Iowa and Kansas City – the other main cities in the Silicon Prairie.

Being right in the middle of the country has its logistical advantages, it’s an ideal place to bootstrap a start-up, because office and residential rents are much cheaper than in San Francisco, Boston and New York.

Entrepreneurs have been drawn to Kansas – a state known more for its barns than its bandwidth – by the fastest Internet speeds in the world, courtesy of Google Fiber. But Google’s decision to roll out fiber into homes in Kansas City before businesses prompted a very pragmatic Midwestern response. Entrepreneurs have bought houses in fiber neighborhoods and are offering tech innovators free or cheap rooms to access the superfast Internet. KC Startup Village and Homes for Hackers have become hubs for the local start-up community and are helping to nurture a tech network in the city. They have attracted the likes of Leap2, a mobile search company; Eye Verify, a biometrics firm; RocketFuel Partners, an innovation consultancy; and Local Ruckus, an event finding app.

It’s a tight-knit start-up community in Silicon Prairie, with less access to capital and sparser networks of innovators than in the bigger, established tech hubs. But an increasing number of local angel investors mean entrepreneurs no longer need to look to move to either coast to launch and grow their start-ups. In fact, more and more Midwesterners are throwing in their careers at tech giants and are moving back home from the Bay Area or the Big Apple to set up their tech ventures. They sense there’s a growing start-up community in their home states and often prefer its friendlier and more laid-back atmosphere.

The message is that ambitious tech entrepreneurs no longer need to move to the one of the coasts to launch a start-up these days.  Things are heating up right in the middle of the country, and the price is right for many startups.