Acadiana Equals Innovation

The tipping point may have come in 2012. That year, at an international summit of technology experts in Louisiana, Todd Park, then-chief technology officer for the United States, looked around at the gathering and tapped these words to his Twitter followers:

“Silicon Bayou — aka Lafayette, Louisiana — is the best-kept secret reservoir of innovation mojo in America.”

Park’s tweet followed what Lafayette leaders had preached and practiced for decades: that intelligent investment in technology by city and state leaders would reap a significant return on investment. The proof lies not only in observations by experts like Park, but also in bona fide data.

In 2013, Area Development magazine crunched federal and private data for 21 indicators to determine where 380 U.S. metros rank for economic and job growth. Silicon Valley — the metro San Jose, California, area — ranked No. 2.

No. 1? Lafayette.

“What you are seeing in Lafayette is investments in the knowledge economy paying off,” says Ramesh Kolluru, vice president for research at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (UL Lafayette).

Hub City

Nicknamed “Hub City,” Lafayette is a center of energy production and services in the Gulf of Mexico region. In recent years, Lafayette took steps to diversify its economy and invested in assets that built greater capacity for innovation, says Gregg Gothreaux, president and CEO of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority.

“In addition to energy, Lafayette has positioned itself as a medical, transportation, entertainment, education, finance and retail hub,” Gothreaux says. “It’s our forward-thinking, community-wide initiatives that have allowed economic development, government, education and private investors to attract new technology-intensive businesses and innovations to Acadiana.”

One such initiative is the locally funded Lafayette Utilities System’s fiber-to-the-home-and-business service, which brings 100 percent fiber-optic access to all of Lafayette and provides one-gigabyte-per-second speed. Such capacity enables established technology companies as well as startups to interact seamlessly with offsite clients and employees, and to engage in projects that require real-time analytics.

UL Lafayette, Acadiana’s research university, contributes heavily to Lafayette’s rising reputation as a high-tech hub. The university’s Center for Business & Information Technologies organizes the CajunCodeFest, where Park tweeted his discovery of the region’s “innovation mojo.”

Other regional assets include UL Lafayette’s School of Computing and Informatics, one of the earliest computer science programs established in the country. The School of Computing and Informatics frequently consults with a private-sector brain trust and parlays that intelligence into cutting-edge instruction that fits the changing needs of industry.

In addition, UL Lafayette partners with Drexel University to operate the National Science Foundation’s only Industry/University Cooperative Research Center focused on “big data” visualization, analytics and decision informatics. The Center for Visual and Decision Informatics tackles big data challenges and collaborates with government and industry partners.

Kolluru attributes the community’s reputation as a hub for thought leaders to years of planning.

“The confluence of technology and innovation here is very exciting,” he says. “We are able to offer significant differentiators that set us apart from other locations around the country.”

Setting the Stage

At the state level, a concerted investment in policy reforms undergirded Acadiana’s ascent. Louisiana reforms in workforce programs, education, governmental ethics laws, spending and tax structure since 2008 set the stage for more than $54 billion in new capital investment and over 83,000 new jobs statewide — all stemming from new project announcements.

Major publications — such as Site Selection, Area Development, Business Facilities and Chief Executive — now rank Louisiana as a Top 10 business climate in the U.S. Moreover, innovative products and services are emerging from the state as entrepreneurs find a culture that encourages the next great idea.

In March 2014, the world’s fifth-largest independent IT services firm, CGI, selected Lafayette as the site for a 400-job U.S. technology center. A few months later in July, a Silicon Valley-based software development company, Enquero, announced it would open a 350-job high-performance technology center in Lafayette.

Both CGI and Enquero searched nationwide for the right expansion sites. Company leaders attributed their selection of Lafayette to the state’s highly competitive Digital Interactive Media and Software Development Incentive, along with higher education partnerships and Louisiana’s No. 1-ranked state workforce development program, LED FastStart®. Additionally, CGI will participate in a state-funded, 10-year, $4.5 million higher education initiative that will triple the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually by UL Lafayette’s School of Computing and Informatics.

