Templin speaks more optimistically, but concedes that "I don't think we've stoked the fires enough as being a place that embraces youth culture." Downtown Providence isn't as bustling as it could be. And public transportation is a "huge" issue, Templin says, because it's hard to get around without a car, and getting to and from Boston is even harder.

In general, he says, "I think we should embrace being a city. Young people want to live in cities; the most interesting creative work happens in cities."

And no, we'll never be Manhattan, Tear says, but if we start reaching out not just to local students, but to 20-somethings across the country, we'll draw enough people. We don't have large IT employers like HP or Google to hire them by the thousands, but just 100 or 1000 ambitious young techies, he says, could make "a big difference."

To help attract them, Templin, Tear, and fellow tech entrepreneur Owen Johnson are developing an incubator program called BetaSpring to help 20- to 26-year-olds launch startups, using a model that has been successful in other cities.

There are also other resources, such as the Rhode Island Business Plan Competition, led by the Business Development Company of Rhode Island. The Brown medical students who won last year, for example, have gone on to successfully launch Shape Up RI, which already has more than 100 clients for its Web-based workplace wellness programs.

Asked what government and business leaders can do to support all this new activity, Tear says they can most help at key transition points: supporting technology spin-offs from academia, for example, and creating new funding mechanisms for startups that are too small to appeal to venture capitalists, but also poor candidates for traditional bank funding.

And there's hope that the Rhode Island mainstream will increasingly embrace its "geeks," who are themselves reaching out to schools, colleges, and local businesses.

"Big companies and mid-size companies, more than ever, have to themselves innovate, and if they don't, they're soon going to be GM," says Warshay. "So for sure, they should be tapped into these conversations. If they don't, they do so at their peril."

Marion Davis can be reached at msdavis@live.com.

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