Faces of the Valley’s HIDDEN-TECH Economy

By Amy Zuckerman

Nestled in the upscale neighborhoods of Amherst and Northampton, in the strip malls of this region and the hill towns you'll find a new phenomenon a burgeoning group of independent thinking and living individuals who are sprouting a HIDDEN-TECH economy in the Valley.

In an east Amherst neighborhood, alone, reside two prominent tech writers with national reputations, a venture capitalist, a successful retail dot.com, a developer of customized Information Technology (IT) solutions for major corporations, a husband/wife team from Russia who create graphics-related software, a global team builder whose clients include prominent tech companies, not to mention any number of computer science professors and others yet to be identified.

All of these individuals live within a mile or so of each other and represent only a tiny fraction of the Valley's HIDDEN-TECH community. Hidden because there are no signs outside their doors; no shingles giving you any indication of the technology developments unfolding behind modern contemporary homes. Drive the highways and byways of the region and you'll never know that a nationally- recognized Web search engine is being tweaked in a non-descript office building behind Barney's Sunoco on College Street in Amherst, or that Web search services are being offered in an upstairs office at the South Towne Commons strip mall on Rt. 116 in South Amherst.

In fact, it's not entirely certain how many tech entrepreneurs there are in the Valley, particularly if you toss in Web designers, tech trainers and consultants along with those actually manufacturing software or hardware. In 1996, the former Western Massachusetts Software Association counted 128 tech consultants and entrepreneurs located throughout the Valley triangle as defined by Amherst, Northampton and Greenfield, according to Rob Eaton, President of Electronic Business Works of Hadley. He thinks those numbers are as high as 150 today, though he can't be certain.

"I know people who are working information retrieval, millimeter wave design, customized IT, data management, educational technology, and infrastructure for the Web," says Eaton, who has played a role in the growth of a mini Silicon Valley in the happy/cosmic Valley (see bio). "There's also trainers, Web designers and also IT business houses with networks."

Other efforts to locate statistics on tech professionals were unsuccessful. No one from the recently formed Regional Technology Alliance (RTA) a tech networking organization which has backing from the University of Massachusetts and local business was available to comment. The Battelle Memorial Institute in Cleveland, Ohio conducted a Western Massachusetts Technology Audit for the RTA based on interviews with 51 of the Valley's largest and medium-size tech firms and 44 UMass faculty members and administrators. Findings were released in January 2001 recommending development of tech networks in the Valley, but no attempts were made to identify additional tech companies or professionals beyond the original sample.

John Coull, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, isn't certain that statistics exist on the Valley's HIDDEN-TECH community, though he's actively seeking that information. From his own personal experience of serving as chamber president for three years and living in Amherst for more than two decades, Coull can attest to a growing tech community.

Coull says Amherst and the Valley are enticing to "folks who can work wherever they want. There's been a big influx of people like that over the last four or five years, most likely because of the boom in the tech economy we experienced then. And because of our highly regarded quality of life they choose to be here."

One example of a recent tech "immigrant" to the Valley is Coull's son-in-law, Jonathan O'Keeffe. Coull says O'Keeffe moved with his family from New Jersey four years ago and was able to bring his programming job with him.

"If you include in the tech category anyone who is writing software, that number of 100 to 150 is reasonable," say Tripp Peake, founder of Long River Ventures Limited Partnership (see bio). He calls home-based developers the "small shots" and doesn't count consultants in his loose calculations. Peake, who is the Valley's own venture capitalists, says he knows of "15 to 20 companies" located in this region who are trying to get funded right now.

Whether people will be able to make a go of it and continue the Valley's HIDDEN-TECH boom depends a lot on the economy and whether Valley folks are determined to stay here. As Peake points out, "Everyone's taken a hit this year. Some Valley tech companies of a few years ago don't exist today, or are hanging on as a shell of what they were."

But Nathan Treloar, President of AvaQuest, a Web search engine service company and long-time Valley techie (see bio), is banking on people hanging in until the economy improves. "Once people are here, they tend to stay," he says.

