Widen the lens to include companies that are applying sophisticated software, microchips, and various forms of engineering to develop internationally competitive products and services, and the impact of the "innovation economy" even at this stage in Rhode Island looks far more impressive than if you just think of DandyID's payroll.

It's even touching manufacturing, the core of the state's old economy.

Danny Warshay, managing director of DEW Ventures in Providence, cites PolyWorks, in Lincoln, as an example. It makes highly specialized polyurethane and silicone materials — gels, foams, silicones, bladder devices used in a wide range of consumer and medical products.

"They have 30 manufacturing jobs, they're growing, they're successful," Warshay says. "And they're doing it at costs that compete favorably with China — in fact, they're now shipping products to China."

Many of these companies are new, but many are not. The biggest change in the last few years, local tech leaders say, is that now they're talking to one another, and increasingly, collaborating amongst themselves and with government and nonprofits.

Jack Templin, an Internet strategy expert who'd spent a decade in Manhattan amid the tech boom, moved briefly to New Hampshire, then settled down here in 2005.

Like Tear, Templin didn't like the isolation among local techies, so he quickly reached out to other IT entrepreneurs and to leaders at the Slater Fund and the EDC. He also teamed up with Brian Jepson, a technology writer and programmer, to create a group that many credit with transforming the city's tech scene: the Providence Geeks (see "Geek Power," News, July 18, 2007).

One Wednesday a month, the Geeks gather at AS220 to learn about a local tech company or project but, most of all, to network informally. The sessions are generally packed, and the mailing list has reached almost 900 names, techies and non-techies alike.

And there have been spin-offs, from the hacker-oriented DC401 group, to a biweekly Tuesday-morning coffee gathering for entrepreneurs, to RI Nexus, a networking Web site for the IT and digital media sector that the EDC hired Templin to develop.

VISION: Kaplan touted the knowledge sector, but some question whether his ideas were too abstract.
Photo by Richard McCaffrey

Perils of a small pool
Even more than the Geeks, RI Nexus aims to reach a broad and diverse audience, and it's grown to have nearly 1600 registered members — plus a slew of other more casual users.

The RI Nexus calendar, to which more than 1300 events have been posted, illustrates how dramatically the local tech community has changed: For the week before Christmas, there were nine events, including the Geeks dinner, an EDC-sponsored forum and an entrepreneurs' meeting at OfficeLAB, a high-tech co-working space in the Federal Reserve Building downtown.

Much of this new activity has been sparked by techies themselves, often in collaboration with designers and artists. But government has also played a major role, most notably through the leadership of Kaplan, who boosted the EDC's investment in the "innovation economy."

The RI Science & Technology Advisory Council (STAC), launched in 2005, has furthered that agenda by bringing together leaders from academia, business, and government to enhance the state's research and development capacity, encourage startups, and promote collaboration.

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