Kansas City updates tech in bid to boost business

Cisco, Sprint and Google all "collide" in the city's plan to attract tech incubators, startups and young residents.

Standing inside a historic seven-story downtown warehouse undergoing a major renovation as a space for tech startups in Kansas City, Mo., Herb Sih talks about fostering "collision density" in the nation's heartland.

Sih, managing partner of tech incubator Think Big Partners, hopes the renovation of the 1902 Globe building will help a blossoming community of developers and other tech types in the area collide -- in good ways -- to inspire the creation of new mobile apps, other software and hardware.

Behind that more immediate goal is a wish to make the downtown area more livable and attractive to young tech types, artists and businesses.

The old Globe building conveniently fronts Main Street, along which a two-mile, $102 million streetcar project is underway, with completion set for mid-2015. From the north, streetcars will pass through downtown skyscrapers and then through both the hip Crossroads Arts District and the restaurants and nightlife in the Power and Light District, before reaching the 100-year-old Union Station to the south.

Tech providers have lined up, too. In 2012, Google kicked off its first-ever Google Fiber gigabit fiber initiative, first on the Kansas and then the Missouri sides of Kansas City. That innovation sparked a flurry of unprecedented tech activity that feeds off the region's long history in medical technology and wireless networking, headed by area companies such as Cerner and Sprint.

In May, Cisco said it will bring wireless smart-city technology to the downtown, too, in an area that coincides with part of the streetcar project. These services will include mobile apps for citizen access, digital interactive kiosks, smart streetlights and video surveillance.

Sih's "collision density" reference has been used in other cities birthing tech incubators and accelerators, such as Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., Cambridge, Mass. and Pasadena, Calif. The term seems especially apt for what government and business leaders hope, both for Kansas City, Mo., and adjoining Kansas City, Kansas. In all, the region has about 2 million residents, with Kansas City, Mo., by far the largest city with 465,000 residents.

"Collision density" was borrowed from physics, but city planners have turned it into a buzzword that means bringing together a critical mass of software developers, computer engineers, designers and concept teams to ignite and nurse creative projects. Sih says he first heard the concept in reference to an ongoing project in the older downtown Las Vegas area that has been fostered by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.

"He said you need [enough] people per acre to live, work and play together, clustering and colliding with each other," Sih says during a recent tour of the Globe warehouse project.

The various partners in the Globe renovation are building a number of workspaces on different floors, including small office spaces that can be rented short-term and restaurant booth-like spaces that can be used for just an hour at a time.

Cisco plans to have offices inside the renovated building, which will be equipped with wireless beacons for devices connected to the Internet of Things. The beacons, from a Boston company called Robin, will use Bluetooth Low Energy and iBeacon technology to connect to smartphones and smartwatches. The beacons can be used to turn on lights and open doors and may even track movements of workers to coordinate better "collisions" among different work groups, Sih explains. The setup might, say, help a newcomer find another newcomer or someone there a little longer with a similar interest.

While standing on one central staircase under construction in the warehouse, Sih pauses to show how he hopes it will become a kind of impromptu tech pulpit for preaching the virtues of a new product, offering help to other developers or even for asking for assistance. "It can be a soapbox for the town crier to address informal gatherings," he says.

From startup village to Sprint Accelerator

Sih's collision density ideas are already being echoed all around the KC region, including at the nearby Sprint Accelerator building a few blocks away from the Globe. Another area is in an older neighborhood of modest homes about 30 blocks south on the Kansas side, where KC Startup Village (KCSV) got its start in the first-ever Google Fiber connected zone.

"It's all about creating energy," says Matthew Marcus, co-leader of KCSV, during a tour on a recent rainy late summer day. Since 2012, more than 20 startups have begun working out of several homes in the neighborhood along State Line Road.

Some of the homes needed special-use permits from the city to allow the businesses to operate in the residential area.

One developer of a search engine called Leap.It recently finished laying down a new ceramic tile floor inside the bungalow that doubles as his office. "We do it all," says the developer/tiler, Tyler VanWinkle.

The common theme for Leap.It and other startups in the KCSV: Low rent and access to fast Google Fiber connections, often ranging from 850Mbps to 900Mbps, both upstream and downstream.

Back in the downtown Sprint Accelerator building, a large second floor has been converted into open office space with tables and fast Wi-Fi to encourage collaboration among tech startups and enterprising individuals alike. Free community access to the space is available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Sprint opened the Accelerator space in early 2014 to move closer to the Crossroads Arts District and the newfound vitality of the downtown. On the first Friday of each month, art galleries in the quarter stay open late and a mini-festival erupts into the streets. This is in stark contrast to Sprint's corporate headquarters in Overland Park, Kan., about 19 miles to the southwest, in an area that has a decidedly suburban vibe with an automobile-focused ethic.

