U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Rocky River said he thought Silicon Valley needed to know more about the technology assets and opportunities of Northeast Ohio. So he put together a small group that included businesspeople and academics and went west after Labor Day to ask the question, “Why not Cleveland?”
He came back believing Northeast Ohio has an opportunity to grow its technology sector.
“My background, coming from the technology world and spending some time in Silicon Valley, I thought it’d be a really neat idea to put together sort of a delegation to go out west and pitch what we’re trying to do in Northeast Ohio,” he said in a telephone interview, “but then also to listen to some of the ideas that are percolating around Silicon Valley and try to apply them to what we’re doing. It was a great trip, across the board.”
Though Gonzalez may be best known for his years playing football at Ohio State University and in the NFL, he also knows his way around Northern California’s high-tech scene.
After football, he got his MBA at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and then spent two-and-a-half years in San Francisco as chief operating officer for an education management software company, now called Informed K12, before returning to Northeast Ohio. A Republican, he was elected to Congress in 2018, replacing the retiring Jim Renacci.
His congressional status probably made it easier for the group to get in to meet some of the executives. However, Bernie Moreno, president of the Bernie Moreno Cos., who was on the trip, said that “while the businesspeople wanted to talk about legislation, Gonzalez was always quick to pivot to asking that if they were considering expanding into the Midwest, they should be thinking about Northeast Ohio.”
The group spent the day after Labor Day in the technology hot spot, taking four meetings with corporate and financial execs.
“The question that I’ve always had is, ‘Why not Cleveland? Why Not Northeast Ohio?,’ ” Gonzalez said.
He and the others asked that as they pitched the assets of the region and the universities doing high-tech research and graduating digitally prepared students.
“I wanted to make sure that we were starting to get on their radar,” Gonzalez said.
That’s important right now. Silicon Valley companies are decentralizing as the cost of doing business in the San Francisco Bay area only gets more and more expensive.
“Some of these larger tech companies, as they grow and expand, they want to do that outside of San Francisco,” Gonzalez noted. “One (of the reasons is) because the labor market there is incredibly tight. Wages are very, very high, and so they’re looking around the country at places like Pittsburgh and Austin and Denver and Ann Arbor, even at Columbus. Why not Cleveland?”
One reason may be unfamiliarity with the region, said Gonzalez’s travel partner Ari Lewis, a tech investor and partner of the Green Block Group, a tech industry communications consultancy that also has an office in Columbus.
“People need to be educated about Cleveland,” said Lewis, a Case Western Reserve University graduate who splits his time between Cleveland and New York, where he grew up. “A lot of these folks just really didn’t have the information.”
Suzanne Rivera, vice president for research and technology management at CWRU, was glad to have the opportunity to let the tech companies know that her school and Cleveland State University have the faculty expertise and the emerging technology they need, as well as producing quality computer science graduates who could be great employees for them.
On one visit, the group made its pitch to an executive from Opendoor, a company that acts as an online middleman between home buyers and sellers. Rivera said the company is building its computer engineering staff around the country.
“To have an audience with their chief legal counsel and be able to make the argument to her that Cleveland should be considered for their expansion was a wonderful opportunity,” Rivera said. “She seemed willing to consider it.”
In addition to meeting with Opendoor’s chief legal counsel, the group met with executives at Rigetti Computing, a maker of powerful computers; the Founders Fund, a venture capital firm whose portfolio includes Airbnb, Lyft and Spotify; and a group of blockchain firms at Coinbase, a digital currency exchange.
Nigamanth Sridhar, dean of the College of Graduate Studies at Cleveland State University, said one takeaway for him was the advice that Northeast Ohio should play up its strengths in health care and manufacturing. The trip also reaffirmed for him the way local universities are preparing their students for the work of the future.
“It gave us a little more wind to our sails as we work on new and innovative interdisciplinary programs that bring subject matter from multiple disciplines into a single degree program for students,” he said.
Moreno, the driving force behind the upcoming Blockland Cleveland conference to promote blockchain applications, said he was energized by what he saw on the trip and that he believes there is an opening to grow an innovative, digital economy in Northeast Ohio.
Gonzalez agreed, adding he thinks the region needs to make more of these pitch trips to Silicon Valley.
“You will never convince me that Northeast Ohio can’t participate in this and thrive in the innovation economy, in the software space,” he said. “We have everything you need. We have incredible universities, we have people who are graduating with the skills that are needed. But, you know, we need to go out and get it. We actually have to go out and make our case and fight for the business.”