The companies also credited Lafayette and the city’s powerful “can-do” attitude. Building upon its legacy as an oil and gas hub — where risk-taking is routine — Acadiana is now lauded in national site selection discussions for its culture of ingenuity.

Anchoring Acadiana, Lafayette is Louisiana’s fourth-largest city with a metro population of approximately 275,000. Yet it’s also a city that offers a cost of living well below other technology clusters in the U.S.

In Lafayette, businesses and their employees benefit from fast-and-affordable bandwidth, low-cost electric utilities, high quality of life and a growing economy. Acadiana is home to business and technology incubators and a community and technical college network, as well as UL Lafayette.

CGI selected Lafayette after an extensive, two-year site selection process. The company’s new technology center will be the anchor tenant in the 143-acre UL Lafayette Research Park, where CGI will develop complex IT solutions for clients. CGI operates several other U.S. technology centers, known as Onshore IT Delivery Centers, but the Louisiana facility will focus on innovation, says Dr. James Peake, president of CGI Federal and a U.S. Army retired lieutenant general.

“Our partnership with Lafayette represents a groundbreaking model for CGI — bringing together the local community to identify opportunities for innovation that can applied globally, while tapping the talent and resources of Louisiana,” Peake says.

Similarly, Enquero founders Hemant Asher, Arvinder Pal Singh and Kabir Singh evaluated other leading software cites but found unsurpassed advantages in Lafayette: among them, the state’s Quality Jobs and Software Development incentives, as well as local incentives to offset startup costs. Enquero will locate in the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise facility, a $27 million, 70,000-square-foot complex that offers one of the most comprehensive and tightly integrated data visualization and supercomputing installations in the world.

Like CGI, Enquero will partner with UL Lafayette’s highly regarded School of Computing and Informatics.

“Lafayette and the State of Louisiana far exceeded our expectations from all dimensions,” says Asher, Enquero’s managing partner for finance and operations. “We found Lafayette to be an extremely entrepreneurial community with strong alignment between its community stakeholders, such as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, South Louisiana Community College, Lafayette Economic Development Authority and others. The community leaders clearly understood Enquero’s vision and its needs as a growth company.”

Innovation Capital

More than a decade ago, John Munsell discovered what CGI and Enquero know today.

In 2003, he moved Bizzuka from Tampa, Florida, to Lafayette, where the technology firm grew significantly and landed in the Inc. 5000 fastest-growing private companies in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Bizzuka’s recent innovation, Thinbox, enhances business collaboration with an app allowing users to select preferred formats and devices for all message delivery. Senders may simultaneously broadcast messages via email, mobile phones, websites, intranets, Twitter and Facebook.

“Lafayette does an incredible job of promoting creativity and innovation,” Munsell says. “We’ve got a business-friendly climate that invites new ideas.”

Among the region’s creativity leaders is INNOV8 Lafayette, which recruits national speakers, recognizes innovators and recommends area companies with groundbreaking projects to national and international clients.

INNOV8’s 2014 award-winners include C & C Technologies, a pioneer in the use of autonomous submarines for subsea surveys. C & C Technologies is operated by brothers Thomas and Jim Chance, whose father John developed offshore survey applications still in use today, including 24-hour, 365-day satellite positioning.

The largest privately held, advanced survey firm in the world, C & C recently introduced the first commercially operated deepwater Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) for oil and gas exploration. The AUV has saved the oil and gas industry significant time and money, says Vice President and Director of Marketing David Connell. The instrument can cover 85 to 100 nautical miles a day and provides a much higher resolution than past technologies.

“The company has always been on the cutting-edge of technology,” Connell says. “We have a culture that supports the development of new ideas, even ones that don’t immediately hit the marketplace.”

It’s that kind of culture that ignites Acadiana’s innovation mojo.

“There is real energy here,” says Chris Allain, co-founder of INNOV8 Lafayette and CEO of Vidox Motion Imagery. “It’s a place that’s legendary for action and optimism.”

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