Many of the Valley techies profiled below have weathered more than one recession, an earlier Bush Administration and the Gulf War. They agree with Treloar that they're here to stay. This article is about the personalities all top tech professionals -- who are rapidly helping the Happy/Cosmic Valley grow it's own Silicon Valley:

PAUL McOWEN: Hippie Turned Valley Tech Entrepreneur/Promoter

Thirty years ago when he was a "long pony-tailed hippie" involved in social service programs to build housing and develop mass transit for the elderly, Paul McOwen never dreamed he would become one of the most prominent tech entrepreneurs in the Valley. Like many of his 60s-era peers, McOwen was disdainful of money and the establishment. He and his wife lived without electricity for almost seven years in Wendell, or what the crunchies around here call "the north country."

Now 50, McOwen has gone through a transformation of the sort that David Brooks describes so vividly in Bobos in Paradise, the best-selling chronicle of the baby boom generation's efforts to combine success and money with usefulness and creativity. Still as socially concerned at 50 as he was a 25, McOwen no longer thinks of money as the root of all evil, but as a means to help others. In fact, as the co-founder of both the UMass Center for Intelligent Information Retrieval (CIIR) with Bruce Croft and the non-profit ACSIOM research foundation that developed a Web search engine, he has been able to raise $27 million for Valley tech startups.

Throughout his UMass years, McOwen earned a master's and near PhD in computer science/engineering while working. Catching the startup bug in 1996, he and Croft left the university confines to start Sovereign Hill -- a for-profit company set up to promote the much touted search engine called InQuery that had been developed thanks to ACSIOM funding.

Selling out Sovereign Hill in 1999, McOwen merged his efforts with Christine Maxwell's Chiliad Publishing Greek for millennium and continued evolving a search engine and clients that include the United States Department of Defense and the U.S. Library of Congress. McOwen is both president and CEO of the company. For a time during the tech boom, Chiliad had as many as 57 employees and was with allied with Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems to design a new Web portal to compete with Yahoo. Those efforts fizzled last year when the Nasdaq started to dive.

Of late, like anyone trying to survive in a down economy made all the worse by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, McOwen is doing more work in knowledge management systems that relate to security violations. He's hanging in with a stripped-down staff of seven, hoping to bring back Chiliad employees, many of whom remain in the Valley. If he has a choice, he'll stay here rather than moving on.

"It's a great place to raise kids and grandchildren, and I have two grandchildren in the area," he says. "So I wouldn't leave as long as the economy is strong enough to support additional growth."

ROB EATON Pushing Valley Tech to the Max

ROB EATON's corner office at 100 Venture Way in Hadley overlooks the trees and fields bordering the Route 9 strip. Occupying space in one of the few buildings in the Valley that actually looks like it could sit in San Jose, Calif. -- in the heart of the Silicon Valley -- Eaton's office is hidden in the back of the Donahue Institute. That's a university sponsored think tank.

President of Electronic Business Works, which he also calls EB Works, 40-year-old Eaton is a former electrical engineer turned high tech go-getter. A friendly, energetic man with a ready smile and handshake, he came to Amherst from Norwood, Mass. in 1993 to earn an MBA at UMass, married and from 1996 to 1999 was director of business development for ACSIOM in Amherst, taking over the job when Paul McOwen left. He eventually bought and then dissolved the venture when the tech economy sagged last winter.

Like many young tech jocks, Eaton was infected with the boom spirit of the late 1990s. He turned entrepreneur exactly at the turn of the new century Jan. 1, 2000 founding EB Works to initially create information retrieval and knowledge management tools. Those were heady times and clients readily flowed his way. Then came the dot.com debacle, which slowed the tech economy followed by Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism. All are making for tough economic times, but Eaton is succeeding with a switch of emphasis to e-commerce strategic consulting services and related technology implants.

He looked a little weary at lunchtime in late October, glancing occasionally out at the woods behind the parking lot. If sobered by the economic times, Eaton is hardly throwing in the towel. He's wedded to life in the Valley and building a tech community. But he's well aware that until the economy improves he must "market, market, market."

TRIPP PEAKE The Tech Community's Financial Wizard


You better be determined and energetic if you want to find TRIPP PEAKE, the Valley's one and only from most accounts venture capitalist. With fund-raising just about complete for Long River Ventures Limited Partnership (LTD), the venture capital firm he founded in 2000, Peake is actively scouting Connecticut River Valley based high tech companies he considers worthy of funding in a down economy. So far, he's funded two: Profile Systems, which is based in Springfield (though owner Mark Parent lives in Amherst) and a second company Protedyne, which is based in Windsor, Ct.

