Yet are the geeks Rhode Island's secret weapon? Is this, as Kaplan wrote on his blog recently, "the innovator's day" — a time when only the tech-savvy vanguard can save us? And if so, how do we make the most of geek power in this state?
Taking it to the next step
From an economic perspective, IT and related industries are valuable because they pay well; as of 2007, about 16,550 Rhode Islanders worked at IT and digital media firms, the EDC says, and their wages averaged more than $70,000 — twice the state's median wage.
Those figures don't include freelance and contract workers, a hard-to-quantify part of this economic sector, or the IT workers at banks, colleges, hospitals, and in other non-IT firms. Yet even if you doubled the EDC figure, it's small for a work force of more than 570,000.
And many of the local IT companies are not part of the "innovation economy" as Kaplan and others see it: They're business service providers, building and supporting clients' systems with hardware and software from such vendors as Cisco and Microsoft.
In some ways, these firms currently make the biggest impact on Rhode Island's broader economy, because they can help clients streamline operations, improve efficiency, become more mobile and limber, and even reduce technology costs by better targeting their spending.
They also offer a lot of fairly high-wage jobs: Atrion Networking Corporation, for example, employs 150 people in Warwick and Pawtucket, plus 50 to 60 interns per year, and it's still growing, says CEO Tim Hebert, who is also president and chairman of the Tech Collective (tech-collective.org), which bills itself as "Rhode Island's industry partner for Information Technology and Bioscience."
But to actually grow its economy, says Allan Tear, managing partner of Aptus Collaborative, a technology and business strategy consultancy, Rhode Island needs a very specific kind of tech companies: those creating new software, services, and hard goods that can be sold worldwide.
"The way we grow ourselves out of this mess is to increase what we export," he says. "We've got to make stuff. . . . that we don't buy ourselves. We need to start seeing ourselves that way, much as the Netherlands and Portugal and the UK did years ago, as a trading nation — that's the kind of entrepreneurship we need to focus on."
Rhode Island's cutting edge
In practice, such companies can take myriad forms.
There's GyPSii, a company started in Amsterdam by Rhode Islander Dan Harple — with US headquarters in Warwick — that has signed major deals in Asia for a mobile phone application that integrates phones' multimedia and GPS tools to enhance social networking.
There's InsureMy- Trip.com, which moved to Warwick from New York in 2003, with a staff of three, and has grown into the biggest Web-based travel insurance brokerage in the world, selling coverage directly and through more than 2000 private-labeled and co-branded Web sites worldwide and employing about 40 people locally, half of them in IT.
And there's Rite-Solutions, in Middletown, which provides high-end secure networking and digital rights management systems to defense, homeland security and entertainment-industry clients, and which has grown from three to 175 employees in its eight years.