When you think of big data and advanced analytics the first place to come to mind probably wouldn’t be Columbus, Ohio.
At least not yet. While the coasts boast well-known big data hubs like Silicon Valley and Boston, Columbus—with its large university population, a diverse mix of industries and a location that is within a day’s drive of 47 percent of the U.S. population—is building momentum as a center for analytics services and skills training.
“The fact we are here now is very intentional,” says Michael Gold, the head of Farsite, an analytics startup that works with clients in retail, health care and other industries. “You’ve got just a great group of clients that can benefit significantly from the work that we do. So to be close to them in their hometown is a great thing.”
That group includes six members of the Fortune 500 based in and around Columbus (Limited Brands, Abercrombie & Fitch, Nationwide Insurance, American Electric Power and Cardinal Health) as well as the Ohio State University (OSU) and the state government capital. JP Morgan Chase, Citi Group, Discover, Whirlpool and Honda have major operations here. And in November, IBM announced it is putting 500 jobs and their Client Center for Advance Analytics here.
IBM’s decision to make Columbus its North American hub for not only big data analytics but development work around a host of related products including Watson, the cloud, its Smarter Commerce analytics initiative, and contact center and enterprise content management offerings, has put Columbus firmly on the big data map.
“We looked at places all around the country,” says Ron Lovell, a Columbus native and vice president of the IBM analytics center. , “because we wanted a domestic client center, not global, that’s really focused on serving clients in the U.S. and North America.” Columbus and the central Ohio region sit at the epicenter of more analytics talent than anywhere outside of Boston, says Lovell.
Researchers Live Here
With 45,000 undergraduates living downtown, and a range of graduate schools, OSU is a major research center. The Battelle Memorial Institute, the world’s largest non-profit research and development organization, is also headquartered here. Between them, they account for over $7 billion in public, private and government R&D spending every year.
Xerox got its start as an office equipment manufacturer from work done on a dry copy process at Battelle during World War II, for example. Battelle scientists also developed the first nuclear fuel rods, worked on early jet engines and algorithms and coatings that led directly to the first compact disc.
Part of this hometown appeal comes from partnerships with businesses, the city, state and OSU, which, for example, is designing a new undergraduate program in advanced analytics for the 2014 school year in part to feed IBM talent and to leverage IBM for real-world applied learning. “The critical mass is just laying at our feet,” says Christine Poon, dean of the Max M. Fisher College of Business at OSU, “The massive university, a business community that is very collaborative and interactive and collegial.”
TechColumbus, an early stage technology incubator is a good example of that collaboration, says Tom Walker, TechColumbus’ CEO who chose to move here from Oklahoma City in 2012 to lead the organization.
“What’s exciting for the region is you have this large corporate base that is moving to be on the fore front of [the advanced analytics] discussion,” says Walker. “How might they be first customers for some of the entrepreneurial sector that is starting companies? That’s the ultimate—where the entire ecosystem is driving and feeding off of each other. So for a global company to drive a stake in the ground and say, ‘We’re going to do this in Columbus is pretty significant.”
It’s a virtuous cycle, part of developing a cluster of commerce, research and investment activity that feeds economic vitality. The university town hosts researchers. The environment drew IBM. IBM and major corporations, all potential clients, draw analytics startups like Farsite and Prevedere Software. And so on.
Cost of Living Benefits, Investment Needs
David Mongeau, who is leading Battelle’s analytics initiatives, is another recent transplant to the region. Coming from the Boston area he evaluated a number of offers before deciding that Columbus’ quality of life, affordable housing and vibrant cultural scene were the right choice.
“My wife and I were tired of the lifestyle-limiting expense and snarly sprawl out East,” says Mongeau in an email. “Columbus drew us in because of the affordable housing; the easy access to downtown — we are festival and gallery people. What Columbus can’t offer is oceanfront! I miss that a lot. On the other hand, Boston’s zoo can’t hold a candle to Columbus’s.”
Walker of TechColumbus says that from a business perspective, the area lacks a strong angel investment infrastructure—fuel that’s vital to provide funding for the start-ups so they can feed larger firms’ demand for analytics and other IT-related services.
“I’d say the No. 1 challenge … is developing the pipeline that can feed the hunger of private companies doing this work,” agrees Kenny McDonald, chief economic officer at Columbus2020, the central Ohio economic development organization that helped bring IBM to town.
But, taken together—a strong corporate base, large talent pool, easy national and international access, affordable housing and a high quality of life combined with cutting edge research, academic and healthcare institutions—and Columbus is considered by many to be one of the best kept secrets in the country, a secret few business leaders in the area are interested in keeping.
“I have this dream,” says Poon, “that this will become the gathering place for advanced and predictive analytics that, if you are a corporation with any interesting or intractable analytics questions, you’re going to be thinking about Columbus. I think this is Columbus taking an important place on the world-wide stage.”
Allen Bernard is a freelance writer based in Columbus whose work has appeared in many technology publications including CIO.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please follow him on Twitter at @allen_bernard1, on Google+ or on LinkedIn.