Don't try to track Peake down in the office he maintains around a corner and hidden down a long hallway in 100 Venture Way. The Valley's financial wizard admits he's out more than he's in. When you do locate him you'll find someone as congenial as he is upbeat on the Valley's tech potential. This is a man in his prime -- a husband and father of young children -- who has been willing to take a risk on the Valley because he sincerely believes "this region has tremendous potential for growing high tech businesses both start ups and those with long-term growth."

An expat from the New Haven consulting scene who came to Amherst 1994-95 to be the first president of Mass. Ventures Inc., Peake also believes the Valley is "significantly underserved by traditional venture capital services." (For the initiated, Mass Ventures is a UMass-spawned, not-for-profit incubator of early-stage high growth companies, some high tech and others not.) And he's directing his considerable experience in "consulting and hand holding" to infusing capital into a region he whose "potential hasn't yet been realized."

KATHY WALSH-BURKE The Unintentional Techie with a Heart

KATHY WALSH-BURKE is cooking up far more than pasta at Ladyslipper Lane in Amherst. An oncology social worker by training and full-time professor of social work at Springfield College, Springfield, Mass., this vibrant 47-year-old mother of two teenage daughters and wife of a stockbroker is co-principal with her sister Shirley Walsh Suter of a growing online business www.comfortcandles.com, which has been in business since 1998.

Recently cited in the New York Times, www.comfortcandles.com sells handsomely packaged bereavement candles with their own satin pouches, comfort candles, candles for the loss of a child, and even a new line in mourning candles for pets. After Sept. 11, the three-year-old company donated 500 candles to families of firefighters and police killed at the World Trade Center in New York.

A Northampton native, Walsh-Burke moved back to the Valley from Boston in 1985 with her young family when she completed her doctorate at Boston College. Besides the opportunity to be close to extended family, she adores the Valley's quality of life.

"I see beautiful farmlands and forests every day, my husband coaches soccer and serves on town meeting and my daughters rock climb and study Chinese at Amherst high school. What more could you ask for?," she asks, pointing to the Holyoke Range peeking behind a pond near her Amherst home where she likes to ramble after a high-speed day.

As for the Valley's HIDDEN-TECH economy, of which she is a relative newcomer, Walsh-Burke says the "Western Mass. cyber universe has increased exponentially in the last three years. I'm finding a vast amount of resources - from online suppliers of manufacturing materials to Web consultants to retail linking opportunities."

DAVID WASHBURN Combining Tech with Psychology

DAVID WASHBURN has operated Amherst Information Architects from a contemporary home on Woodlot Road in Amherst since Oct. 3, 1989. He came to the Valley 20 years ago after working in Geneva, Switzerland because he saw it "as a place that was happening, where there would be a lot of high tech start up companies." Over the course of two decades, this developer of custom Information Technology (IT) applications for banks and corporations is finally seeing his vision of a mini-Silicon Valley take hold in the Happy/Cosmic Valley.

"We've gotten beyond that initial play stage and companies around here are starting to look at concrete tech services they can provide. They're thinking more realistically about being tied to specific needs that people have, unlike the dot.com world where they were trying to create a need," says Washburn. .

A psychology major at Boston University, husband of a social worker and father of two teenage sons, Washburn somehow manages to affect a laid-back air despite having an intense, inquiring mind. He's as interested in management as he is in the technology he creates, and has developed an IT Assessment he presents to clients from Australia to Connecticut, which promotes a tie-in between business strategies and technology purchases.

As for himself, when he isn't dreaming of decamping to Bali while he treks through Amherst meadows with his dog, Washburn is yearning to develop software solutions for a mass market. With a world directed towards security, he thinks he may just have a winner in a risk management/security tool for corporations. But with clients grabbing his attention right now and a second son heading into college next year, he's not rushing into production.

"I can't take the risks right now, but I'm hoping in the future I will be able to do so. I do see the value of the Internet being enhanced in a couple of years by all of this," he says, the yearning to join in the next tech wave shining in his clear, blue eyes.

ALAN HURWITZ - Global Tech Team Builder with a Valley Sensibility

Ten years ago when ALAN HURWITZ first started attending meetings at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce after moving to the Valley from hometown Winthrop, Mass., he would encounter a handful of business people doing anything related to technology. Nowadays, he encounters everyone from Web designers, to consultants and actual tech manufacturers.

