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October 16. 2012 11:58PM

'Silicon Millyard' is emerging along the Merrimack

MANCHESTER — The Silicon Millyard, an emerging high-tech hub in revitalized mill buildings along the Merrimack River, may soon take a place alongside the Silicon Valley of California, Cambridge, Mass., and Boulder, Colo., as an innovation hot spot in America.

But it won't happen by imitating what those urban areas have done to attract entrepreneurial energy and global investment. New Hampshire will have to chart its own course.

“We're New Hampshire and I think New Hampshire folks do things a little differently,” said Jamie Coughlin, CEO of the abi Innovation Hub, a nonprofit business incubator located in the heart of the Millyard district. “We need to build our own ecosystem.”

As keynote speaker at the 12th annual Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce Infrastructure Summit, Coughlin said the slogan for the Silicon Millyard, a term coined by his organization a year ago, could be “Live Free and Start.”

He told the gathering of more than 200 business leaders at the Center of New Hampshire on Tuesday that the emerging ecosystem of entrepreneurs and the resources they need for success is already in place, but needs careful care and feeding to ensure it blossoms into a full-blown economic phenomenon.

Coughlin rattled off a list of startups like Dyn networking services, a Millyard-based company that started from zero a decade ago, now has approximately 200 employees and recently obtained $38 million in venture capital. Not only do these companies enhance the reputation of New Hampshire as the “Startup State,” their founders provide the messianic zeal needed to inspire others.

An emerging innovation hub needs evangelists like Dyn CEO Jeremy Hitchcock to motivate and attract like-minded entrepreneurs and to start organizations that will eventually spin off the next round of innovators, he said.

In addition to a growing number of evangelists and mentors, he said New Hampshire also has the support programs and funding mechanisms in place to propel the Silicon Millyard to national recognition.

The abi Innovation Hub is one such program. Its precursor, the Amoskeag Business Incubator, until recently focused on providing shared office space and administrative services to new companies. When Coughlin took over 15 months ago, he changed the name and mission.

While the organization still provides office space and services, it has added creative funding programs like the “Tech-Out,” a pitch contest for startups in which the winners get investments ranging from $50,000 to $30,000.

On a larger scale, he pointed to the Granite Fund, a collaboration between one of New Hampshire's few venture capital companies, Borealis Ventures, and the New Hampshire Business Finance Authority that hopes to generate $30 million in investment capital for Granite State startups.

The state's emerging partnerships between industry and education are helping to set the stage for getting students engaged in the entrepreneurial process, and when it comes to “livablility,” New Hampshire is hard to beat, he said.

The combination of those six factors — evangelists, programs, funding, services, education and livable communities — adds up to a success story in the making.

“This is a true ecosystem that is developing, that is robust, that is sustainable,” Coughlin said, urging a statewide, collaborative approach.

“My one frustration with New Hampshire is that we're pretty much rugged individuals. That's a good thing when it comes to entrepreneurs. The tough thing is that we don't talk to each other, town to town. I think we have to think bigger than the Silicon Millyard. This has to be a New Hampshire play. We have to have a united front to put all these people together and say, 'This is the New Hampshire way.'”

The day-long conference also included a legislative update by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, along with panel discussions on the potential economic impact of passenger rail, expansion of Manchester-based post-secondary schools, development projects launched in a tough economy, and the future of funding for state infrastructure projects.

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Dave Solomon may be reached at dsolomon@unionleader.com.



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