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Dave Kolpack, Associated Press, Published September 09 2012

Business leaders say North Dakota could be Silicon Prairie

FARGO – Nearly every state in the Midwest has tried to position itself as the region’s technology leader, but North Dakota business leaders say they’re in the best position to claim the title of Silicon Prairie.

Doug Burgum, known locally as the godfather of software for building Fargo’s Great Plains Software into a billion-dollar business, told attendees at a conference last week that the absence of “massive socioeconomic problems” makes North Dakota an ideal place for tech companies to grow.

“We have a state with a surplus. We can invest in the future,” Burgum said. “If you’re in Illinois, you are not having this conversation because you’re talking about the possibility of the state actually being bankrupt.”

The recent oil boom in western North Dakota has created billions of dollars of new wealth and, according to Republican Sen. John Hoeven, inspired entrepreneurs in eastern North Dakota to try to jump start that economy by starting their own companies.

Hoeven said the state now has more than 16,000 open jobs and more than half are outside the oil-producing region, including what he called many “high-paying, high-tech positions” in Fargo and the Red River Valley.

“I think Fargo and the Red River Valley is definitely on the map when it comes to technology,” Hoeven said, citing companies focused on agriculture, information technology, medical development, aviation and life sciences. “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.”

One of those companies, Packet Digital, was the overall winner at Aviation Week’s 2012 Innovation Challenge with electronics that help extend battery life and reduce heat. Chief Executive Officer and President Joel Jorgenson spent much of his early career in Iowa, which has long touted its tech prowess.

North Dakota is “competing on every level” with Iowa and other Midwest states, he said.

“Ames and Des Moines area are doing fantastic things. We are doing every bit as much, if not more, than what they’re doing,” Jorgenson said. “We may not market ourselves as the Silicon Prairie, but certainly we are on a technology map that is second to none.”

Another Fargo company, BreadVault, which makes online money management tools designed for families with children, recently did a “soft launch” of its product, testing the market without advertising. Ryan Meyer, the company’s business development manager, said the response has been positive.

“BreadVault can be very big. It can be on the lines of Facebook or LinkedIn,” he said. “We think North Dakota is a great place to develop this, not only because of the surplus or revenues, but also because we have a lot of creativity and ingenuity that comes from years of figuring out how to do things on our own.”

Burgum, the tech guru, grew up near Arthur, a town of about 400 people in southeastern North Dakota. He literally bet the family farm to invest in Great Plains Software in 1983, when it was still a startup. Microsoft bought Great Plains in 2001 for $1.1 billion in stock, and Burgum worked for Microsoft until 2007.

Microsoft’s Fargo campus now has 880 employees, not including 840 vendors and staff.

Burgum predicted other North Dakota companies will have similar success, despite skepticism from outside the state.

“People may still make North Dakota jokes, but the bottom line is, they’re all jealous, they’re all envious, they all want to write it off in some fluky way like, OK, you guys are Beverly Hillbillies, you found a bunch of oil under the shack,” he said. “They want to write it off that way, but you can’t.”


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