The Accelerator building is one example of the way businesses and government agencies are coping with the sprawl that the overall Kansas City area has become. It's been like a Los Angeles of the midwest for decades, with outposts of growth well outside the urban core. There's an international airport to the north, a spectacularly renovated outdoor sports complex with generous parking for the Chiefs and Royals to the southeast and a major stockcar speedway to the west in Kansas. But while individual areas were humming, it was difficult to generate buzz at the center -- up until now.

Sprint has already counted some successes with its downtown Acclerator. Last year, the carrier announced a formal program with startup accelerator Techstars -- which has programs in seven other major cities including London -- that features three months of mentoring for startups in the Accelerator space, with each startup receiving up to $120,000. The first 'graduates,' the class of 2014, included 10 mobile health-related startups.

Two of these graduates -- FitBark, which makes an activity tracker for dogs, and Symptom.ly, which makes a mobile monitoring device for humans with asthma and other chronic illnesses -- plan to move to the area permanently.

Part of the advantage of this type of open collaboration is "that it doesn't need to be coordinated...You kind of need to let it happen organically," says Kevin McGinnis, vice president of the Sprint Accelerator.

And Internet for all?

Google Fiber says it's already completed over 7,000 miles of construction in the area, mainly in Kansas City, Kan., and the central portion of Kansas City, Mo. Various small businesses and nonprofits are now pushing to find more ways to jump aboard the super-fast 1 Gig connections.

Google won't say how many household customers it has in the area, but government officials say the fiber service already passes along streets that count 200,000 homes in both states. Carlos Casas, Google Fiber sales and strategy manager, admits there are sometimes service interruptions, but says customers are thrilled with the fast service that can support six or more video streams simultaneously from one pipe. In a demo at a Google Fiber service center built in a retrofitted gymnasium, Casas was able to demonstrate 849Mbps download speeds and 943Mbps upload speeds.

Google in April said it planned to test ultra-fast Internet service to small businesses in Kansas City by the end of the year, but hasn't followed up with any specifics.

While Google Fiber is a major draw for many residents and startups, according to Kansas City, Mo., officials, a nonprofit called Connecting for Good is hoping to expand the number of poor families in the area that can reach the Internet in any way possible.

The mostly volunteer organization recruits high school interns to refurbish old desktop computers, which are sold for $75 apiece to any low-income person who completes a free three-hour training course. More than 1,000 computers were refurbished for the program last year, says Michael Liimatta, co-founder and CEO of the group. They were all sold.

To connect families to the Internet, Connecting for Good has set up 70 mesh network antennas from Meraki atop small homes in the Juniper Gardens housing project of Kansas City, Kan. to feed nearby residents free Wi-Fi. The homes are located in a ZIP code with one of the lowest incomes in the entire state.

About 70% of the usage of the free Wi-Fi comes from smartphones, according to Liimatta. Many of the families can't afford a desktop or laptop computer as well as the added cost of Internet access, while also trying to pay for food and housing, Liimatta says.

Surveys by Pew Research and others point to large numbers of people who don't see the Internet as relevant to their lives or who find it hard to use, but Connecting for Good says there is plenty of interest in the Kansas City area in learning how to use computers and to connect to the Internet, even at slower speeds.

Google hasn't been able to achieve the penetration for Google Fiber in poorer neighborhoods that many observers had hoped for. Google addressed the matter in a recent blog post, noting that finding the solutions to the digital divide is a "long-term, complex problem."

Despite this, there is strong interest among people in these communities to discover and use the Internet, Liimatta says on a short drive in his old pickup truck from Juniper Gardens to a storefront on Troost Ave. that Connecting for Good uses as a classroom center in a tired-looking commercial neighborhood on the Missouri side.

"People want access, and we're trying to lower the barriers to their being productive digital citizens," Liimatta says. "The Internet is one of the more life-transforming resources."

Computers are key to creating a resume and managing a job search, or even to finding medical resources, he says. They've also proven essential for high school and college coursework.

Grants from private and government sources to Connecting for Good have dried up, so the organization relies heavily on those refurbished computer sales pay its costs, including space for its free classes.

At its Troost location, a Connecting for Good class underway one Friday afternoon includes several older, mostly African-American women who are being taught computer basics by volunteer Johnathon Pruitt. He seems to have some trouble explaining how computer storage works to a woman who has just learned how to use a mouse and keyboard.

