And the Business Innovation Factory, an independent nonprofit that Kaplan founded before taking the helm at the EDC in 2006, has sponsored several collaborative projects — most recently, the "Nursing Home of the Future" — and drawn innovators from around the world to Providence for annual "summits" that cover everything from cool gadgets to fighting hunger.
Collectively, these new groups and initiatives have created such a robust subculture that, for those living and working within it, Rhode Island feels like a whole new place. Yet the impact on the broader community, even within the IT sector, is still limited.
Hebert, of Atrion Networking, likes to attend Geeks dinners, he says, but "because I believe that kind of collaboration and networking and social interaction is required for us to evolve as a state for the knowledge-based economy."
Yet "most of the people there are not in my kind of IT," he adds. "There's no one from my core industry, communications and networking. There's not a Cisco-certified person that I've ever met at that meeting. So it's just a different community."
In that sense, the Tech Collective programs are better suited to Atrion's needs, Hebert says, but that's okay, because "IT/digital media is a big sector, and there's a lot of subcultures within that sector," each with its own networks and resources.
And the Geeks have made their mark on Atrion after all: That's how Hebert connected with Shazamm, a multimedia firm Atrion bought earlier this year.
Jim Grace, founder and CEO of InsureMyTrip.com, in Warwick, says he likes the Geeks because they foster "a community of like minds that enjoy technology and the things we do." But while he poaches from locally based insurers for the non-IT part of his staff, he says, most of his techies he recruits from out of state, not from the local IT community.
Asked what he considers important to keep growing his business, Grace cites different priorities than you'll hear from the Geeks: a lower tax rate, especially, and less bureaucracy.
Hebert mentions the same concerns, along with a shortage of skilled labor — a near-universal problem for growing tech firms in Rhode Island.
Growing the base
Tear and Templin are aware of the shortage of skilled IT workers, but it's far from their top concern when thinking about how to grow the "innovation economy."
Their priority is to attract and retain entrepreneurs — lots and lots of them, to grow "the base of the pyramid," as Tear described it. The idea is that many startups fail, regardless of their promise, but if you build a large enough pipeline, focus on promising sectors, and create a fertile environment, you will have success stories.
But how do you draw such people to Rhode Island?
For people like PolyWorks' founders, Warshay notes, it's not that hard to figure out: This is their home state, and if they can successfully run their business here, that's very appealing.
Another, growing demographic is people like Tear, Templin, and Warshay: 30- and 40-somethings — self-described "elderpreneurs" — with major-market experience who are looking for a more "livable" city in which to raise their families.