Reinventing the Rust Belt - with microchips

Scott Jones has already changed the world once.

In the 1980s, while working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, he patented the world's most advanced voice-mail system. Today millions of people use it.

Now, as a thirtysomething multimillionaire, Mr. Jones wants to change the world again. Only this time he wants to do it from, of all places, his native Indianapolis.

Yet this family-centered city in a family-centered region may be the ideal place to achieve his goal: bringing easy-to-use, high-tech products into family rooms.

Whether he succeeds or not, Jones represents a new breed of Midwestern entrepreneur. They're trying to leverage the region's strengths - families, manufacturing, even cornfields - and morph them into the digital heartland.

"The Midwest has been trying to take its traditional bases and infuse high tech into them," says Rob Atkinson, who tracks "the new economy" for the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute. "The question is: How entrepreneurial is this region, which comes out of a tradition of long-term employment and big firms doing mass production?"

The Midwest is no Silicon Valley. Last year, California had more than 60 high-tech initial public offerings. In Indianapolis, there's just one publicly traded tech company. And throughout the Midwest, there are shortages of capital and qualified people.

Yet there are already some success stories:

*Made2Manage, the publicly traded Indianapolis firm, sells software to manufacturers, helping them automate everything from shop-floor machines to accounts receivable. Given that 40 percent of all Indianapolis jobs are in manufacturing, the firm has soared. It recently opened branch offices in Silicon Valley and Israel.

*There's Detroit's Automation Alley, a major R&D hub responsible for more than half of the nation's robotics exports. It has spawned machines such as a 3-D imager that is now being used in lumber mills among other places. It can scan an incoming log, then use the Internet to check lumber prices. It then cuts sizes that are most in demand - and will bring the highest prices.

*In Kansas City, telecommunications giant Sprint is involved in the country's biggest construction project, a new hub to help house its growing fiber-optic network.

*Jones's company, Escient, is based in the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel. It recently raised $14.75 million in capital in less than a month - a big score even by Silicon Valley standards. With Escient, Jones wants to make his family-friendly technology.

He's not the only one. The whole industry is eyeing the family room as a new frontier. "Bill Gates desperately wants to compete in there," says Jones, "but it's a whole different world." He hopes the tenacity he learned in Boston, along with the family focus of his native realm, will give him the edge.

But to really get a peek at Jones's vision of the future, it helps to get a tour of his megahouse. Built by a bank president in the 1930s, it was 10,000 square feet when Jones bought it. He's adding 15,000 more.

The butternut-wood-paneled library looks low-tech at first glance, but hit one button on the touch-screen remote control and a giant TV screen rolls down from the ceiling. Want to channel surf? Each station - CNN, NBC, etc - has its own button on the remote's screen. There's even a button to light the fireplace.

Indeed, one-touch buttons are key to Jones's vision of a simplified high-tech future.

In the kitchen is Jones's TuneBase, a device his firm makes that lets him scroll through his CDs with a remote connected to his TV. Every time he adds a CD, it dials an Internet site to download the names of the artist and songs (which aren't coded on CDs).

Eventually, Jones plans to use this Internet feature to make a record of each user's CD collection - with their permission, of course. Then he'd use artificial intelligence to suggest new CDs the user might like. With a touch of a button, the user could buy the CD.

But can high tech succeed in the Midwest?

There are hurdles. One is airline service. When his commercial flights were canceled, Jones had to spend $20,000 for a private jet to take him to a Las Vegas meeting.

Another is that many Midwestern college graduates skip town for Silicon Valley. But the region has lured many back with quality-of-life carrots - shorter commutes, no smog.

And, in contrast to Silicon Valley, where employees jump ship often, people tend to stay at Midwest firms - a bonus in a business so heavily reliant on individual talent.

In the end, Jones thinks he'll make it. "People used to think I was silly" for starting a high-tech firm in the Midwest, he says. "Now they're paying attention."

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