Here’s how small-town America is primed to beat Silicon Valley in innovation

As Rackspace’s Futurist I’m known as one of Silicon Valley’s top tech influencers. I didn’t say that, Ivy did.

So, when I say Silicon Valley is being beaten, and is at risk of losing more companies to small towns, here’s why. In the past week I’ve visited three of those towns, Urbana, and Champaign Illinois and Blacksburg, Virginia.

You might not know, but YouTube, Tesla, PayPal, Mozilla started in Urbana/Champaign at University of Illinois there, and Blacksburg is home to many of the leading thinkers of autonomous vehicles, and others, thanks to being the home of Virginia Tech.

Yes, Silicon Valley has traditionally come to places like this and convinced innovators and companies to come to San Francisco area to build their technologies. Heck, just this week Apple grabbed a computer science professor out of Blacksburg to work on its AR/VR efforts.

I’m seeing signs that the flow of talent from small town America to Silicon Valley is reversing, though, and wanted to understand it.

One huge reason? Housing costs. Everyone loved taunting me with their homes with big yards that cost a few hundred thousand compared to more than a million back home.

But it goes further than just housing costs. After all, that gap has always been there as far as I can remember.

No, now they are winning people and company because way of life is much more friendly to families and, small town leaders have worked to fill in a “livability gap.” Things like having nice bars, music events, and restaurants for entrepreneurs to hang out in after a long day working. Things like high speed internet. In Virginia they have gigabit wifi in some areas.

Here, let’s take a look at some of the companies and innovators I visited who are doing amazing work.

  1. Michael Fleming is running TORC Robotics, where he’s building self-driving tractors and cars (works for a bunch of brands) in Blacksburg, Virginia. Why? He told me it comes back to the talent he finds at Virginia Tech, where his team came in third in the DARPA challenge back in 2007. Heck, just look across the street at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, where Google and others test out their self driving cars on its “smart road.” Video tour here.
  2. Frasca is building new kinds of flight simulators for commercial pilots and military in Champaign, Illinois. I got a video tour here.
  3. John Deere has its R&D lab in Champaign, Illinois, where it’s developing new technologies for farmers. Here, take a video tour with me. While we are talking about farming, visit Agrible with me, which is growing virtual crops to tell farmers what to do in their fields next to have better crop outcomes.
  4. is in Blacksburg, Virginia. Here’s my video visit. Why? They are seeing a good community of people who are pushing Blockchain technology (right next door is Bitshares, a new crypto currency).
  5. Aeroprobe is building a new kind of additive manufacturing (think huge 3D printer for metals) along with building new kinds of wind speed sensors for drones. Video tour here.
  6. Steve Lavalle, VR pioneer (his team built the sensor systems in Oculus Rift) moved back to Illinois and is running a VR lab at the University there. Visit that lab with me.
  7. Wolfram Research continues to develop interesting new technologies from software for mathematicians to an engine that lets people do research on the Internet in ways that Google hasn’t yet enabled. Visit their headquarters in Illinois.
  8. Visit Yahoo’s R&D lab with me in Champaign Illinois and understand why it kept this sizable lab in Illinois instead of moving it to Silicon Valley.
  9. Visit a group of startups housed in Enterprise Works, part of the research park in Champaign, Illinois. You’ll see everything from battery innovators to new kinds of software to run police departments. Come along on this quick paced tour of about 10 companies. Part I. Part II.
  10. See where famous video game “Saints Row” is developed, at the headquarters of Volition, come on a video tour with me.

Other influences:

  1. Virginia Tech has a crazy $15 million VR building.
  2. Pixo builds mobile apps and other technologies for other companies in Illinois and its founders sit down with me and talk to me about why the local community is gaining strength.
  3. The world’s biggest/fastest computer is in Champaign, Illinois. Here follow me through the Petascale Computing Facility.

If you watch even a few of these videos you’ll see just how high quality these companies and innovators are and why I believe these small communities are primed to see rapid growth over the next decade as both new kinds of startups and bigger companies decide to move more people to these kinds of communities due to the very high costs in Silicon Valley.

I came away so impressed by what I saw over last week. Hope you are too.