Tuesday, October 09, 2012

RoData Is Rust Belt Chic

I consider Pittsburgh to be a model of a network economy. The outmigration of talent with a shared culture serves as infrastructure for commerce. These pathways are lines of trust that facilitate transaction. As Robert Guest argues in his book "Borderless Economics", trade follows people.

Missing from this abstraction is technological innovation. Transnational ties demand new forms of communication. Various social media platforms can support diaspora communities. Despite this evolution, face-to-face interaction still rules. Pittsburgh is a major exception. Wherever yunz go, you will find lots of other yinzers. It's a domestic version of China's talent export strategy. Geopolitical domination can't be far behind.

Located in Pittsburgh, Sharpsburg to be precise, is a company ready to put the region on the world map for the emerging Talent Economy. A little bit about RoData:

"The whole point of having a successful meeting is that the technology disappears" and lets content take center stage, said John Rodella, 55, the RoData CEO and other co-founder. He and Joe Rodella are brothers who grew up in Penn Hills.

They have evolved the business right along with the video-conferencing industry at large, steadily advancing the technology and scope of their full-service offerings. Even in the economic downturn, RoData has kept a 23-employee workforce and a book of 600 customers across the government, education and private sectors.

Last year, the video-conferencing industry generated revenue of $1.1 billion last year, according to International Data Corp., a Framingham, Mass.-based research firm. The industry is predicted to grow 18 percent this year to total revenue of $1.3 billion, IDC said in a March report covering North America.

The video-conferencing boom is transforming how we do business. The technology is geared towards transnational collaboration. It's tailor-made for Pittsburgh. For example, Polycom (a video-conferencing software company) made a major announcement yesterday:

Polycom, as part of a slew of announcements in New York on Monday, is stressing a new plan to do that. The company is unveiling what it calls its RealPresence CloudAXIS Suite, to help set up videoconferencing sessions among users of systems from companies such as Cisco, Facebook, Google, and Skype (now part of Microsoft).

The technology works by drawing information from what amounts to the user directories of the various systems. Connecting those users starts by sending them a link to join a conferencing session that takes place through a Web browser, rather than through proprietary software.

“We intend to frankly change the face of the collaboration industry,” says Andy Miller, Polycom’s CEO.

Emphasis added. Given the size and quality of Pittsburgh's brain drain, collaborative technologies should be a boon to the region. Over the years, a lot of talent has graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and headed out to Los Angeles. That migration has provided a huge return on investment. Aside from Pittsburgh serving as a set for major Hollywood films, the city boasts a nascent entertainment-tech cluster. Among the most visible evidence of this windfall is the Walt Disney research lab, which demonstrates the wide-ranging applications stemming from animation innovation. Jessica Hodgins is the director there. More germane to this post, she also oversees the Disney labs in Cambridge, MA and California. Pittsburgh is the hub, not another outpost.

RoData is selling what Hodgins could use to run those geographically dispersed labs. Thanks to talent production, Pittsburgh is an important node for many industries. The city would serve as innovation HQ for more than Disney given the development of video-conferencing technology (see above Polycom release). But that's not what drew my attention to RoData. I am attracted to Rust Belt Chic:

The Innovation Economy is shifting from divergence to convergence. The costs of innovation are hitting a ceiling that make Flat World Rust Belt cities attractive to companies such as Electronic Arts. I saw evidence of this yesterday in Sharpsburg, PA (near Pittsburgh) while touring RoData, which is housed in the old Fort Pitt brewery. I'll have more to say about that visit in a future post. Suffice to say for now that RoData is cashing in on the Rust Belt Chic dividend. Talent is ample and inexpensive. So are the gritty cool environs, where innovative talent wants to work. Leaving Silicon Valley for Pittsburgh never looked better.

This post is the future one I promised way back in August. RoData reminds me of how the Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI) has anchored that city's downtown revival. Sharpsburg is an undiscovered gem in search of an economic raison d'ĂȘtre. The Fort Pitt Brewery housing RoData is Art Deco cool. It's the kind of place that suits the next generation of knowledge workers. As more Rust Belt Refugees return home, Sharpsburg is the kind of place I imagine them living. RoData is where they will work.

The YBI is laser-focused on B2B software. It's a tech cluster. Likewise, RoData can serve as the foundation for what I have called distance trust technologies. The need for face-to-face interaction is a problem to overcome, not a law of geography. Sharpsburg could be the location of associated companies dealing with long-distance knowledge transfer. Different parts of Pittsburgh could specialize in different kinds of innovation. RoData points towards that neighborhood's competitive advantage, which is still in the wheelhouse of Pittsburgh's talent production competitive advantage.

To give you a better idea of the synergies, consider the future of telemedicine:

“Another revolution in the delivery of health care,” is how Christine Whipple, executive director of the Pittsburgh Business Group on Health, characterized telemedicine during the group’s annual symposium on Thursday at the Marriott City Center, Downtown.

A survey of businesses released last month by Towers Watson found that 9 percent of companies in the United States are planning to offer telemedicine as part of their health insurance plans next year. And 27 percent are considering adding it in 2014 or 2015.

Telemedicine, which is essentially an online video consultation with a doctor for non-emergency treatment, is gaining traction because it can help deal with two increasing problems in health care: Access to doctors and high costs, said Karl Ulfers, vice president of consumer solutions for Optum Healthcare Solutions, a company that provides telemedicine services.

Given Pittsburgh's demographic challenges, UPMC and Highmark must figure out ways to export services. Eds and meds need effective video-conferencing. Just when you think this boom must bust, along comes another disruptive technology. RoData helps to fill that niche. Developing such a cluster in Sharpsburg would be an even better boost to the regional economy.

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