By Michael Kilburg
They’d rather stay under-the-radar, but small and large tech companies setting up shop in Northern Nevada are helping shape the region’s future.
In a nondescript building just south of Reno-Tahoe International Airport, plans are being laid to achieve greatness in two seemingly disparate fields of innovation: aerospace engineering and building a better sparkler bra for Lady Gaga.
“The Moon this week, Lady Gaga next week, that would be a great way to go,” says Wayne Sawka, the CEO and founder of Digital Solid State Propulsion (DSSP), with a chuckle.
The seven-year-old develops propellants that are both flame resistant and nontoxic. The company’s products ignite with an electrical current, break down into harmless materials and represent innovations in safety for both handlers and the environment.
DSSP focuses on propulsion systems for small satellites and grew from one employee to more than a dozen by securing numerous Department of Defense contracts. Sawka hopes to have some of their products in space within the next few years.
While he jokes about building a better pyrotechnic bra for Lady Gaga, Sawka does have an eye on the entertainment industry. The same fuel that guides satellites may be ideal for indoor fireworks.
“You can do this in an auditorium and not stink anybody out,” Sawka said following a demonstration of the propellant.
DSSP is one of the many under-the-radar companies in Northern Nevada’s technology industry that has experienced growth while the region’s more traditional tourist and manufacturing industries have faltered. Some of the longtime companies based here—Sierra Nevada Corporation, International Game Technology and (more recently) Microsoft Licensing, GP—employ hundreds of people in the area’s unheralded high-tech sector. The segment may be key to taking some of the volatility out of the area’s market equation.
“What I’ve found over the years is that there are a lot of interesting technology companies in Reno that just keep their heads down and nobody really knows about them,” said David Archer, the president and CEO of Nevada’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. “Every year we find companies that we didn’t know about.” Arc expects to see continued drive in the aerospace, high-tech manufacturing and software development fields.
While Nevada lost jobs at an alarming pace between 2006 and 2011, employment in knowledge and technology-based industries grew at an average annual rate of 1.59 percent, according to an analysis completed for the state late last year. Employment in the segment is predicted to grow at an average rate of 2.57 percent annually through 2016, well above growth predictions for similar occupations nationally.
But the state still has room for improvement. Knowledge and technology-based industries comprise only 19 percent of the state’s jobs, compared to 24 percent on a national level.
Hardware, software and web businesses have all been attracted by Northern Nevada’s tax-friendly business environment, low cost of living, sense of community, easy access to government decision-makers, abundant recreation and short commutes. These are precisely the reasons Darik Volpa started his business, Understand.com, in Reno in 2003.
“Personally and professionally, it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve made,” says Volpa, the company’s CEO.
Understand.com develops web-based, animated, educational videos to help medical patients better understand everything from hair loss to spinal surgery. The company started with Volpa and a few contractors, but now employs 20 people in Reno. The company is nearing the education its 15 millionth patient, Volpa says.
During the past year and a half, the CEO has seen the momentum in the region’s tech industry build.
“It really seems to be growing and getting stronger and stronger,” Volpa says.
One hurdle facing the industry is what Volpa describes as a “brand issue,” saying many of the people he recruits inevitably mention Comedy Central’s bumbling cop show Reno 911! as their impression of Northern Nevada.
“I hate to say that, but that is the perception,” Volpa says, adding the area business leaders he has spoken with are all committed to changing outsiders’ impression. “We get a bad rap, but we can fix that.”
In the experience of Jarrod Lopiccolo, the co-founder and CEO of Noble Studios, the young, high energy, tech-minded individuals he’s been able to attract don’t worry about stigmas.
The web design and development company started eight years ago with Lopiccolo and his wife Season on a single laptop. Noble now employs 25 people and moved from Carson City to Reno in September.
While the technology world increasingly moves towards less personal interaction, handshakes are still important in Northern Nevada, Lopiccolo says.
“It’s everything we ever wanted in a community for doing business.”
Nevada, historically, has been slower to adopt technology than California, according to the CEO. But he’s been encouraged by the sight of ranchers with iPhones. Nevadans are proud people and not afraid to take on challenges, Lopiccolo believes.
“I think we’re quick to embrace change,” he says, “when it’s a matter of survival.”
Whether the growth of high-tech in Northern Nevada comes from within or without, it is certainly a current candidate for “best trend in Reno.”
Category: Best of Tahoe 2012
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