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Ryan Johnson, Published September 06 2012

North Dakota’s other booming industry: tech development

FARGO – North Dakota’s oil boom isn’t the only booming sector in the state, even if it gets most of the attention, Sen. John Hoeven said Thursday.

“We are definitely driving energy development in the United States, but I don’t think people realize how much we’re driving technology development as well,” he said during “The State of Technology: The Next Generation of Jobs in North Dakota” business conference. The event drew about 300 business, government and education leaders to discuss the jobs of the future.

Hoeven said the state now has more than 16,000 open jobs. About 60 percent aren’t in the oil-producing counties, he said, with many in high-paying, high-tech positions in the Red River Valley.

“These jobs are leading the country forward, and it’s happening right here in North Dakota,” he said.

Technology will play a critical role in the state’s future, said Craig Whitney, president and CEO of the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce.

“Yet, here in North Dakota, we don’t have to wait for technology of the future,” he said. “Many of our great local companies are finding ways to use new technology.”

Representatives of Microsoft, Google, Appareo Systems, John Deere, Aldevron, Intelligent InSites and Packet Digital were on hand to discuss how their companies are at the forefront of rapidly changing technology, as well as the opportunities and challenges that come with those changes.

Appareo CEO Barry Batcheller said the Fargo-based company’s research will help put intelligent mobile equipment – something like a much smarter and more useful version of today’s iRobot Roomba automatic vacuums – in households across the world.

“These types of changes are going to have a profound impact,” he said. “If you think that the cellphones and iPads and things like that have changed the way that society interacts with each other, stand by.”

Embracing progress

During the keynote speech, entrepreneur and philanthropist Doug Burgum said technology has impacted the world for centuries. But he said new innovations and the latest technology often aren’t “embraced” by businesses, politicians and the world at large, even if they could improve and revolutionize the human condition.

Things are changing faster than ever now, Burgum said. New technology can now be quickly adopted across the globe and it’s easier than ever to share new information, he said, and everyone needs to “hang on” because the changes won’t stop.

“Every institution, every industry, every organization … is going to be impacted by the rapid adoption of technology,” he said.

Burgum said a college dropout founded a social networking website in 2004 that no investor would have seen as a good venture. But by the end of 2011, Facebook had amassed 10,000 times as many photos as the previous largest photo archive in history – at the Library of Congress.

He said technological progress has made it easier and cheaper than ever to start a business and follow an entrepreneurial dream. Burgum recalled a 1985 board meeting at Great Plains Software where company leaders anguished over whether to spend $180,000 for a phone switch that allowed up to 24 lines to be used at once; now, this technology is obsolete.

The cost of hosting applications has also dropped, with upstarts now able to turn to Amazon and spend just $1,500 to get something that cost 100 times as much a few years ago.

But he said there still is resistance to the new developments, and new ways of life, from these technological breakthroughs.

Burgum said the students of today should focus on getting an education, not just a degree, and that businesses and the world need people with the right skills from an individualized learning process that most educational institutions aren’t offering.

He said new technology also has made it possible for businesses and organizations to share buildings, maximizing use of one facility that otherwise goes unused during much of the day – or even an entire season in the case of schools that sit largely unoccupied over the summer.

But Burgum said things will continue to progress and everyone needs to keep up with the changes.

“In the end, economics is like water flowing downhill. It will erode the old way and make way for the new way.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587