ST. LOUIS — Looking over a St. Louis skyline that includes a vacant office building and a notch of the Mississippi River, Dick Fleming gets a gleam in his eye. "Could we become the Silicon Valley of biotech and life-sciences?" he asks. "Absolutely!"
His enthusiasm reverberates everywhere a development head (like Mr. Fleming) aims to boost an economy and add jobs. To succeed, cities all over the world are turning themselves into Silicon somethings.
There's Silicon Alley (New York), Silicon Orchard (Wenatchee Valley, Wash.), and Silicon Snowbank (Minneapolis). So many Silicon Prairies dot the landscape (nine at last count) that the one in Kansas City is suing one in Oklahoma for trademark violations. The phenomenon has spread overseas: Silicon Plateau (India) and Silicon Bog (Ireland).
Other high-tech hopefuls are busy creating Multimedia Gulch (San Francisco), Telecom Corridor (Richardson, Texas), and WebPort (Portland, Maine). Rather than merely trying to duplicate the valley across the country, these cities are relying on local strengths to give them a toehold in the 21st century economy. In New York, it's graphics; in St. Louis, perhaps it will be biotech.
So far, such efforts have created more names than success stories. But cities keep trying.
Despite the unpredictability of the process, most everyone agrees other Silicon Valleys will pop up. "They'll happen over time for one main reason: Silicon Valley isn't big enough," says Jeff Christian, president of Cleveland-based Christian & Timbers, an executive search firm. Land and housing costs are becoming so expensive that exploding high-tech sectors, such as the Internet and telecommunications, will spill over elsewhere.
Among Mr. Christian's picks for possible high-tech boomtowns: Haifa, Israel, and Bangalore, India. "There's a possibility to encourage the engineering of them [new Silicon Valleys]," he adds. But "I don't think there is a way of guaranteeing success."
Recipe for success
By now, everyone knows the formula that turned a onetime strip of California apricot orchards into the world's leading generator of high-tech wealth. Ingredients include world-class research universities, a cluster of high-tech companies, abundant venture capital, high quality of life, and a culture that encourages risk-taking and forgives failure. But uncorking Silicon Valley's magic remains tricky.
To be sure, some regions do stand out for their transformation into high-tech regions, such as North Carolina's Research Triangle and Boston's Route 128 (although it has slipped of late). In the early 1990s, Austin, Texas, lured away so many semiconductor and computer firms even Silicon Valley got scared and created an organization to improve the valley's quality of life.
Then the Internet boom came along and the valley was off and running again with fast-track companies like Netscape, Yahoo!, and hundreds of other start-ups.
Indeed, the Internet is fueling the next big wave of high-tech entrepreneurs. Many cities - such as New York and its Silicon Alley - hope to siphon off at least part of the energy by playing to their local strengths.
Riding Internet wave
"For graphic artists, writers, photographers, New York is a place to be," says John Delaney, a partner at the New York office of Morrison & Foerster, an international law firm.
Although Internet advertising agencies sprang up first in places such as Boston and San Francisco, the most successful ones have emerged in New York, the nation's traditional advertising capital, he points out.
Similarly, local software firms focused on financial services have thrived because of their proximity to Wall Street. "Where the Silicon wannabes have had more trouble is in [mainstream] hardware and software," he says.
That's why some cities are focusing on other technologies, such as robotics (Pittsburgh) and agricultural biotechnology (here in St. Louis).
Late last month, Monsanto, a biotech giant based in suburban St. Louis, joined forces with two local universities and the Missouri Botanical Garden to announce a $146 million plant-science center.
The new center, slated to open in 2000, aims to undertake the basic research in plant science to boost crop productivity and nutrition. Of course, its backers also hope the new center will attract even more such agriculturally based biotechnology research to the region and encourage new "ag-bio" startups.
The area boasts several advantages: genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology research at Washington University in St. Louis, a strong agricultural school at the University of Missouri at Columbia, world-class botanical research at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Monsanto's own leading-edge work in agricultural biotechnology and plant breeding.
To take advantage of those resources, St. Louis will have to elbow past bigger and better-known biotech centers, such as San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Research Triangle. St. Louis's focus on agricultural research may help the region stand out. But a study done for the center's planners in January concluded that as a biotech center the region "remains largely off everybody's radar screens."
Turning those perceptions around will take more aggressive promotion as well as abundant venture capital for start-up companies at their earliest stages, economic development officials say. Will that be enough to transform conservative St. Louis into the next Silicon Valley?
"It is never going to go completely to the other extreme - a let-it-rip, Silicon Valley, wild-and-crazy entrepreneurial world," says Fleming of the Regional Commerce & Growth Association. "But it does offer opportunities."