Ken Russell likes the term “Silicon Prairie” to describe the burgeoning technology scene in Wichita. The new executive director of Wichita State University’s Applied Technology Acceleration Institute (ATAI) is one of the players involved in increasing the region's educational opportunities and tech talent pool.
The former Cisco executive wants to remold ATAI into Centers of Innovation, where students and faculty can engage in practical learning and research.
“I want practical experience for our students that they wouldn’t get anywhere else in the country or the world, for that matter,” Russell says.
Russell says that Wichita State University's planned Innovation Campus, a five-building complex designed to provide research facilities, resources and space for technology-oriented startup companies, was one of the reasons he decided to come to WSU.
“It hovered around how we could find new opportunities for students that are more practical and applied." Russell says. "And there are opportunities for faculty to get involved.”
Another of Russell’s goals is to find more ways to connect the university to local companies, citing the University of Florida and especially Massachusetts Institute of Technology as higher education institutions that have done a “good job with the confluence of academia and the local business community.”
Wichitans should benefit from the confluence as well. Russell says a central point of the plan is creating new jobs, encouraging graduates to stay in the area and either start new businesses or join established companies.
The Downtown Tech Scene
Downtown Wichita has an interesting mix of established tech companies and some that use a drop-in office to conduct their business. Both models seem to be doing well.
Smaller tech concerns, from one-person startups to companies that need more space, have found a home at The Labor Party, a coworking space on North Mosley Street. The 5,000-square-foot building has 2,000 square feet of private-office space while the rest is common area, a kitchen, and conference room and lounge areas. It’s a popular place for techies.
“We’re full as far as private offices go,” says Kenton Hansen, The Labor Party’s co-founder.
Rental plans range from one day ($20) to permanent spaces ($175 per month). Diets In Review, Go Banana, Tiller Creative and Whole Foods Wichita are a few of the companies who are either headquartered or spend time at The Labor Party.
While Wichita’s tech scene is growing, some of its stars are not big names yet, something Hansen is working to change. Through events like Startup Weekend – where entrepreneurs learn the ropes of starting a business and launching successful companies – and sites like StartupWichita.com, he is getting people connected.
Wichita’s High Touch Technologies turned 30 in 2014, old by tech standards, but Wayne Chambers, High Touch CEO and chairman of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, is as interested in getting techies connected as Hansen is.
Chambers says that “there’s very sophisticated tech involved in many of Wichita’s important industries, including agriculture, aviation and medical. There’s an underground of tech expertise in this community that gets little recognition.” The chamber’s Tech Alliance was created to change that.
The goal is to get people together “in a loose setting. It may be in a bar, or it may be in an Unconference,” Chambers says. "There’s no framework; people get together and share entrepreneurial wants and wishes and ideas.”
High Touch has five offices in the U.S. and provides consultative selling of cloud and data center services, custom development and managed IT for U.S., U.K. and Canadian companies. It has about 200 employees, of which 135 are in Wichita.
The company does a little bit of everything for its customers, Chambers says. “We’ll help with an e-commerce website,” he says. “Or we’ll help them with mobility so that they can reach their staff through their iPhones or through a tablet. We provide a little deeper, a little broader capability for them on an on-demand basis.”
Through public and private efforts, Wichita’s thriving and growing tech community is coming together to advance the community.
Learn more about Wichita's cool companies.