Over the past few years, a three-block radius just across the Missouri line in Kansas City has developed into a hotbed of technological innovation. In what former K-State student Adam Arredondo describes as "a completely unplanned movement," 24 technology-based startup companies now reside in three houses on State Line Road, collectively forming the Kansas City Startup Village.
Arredondo, who co-founded an interactive community events website called Local Ruckus, says "startups" are similar to small businesses, but they tend to be more focused on innovation, particularly in technology. One reason for the high concentration of startups in Kansas City is the recent establishment of Google Fiber, which offers a free, public Internet connection that is up to 100 times faster than average broadband networks.
"Out of about 1,100 possible cities, Kansas City was chosen as the one to get Google Fiber," Arredondo said of Google’s new project, which just announced plans to expand the network to Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah. "The tech world is watching to see what we do with it. Even beyond just the tech guys, everyone has kind of acknowledged that we have to do something with it."
The presence of Fiber in Kansas City has already begun to spur economic development in the region. Arredondo knows of at least 12 out-of-state residents who moved to Kansas City to found a startup.
"It’s been a real lightning rod for our community," he said.
Arredondo, who says his office is decked out in K-State purple, is one of many former Wildcats to find a home in the Startup Village. Toby Rush, who graduated in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and is now the CEO of EyeVerify, is another. In the last year, EyeVerify has raised $3.8 million in funding for its goal of "killing the password" by developing technology for cell phone cameras to scan users’ eyes to verify their identity.
Probably the most high-profile startup in the Village, according to Arredondo, is Leap2, the brainchild of 1992 K-State alum Mike Farmer.
Farmer, who was also a student senator, studied marketing at K-State. After spending several years working for former Sen. Bob Dole, Farmer jumped at the opportunity to move to Silicon Valley. He then received his MBA from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before moving back to Kansas about 10 years ago.
Leap2 is Farmer’s second search company (the first experimented with voice recognition technology on mobile devices.) Leap2′s re-imagined search experience, an alternative to established companies like Google and Bing, integrates more visual and social aspects than a traditional search engine.
"My big ‘ah-ha’ moment came a couple years ago when touchscreens on phones were becoming popular, and I realized that you can actually grab and move the Internet," Farmer said.
The main difference between Leap2 and search engines like Google, Farmer said, is the absence of a list of results. Rather than simply presenting a list of links with text descriptions, Leap2 displays images of full web pages, so a user knows what to expect on a page before actually loading it. Another key aspect of Leap2 is its focus on social media, including Twitter, which Farmer says is utilized mainly by younger Internet users as a browsing platform.
"We’re kind of bringing the social media generation back to the web, but at the same time, exposing the older generation of web users to Twitter," Farmer said.
A new feature of Leap2 called Perspectives is currently in the final stages of production and is expected to be unveiled in the next two to three weeks. Farmer says some of the inspiration for the feature stems from Pinterest.
"Perspectives creates a vision of curated search for topics or subject matter, and actually curates a search experience for the individual user," he said. "It’s really going to play well with the social media generation."
Farmer credits Google Fiber with bringing attention to technology in the Kansas City area and igniting the imaginations of potential innovators. It wasn’t until Fiber was integrated into the Kansas City market that Leap2 relocated to the Village house it occupies now with several other startups, but Farmer says the access typically is not an everyday necessity.
"We’ve done a few things with it on certain projects where you need to pull down a lot of data, fast, but day-to-day operations aren’t impacted very much," he said.
Despite the opportunities for innovation and economic development that Fiber helps sustain, it isn’t without its detractors. In an April 26 Forbes article, Haydn Shaughnessy questions the effort’s staying power, citing other Google projects that have fizzled out or been abruptly cut. According to Shaughnessy, it could prove impractical to build the fiber-optic infrastructure necessary to support a significant market for Fiber.
Another concern raised by PandoDaily’s Jason Calacanis in an April 19 article is that Fiber could eventually render cable and telecom companies like Verizon and Sprint obsolete. By effectively providing free Wi-Fi connectivity in major markets, Fiber could potentially cripple 3G and 4G Internet providers.
For better or for worse, Fiber has become an important reality in Kansas City. So far, the project has spawned a tech culture that has allowed dozens of startups an opportunity to harness its power for everyday applications. Where it will go from there remains to be seen.