Monday, July 12, 2010

Rust Belt Investment Geography

You go where you know. That's my model of talent migration geography. This landscape is similar to the flows of venture capital and the diffusion of knowledge (e.g. innovation). Proximity is a powerful predictor for all three. I look at diaspora linkages as a major exception to this rule. Most regions look right past these opportunities, chalking up any outmigration as a loss.

I see that a native New Brunswicker was primarily responsible for convincing Areva to take a long hard look at New Brunswick. He made the case internally that NB should be a serious market for the French multinational firm. Now I see that an ex-Monctonian played an important role in bringing the new CGI IT centre to Moncton. That facility is initially just an outsourced operation for Atlantic Lottery - they claim to be plans to build it much bigger.

No one else understands the economic greenfields of Atlantic Canada as well as the expatriates from that part of the world. If you are looking for a guide to the blue oceans of the globalization backwaters, then seek the counsel of a dynamo outmigrant who is intimate with its parochial geography.

The same relationship exists between shrinking Rust Belt cities. The money in Pittsburgh gets Detroit:

“First of all, we're not afraid of the Rust Belt. We're from Pittsburgh, OK?” said Charles Schliebs, iNetworks' co-founder and managing director. “Detroit had its upheavals a little later than Pittsburgh had its. We see opportunities in Detroit, and we're excited to take advantage of it.

“And we're very excited to have Greg Auner join us. Greg could have taken that lab anywhere in the country, but he kept it in Detroit,” said Schliebs, who said he would bring in representatives of Pittsburgh companies to tour Auner's sensor lab “and pursue relationships.”

In fact, last Thursday, two executives of one of iNetworks' portfolio companies, Propel IT Inc., drove in from Pittsburgh to meet with Auner. Propel makes equipment to reduce diesel fuel consumption by monitoring truck-driver behavior.

The above turns the Ann Arbor problem on its head. The shadow of Detroit's struggles informs both geographic arbitrage and a strong return on investment without the kind of risk associated with countries suffering from political instability. The opportunity flies under the radar, particularly among the people who still live there. Moving between busttown and boomtown puts the dour economy in a different light, riches that only a Rust Belt refugee can see.

Pittsburgh is queer in that the people who did stay there have proven to be productive, stewarding a stunning reversal of fortune. Now these urban pioneers are seeking another Pittsburgh. Investing in the Rust Belt is crazy like a fox. And few people have the knowledge to pull it off.

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