Nevertheless, Liimatta smiles proudly as he looks over the class. He says he's even prouder that his organization has begun "training the trainer" classes to help churches and other nonprofits offer free computer classes to even more residents. City officials refer to him as the "Mother Teresa of the digital divide," a designation that makes him chuckle even if there's a slight ring of truth to the moniker. As a former church pastor, he brings a humble religious fervor to his work.

"Less than 20% of the 18,000 students in the Kansas City, Missouri, public schools have in-home Internet, while 90% of kids in the suburbs do," Liimatta says on a short drive to a well-known KC eatery, Gates Barbecue, for lunch. "What kind of economic disadvantage is that? Most of us are so connected that we don't think of those without Internet at all. We're just keeping this issue on people's minds. Our biggest enemy is apathy. Internet connectivity really is a social justice issue."

Organizations promoting tech startups in the Kansas City area seem to be well aware of the digital divide right in their backyards. Connecting for Good actually began as a startup in the KCSV community, mainly to take advantage of low rents; Liimatta counts the Village startups among Connecting for Good's best donors and sources of volunteers.

But KCSV and other startup incubators and accelerators have a decidedly different mission from Connecting for Good: Their mission mainly revolves around building interest in entrepreneurship for students and others, even on a national and international stage. "We've hosted many student groups, ranging in all ages from grade school to university, to help them understand the viability of entrepreneurship as a professional career path," KCSV's Marcus says.

One long-term goal of the city is to bring more residents to live in new lofts, condos and apartments now popping up in abundance throughout the downtown. The downtown area currently has only about 20% of the residents that its infrastructure could potentially support, says Ashley Hand, chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Mo.

Cisco's smart city

There's so much recent interest in promoting tech innovations and tech startups in the KC area that it is hard to predict what will ultimately stick. The arrival of the KC Downtown Streetcar line in 2015 and the associated smart-city Cisco project both hold enormous promise.

Even with all the excitement, some entrepreneurs are worried about the strength of Sprint's commitment to the area and to its Accelerator. The nation's third-largest carrier (by number of subscribers) is likely to slip to fourth place by year-end, and layoffs have been announced nationwide by new Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure. Since this announcement, the company has not made any statement about its ongoing commitment to the Accelerator, and Sprint spokesmen didn't return phone calls on the question.

For now, downtown buildings are still emblazened with huge advertising murals touting Sprint's "new" network and pricing, and the company's name is used for a striking metal-clad downtown indoor arena called Sprint Center.

Even if Sprint remains a permanent fixture in the downtown and the region, with Softbank of Japan owning 80% of the carrier, the long-term future seems somewhat uncertain.

At the time of the smart-city announcement in May, Cisco also said it planned to work with Think Big to manage a "living lab" for entrepreneurial development to help address some of the city's challenges.

Those challenges include finding ways to better manage aging city infrastructure, including energy conservation with city streetlights that could be dimmed on clear, moonlit nights. Or, sensors could be installed to monitor underground utilities for failures or to automatically alert a driver whose car is blocking a streetcar line, well before the streetcar arrives. Kiosks at the new transit stops along the line can also potentially become Wi-Fi hotspots for tourists, nearby workers and even residents.

City officials fully expect Cisco to move ahead with the downtown smart-city project, and boast it will be the biggest of its kind in the world. Even so, Cisco hasn't provided more details about the project since it was first announced in May, and the company declined further comment for this story.

Separately, there are rumors that the Bloomberg Philanthropies organization in New York is interested in some manner of technology-related assistance for Kansas City, Mo., although neither Kansas City nor Bloomberg would comment. Kansas City officials say the Ford Foundation and the League of Cities have also taken interest in the area's digital innovations and small business promotion.

By far, the biggest infusion of public money in Kansas City, Mo., toward the tech renaissance will be the streetcar line. It "has presented a unique opportunity for a smart-city network overlay," Hand says. "It's a huge opportunity to take something that's new to the urban experience for a lot of people and provide the highest customer experience possible."

With the cooperation of the city's Streetcar Authority, Hand says fiber optic cable can be fed to each catenary pole spaced 90 feet apart that brings electricity to the streetcars. From there, Wi-Fi antennas could be attached, giving fast Internet connections in hot zones along the line to create relatively widespread Internet use for visitors, residents and workers.

A symbol of the coming KC streetcar line is an outdoor exhibit of a lone streetcar from a bygone era. It sits under a protective roof next to the Amtrak entrance to Union Station, near where the modern streetcar line will terminate. The streetcar's northern terminus will end two miles to the north, just steps from a wooden footbridge that leads to a platform overlooking the muddy Missouri River. In between the two ends, city planners hope: An incipient world of tech and arts and vibrancy.

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