By Amy Zuckerman

The experience of innovative venture capitalists, and corroborated by realtors, indicates the emergence of a HIDDEN-TECH economy in parts of the country and communities that provide lifestyle and cultural opportunities to knowledge workers. Village Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Williamstown, Mass., has identified the Pioneer Valley region of western Massachusetts as one of the key HIDDEN-TECH centers in the United States.

HIDDEN-TECH is a term that refers to a sub-set of the national, and even global, technology industry. This sub-set is made up of virtual companies operated by one or two individuals, who develop products or services from a home or small office. Sometimes, as in the case of home offices, they are literally hidden from sight. But in a more general sense they are hidden from government, private sector or academic statisticians because many are not incorporated, nor are they captured by any governmental reporting service. Word of mouth and one of the only available ways of tracking them.

The HIDDEN-TECH trend is supported by tech professionals - freed by the Internet who are relocating throughout the country to places like the Amherst-Northampton-Greenfield sector of the Pioneer Valley rather than live in tech centers. Ranging in age from 30s to post-retirement, their operations may be small in terms of financials, but are potent in terms of the alliances and contacts they maintain worldwide. And they are boosting the economies of the regions where they are relocating as they have the means to purchase high-end homes, require a wide variety of technical and professional services, hire subcontractors and often create regional alliances that keep related companies afloat.

Efforts are now underway among planners, economic developers and members of the University of Massachusetts Amherst community to identify members of the HIDDEN-TECH world. All experts involved agree that it is imperative that the Pioneer Valley identify its HIDDEN-TECH community. Long dominated by the manufacturing sector, the Valley region does not have enough of the fast-growing technology based industries that account for regional growth in the nation's metropolitan centers. This region, according to Village Ventures representatives and testimonies from hidden tech professionals, does have a high degree of intellectual capital, a growing critical mass of tech companies and a lovely, rural landscape coupled with cultural and recreational activities that are drawing people from around the world.

Economic developers like Jaymie Chernoff, Vice Chancellor for Industry Liaison and Economic Development at UMass believe that hidden tech may prove key to growing the regional economy and help promote the Valleys' reputation as a technology innovation center efforts underway thanks to the new Regional Technology Alliance (RTA), a federally-assisted organization established to create technology and industry networks in the region. And experts like John Mullin, Vice Chancellor for Outreach at UMass and Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, believe that the Valley's hidden tech community may be connected to similar tech innovation centers around the world. The Globe article (noted above) indicated that this region may be a model for the country as it is attracting tech and other professionals from all over the world.

The following are some regional and national implications the article identified:

* Hidden tech entrepreneurs and professionals are starting to define where growth takes place in the region. Realtors polled throughout the Pioneer Valley indicate that newcomers consider broadband or high-speed Internet access key to deciding where to purchase a home. Many of these newcomers indicate that they intend to set up home-based tech companies or other home-based businessses.

* As tech professionals are free to move wherever they like and set up shop, they may be upending long-held beliefs about the critical mass needed to establish tech centers, and may be creating new tech centers in unlikely locations.

* To develop the information highway and prepare for future economic growth, it's necessary to learn more about hidden tech and the migration of knowledge workers from urban tech centers.

* This trend may have a long-lasting impact on the work place. Author Daniel Pink in FREE AGENT NATION (4) is counting at least 18 million Americans who are sole proprietors or operating their own small, home-based companies. He believes this is just the beginning of a significant trend towards self employment.

* Economic developers may be fighting the wrong battle in the new competition for regional growth. The quality of life and savvy professional networks may be more effective lures for the hidden tech growth than are the traditional industrial parks and tax incentives.

* Regional planners need to understand the new phenomena of hidden tech in order to devise thoughtful and effective land use strategies and economic development strategies, as well as infrastructure investments that will maintain the Pioneer Valley's special sense of place that attracted the hidden tech knowledge workers in the first place.

Efforts Underway to Develop Statistics

Pink has just about the only extant national statistics on self-employment. Data on those tech professionals and entrepreneurs who make up the hidden tech world is not readily available. Moreover, there are no reliable statistics culled in Massachusetts, or in the Pioneer Valley, that would allow planners and business leaders to track this important trend. Without statistics on hidden tech it is difficult for planners to develop the information highway infrastructure particularly broadband required to attract knowledge workers. Regional utilities require this information to plan for future growth. And organizations such as the RTA, which are trying to network technology professionals in industry and academia to realize critical mass, thus promoting tech growth and attracting outsiders, would benefit from statistics on hidden tech to pull these hidden assets into the regional networks.

Chernoff, Mullin and Brennan have teamed up with this author to seek funding to back a study that would to develop innovative ways to measure what is now a hidden phenomenon, identified only by anecdotal information. These statistics will serve as a model for the country, identifying and surveying as many members of the Pioneer Valley's hidden tech community as can be located through word-of-mouth, through broadband service providers and other experimental, surrogate measures.

All parties hope that the result of this sort of study would be a fairly detailed look at the emerging hidden tech economy of the Pioneer Valley, to then be applied as a national model to study hidden tech throughout the U.S. This information should be useful to economic development planners, government officials, corporations, real estate firms, venture capitalists, utilities and technology service providers and others, whether regionally, nationally and globally.

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