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Geek power

Techies and digital innovators are injecting fresh life into the Rhode Island economy
By IAN DONNIS  |  July 18, 2007
GOT CODE? Providence Geeks co-founders Templin and Jepson [second and third from left] are
joined by Soren Ryherd, Matt Obert, Sam Killay, and Jef Nickerson.

Like a lot of people, Soren Ryherd and Vida Jakabhazy were drawn to Providence by their fondness for the city. Yet unlike earlier transplants that may have started restaurants or art collectives, the couple brought some heavy-duty scientific credentials when they moved here in 2001. Backed by their expertise in processing algorithms and developing quantitative models, they launched a company, Working Planet Marketing Group, which manages Google ads and devises pay-for-click campaigns for an array of customers in North America and Europe.
In the time since, East Side-based Working Planet has expanded to employ 12 people. All of its clients (ranging from small concerns to name-brand firms like Iron Mountain and Belmont Springs) are based out of state, meaning that more money is coming to Rhode Island, and the four-year-old privately held company has consistently enjoyed annual growth of about 100 percent.
While there are those who routinely describe the state’s business climate in bleak tones, Ryherd says, “It turned out that Providence has actually been a great place to start a business and to grow a business.”

Working Planet and its founders represent a small, but important and growing sector of the local economy — information-technology and digital media start-ups — that offer a welcome source of energy and innovation for a state in serious need of stepped-up economic development. And though it doesn’t yet come close to rivaling the tech concentrations of places like New York’s Silicon Alley or San Francisco’s Multimedia Gulch, Rhode Island has its own swelling geek movement.
“I think there’s probably more going on than people realize,” says Ryherd, a one-time NASA graduate research fellow. “This has very much been a behind-the-scenes activity that people really are not that aware of, but there’s really a lot of stuff going on.”
So much has been going on, in fact, that two tech enthusiasts, Jack Templin of Providence and Brian Jepson of Kingston, last year launched the Providence Geeks, which — like similar efforts in larger cities — offers a communal focal point through monthly dinners at the downtown arts bastion AS220.
Getting Rhode Island’s geeks out of their solitary fluorescent-lit dens was a natural, says Templin, his tongue partly in cheek, since, like artists and entrepreneurs, they are marked by a passion for their work and a strong interest in sharing ideas. While the dinners are decidedly casual — the chance to grab a taco and a beer from AS220’s in-house Taqueria Pacifica — a different Rhode Island start-up is highlighted at each dinner, and more than 100 geeks, their admirers, and the simply curious cycle through in the course of a night.
As simple as it sounds, Templin says, there’s no replacement for making the creative entrepreneurs at these get-togethers aware of one another, and their work and needs: “Who’s doing what down the street? How is it complimentary? Who has money to invest? Who has needs for my talent? We’re seeing hiring, collaboration, investment. We’re seeing all that stuff,” he says, “and that stuff adds up.”

Challenging RI’s brain drain
Given the lack of wider public attention about the fledgling geek scene, it’s not surprising that most Rhode Islanders have little sense of the wave of new IT and digital media companies taking root locally.
The hidden nature of this boomlet can be seen in how one company, Andera, which helps banks and credit unions to open online accounts, has grown to employ 30 people from a Westminster Street office since Charlie Kroll, now 29, founded it while still an undergraduate at Brown in 2000. Andera has 129 clients around the US, including BankRI, and with 16,000 banks in the US, there’s a lot of room for growth.

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  Topics: News Features , Saul Kaplan , Jack Templin , Business ,  More more >
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