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Why Utah Is Poised to Be America's Next Tech and Creative Hub

Published: 07/10/2016
By T.L. Stanley, AdWeek — It’s one of the fastest-growing tech hubs in the country, with record amounts of venture capital flowing in, and is home to at least a half-dozen unicorns (companies valued at $1 billion or more) and plenty more "soonicorns" expected to hit that mark. Universities there are churning out science, tech, math and engineering grads by the thousands, creating a highly skilled, digital native workforce. It's home to a thriving community of content creators, giving rise to YouTube stars like Devin Graham (better known by his alias, "Devin SuperTramp"), The Piano Guys and the Shaytards, while the area has spawned chart-topping bands Neon Trees and Imagine Dragons, electronic dance music DJ Kaskade, and Julianne and Derek Hough from ABC's Dancing With the Stars.

Are we talking about Silicon Valley, or maybe the geographic one-two punch of L.A.'s Silicon Beach and Hollywood? Nope. Rather, it's rugged and rustic Utah, which analysts say could become the next Silicon Valley inside a decade. It is well on its way, clearly. The mountainous corridor anchored by Salt Lake City, Provo and Ogden—which has been dubbed "Silicon Slopes" (so named for its picturesque ski resorts)—is attracting investment from the likes of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and futurist Ray Kurzweil, while homegrown inventors and entrepreneurs have become commonplace on the competition series Shark Tank. Local digital advertising players like Harmon Brothers and Shareability have produced mega-viral videos for a variety of brands. Meanwhile, everyone from blogger Single Dad Laughing to American Idol alum David Archuleta and hairstylist/social media star Mindy McKnight lend the region a right-brain dimension to go along with its serious business cred.

"Being innovative and self-sufficient is just ingrained in our culture in Utah," says Cameron Manwaring, co-founder of Shareability, where he is now an adviser. "There's a fearlessness of trying new things, whether that's a different way to do business or a creative expression. The attitude is, figure it out, make it happen." That bootstrap mentality has long set Utah apart. With a population of 3 million that's 60 percent affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS for short, the state's conservative, roll-up-your-sleeves bent is evident even in its nickname, the Beehive State, a nod to the industriousness of honeybees.
 
Utah is mushrooming. A study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation ranked it the best-performing state in terms of economic growth for two years running, while Forbes included Salt Lake City and Ogden on its list of the fastest-growing U.S. cities (Nos. 5 and 6, respectively, this year). It added more than 46,000 jobs last year, on top of already-low unemployment (around 3 percent, or half the national average). The cost of living and real estate prices are also low in Utah.

There are plenty of incentives for businesses to set up shop here, including generous tax breaks, moderate regulation, and a supportive climate for networking and startups. A mass-transit system connects the state's largest cities, while a concentration of five colleges and universities in Northern Utah produces some 22,000 graduates a year, many of whom have traveled internationally (for Mormon missions), speak a second language (often American Sign Language) and plan to stay in the state with their extended families. 
 
Some 4,300 tech players have set up shop here—including software and hardware companies, research and information services firms, aerospace concerns and makers of medical devices. The state was identified by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program as a "super-sector" of advanced industries.
 
Thus far, few big business enterprises out of Utah have become household names—Adobe and Ancestry.com are exceptions. But well-known firms are looking for space there, with Goldman Sachs stationing 2,000 employees in downtown Salt Lake City. The clean energy firm SolarCity (whose chairman is Elon Musk) plans to put down roots soon, too, joining billion-dollar corporations like Domo, Qualtrics and Vivint, naming-rights sponsor of Vivint Smart Home Arena, where the Utah Jazz play. 
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