"In those years the Valley wasn't terribly technological, but I am seeing the emergence of a tech community today. Now as many as a third people of the people I talk to at the Chamber are involved in computer-related technology," says Hurwitz, a noted organizational change expert who operates Alan Hurwitz Associates out of his home on Station Road in Amherst where he lives with his wife, a social worker, and a beloved pooch.

As someone who spends a good part of his time analyzing cultures, he can see how well high tech companies fit into the generally liberal, environmentally-conscious ethos of the Valley. "The sort of tech industries sprouting are clean, often home-based, non-polluting and meet the sensitivities of the area," he notes.

Hurwitz, who has a wry sense of humor and a twinkle in his blue eyes, represents the sort of Valley consultant who makes a home here and even has been known to conduct cell phone conferences with clients from his swimming pool when weather permits -- but does most of his business in places like Panama, Costa Rica and Russia. Admittedly more attuned to the "international tech community" than to the evolving tech community in the Valley, Hurwitz' tech clients have included Digital Equipment Corporation and Travelocity.com.

When he does dabble in the tech world, it's usually with the aim of improving organizations and communication. A specialist in team development, Hurwitz often works developing global teams and helping them overcome the limitations of distance and make better use of technology as a communication tool.

NATHAN TRELOAR A Valley Tech Start-up Survivor


After years of watching others manage tech companies in the Valley, NATHAN TRELOAR decided he could do it better. Last summer, Treloar, Sally Kleinfeldt, Matt King, and Peter Richards four local software engineers with experience at several Valley high-tech startups founded AvaQuest to provide customized Web search engine capabilities.

Treloar, who is AvaQuest President, says the group met while working at Sovereign Hill Software (see Paul McOwen.) According to Treloar, "Sovereign Hill failed to make it big and was sold in early 1999 to Cambridge-based Dataware Technologies."

Soft-spoken yet determined, Treloar is highly respected by long-time Valley techies such as Eaton and Washburn who value both his knowledge and business smarts. Despite his youthful appearance Treloar is 40 -- he brings more than 14 years of engineering and management experience working with decision support, information retrieval, and knowledge management systems to his new company.

Asked to reply via email as to his motivations for starting his own company, Treloar replied: " 1) A desire to feed and clothe my family, 2) a desire to stay in an area I love (for the reasons I mentioned before), 3) a desire to have control over my own destiny after years of working in mismanaged companies, 4) a desire to do things I like to do, and 5) the belief that the skills, expertise, and contacts I've made over the past years can be the foundation for a viable


As for what's keeping Treloar in the Valley when he could join any number of search engine development companies he has a simple answer: "Quality of life. Where else can you get up in the morning, bike five minutes to work past fields with cows, collaborate on a project with a client in New Zealand using state-of-the-art technology, and see a Neville Brother's concert that evening in Noho?"

LAURA RADWELL E-Commerce Strategy with Style

You want e-commerce business strategy presented with just that right amount of design panache and one of the key people to turn to in the Valley is LAURA RADWELL. Although she's a Valley veteran meaning she's lived in the region for almost 30 years Radwell still looks like she's walked off Fifth Avenue in her native New York City. And her Web designs reflect that sleek, edgy New York feel that provide local companies a highly professional appearance at reasonable Valley prices.

Graphics may be one of Radwell's strengths, but don't call the principal of Radwell Communications tucked down at the end of quiet Munroe Street in Northampton a Web designer. She is quite emphatic about bringing much more than design to the table. Clients will tell you that Radwell is quite adept at helping clients articulate their aims, goals and missions and then translating their marketing strategy into classy materials.

"My main focal point of working with clients is to implement a business strategy whether on the Web or in other mediums. I help them turn their marketing strategies into tangible materials, and also specialize in design branding," she explains over some soup at Paul & Elizabeth's, a favorite Northampton restaurant.

As for the emerging Valley tech community, Radwell says "nowadays there is a tech community when there wasn't an overt presence in 1972 when I came here. I see a definite progression of not only the bigger companies that UMass is developing, but small companies. What's interesting is watching academics around here melding with entrepreneurs."

Not all her clients are members of this emerging tech economy, but Radwell feels the presence of tech companies at "business gatherings and signage around the Valley. The presence of an IT community is becoming obvious," she says.

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