The result is a burgeoning technology hub that some consider the region’s new economy, particularly in the District, where hundreds of young entrepreneurs have formed a creative class of technologists with business ideas and the zeal to execute them.
“If you want to change the world, you still come to Washington, D.C.,” said Matt Fellowes, HelloWallet’s chief executive. “What we haven’t done very well to date is connect that intellectual firepower with the capability of technology to solve these big problems. And that’s what is happening right now, so I only see growth in this area going forward.”
But that growth has already encountered challenges, and more are inevitable. Many of the ingredients that have allowed places such as Silicon Valley and Boston, and more recently New York, to thrive seem to be lacking here — or missing altogether.
Local entrepreneurs and investors have moved quickly to tackle such issues as the shortage of Web developers or the dearth of investors, but it remains to be seen whether those efforts can coalesce and a vibrant tech economy will emerge as a result.
Creating an ecosystem
AOL established the Washington region as fertile ground for consumer technology companies as the firm introduced millions of Americans to dial-up Internet, and pioneered the concepts of chat rooms and instant messaging.
The company’s epicenter shifted to New York in 2007 after its ill-fated merger with Time Warner, and many of its workers here have defected to start their own ventures. Indeed, if you scan the resume of many local entrepreneurs, including LivingSocial chief executive Tim O’Shaughnessy, a stint at AOL can often be found.
These veterans created an ecosystem that many say forms the foundation for a successful technology hub: A megalith company attracts thousands of workers, who then gain experience, grow restless and decide to forge their own path. The result is an ever-extending pipeline of fledgling technology firms poised for growth.
That has contributed in part to the more diverse technology sector around Washington today. Grotech Ventures partner Don Rainey points out that the big tech firms of the 1990s, such as UUNET Technologies and MCI Communications, traced their roots to technology developed by or for the federal government.