A crowd of tech enthusiasts sat warm inside the grand hall of an old train station this last Saturday night, on the west end of downtown Salt Lake City, Utah. They braved the otherwise chilly evening, the traffic and eschewed several other events like the star-studded Sundance to hear the next startup pitch at the state’s biggest ever technology event, StartSLC.
An estimated 4,000 people came out to participate in the first ever StartSLC. There were a total of 66 tech-related breakout events going on throughout what was dubbed a three-day tech festival, including a drone flying class, a hackathon, a Sharktank-style pitch competition and an awards ceremony.
The 400 some-odd audience members in attendance this particular evening were there for the last leg of the pitch portion.
Participation in the event is a testament to the growing enthusiasm for tech in the region. StartSLC’s director Mike Templeman mentioned his surprise that this many people came to show their support for Utah’s burgeoning tech culture. “Not bad for a start, right?” he said.
One doesn’t naturally think of Salt Lake City as a tech hotbed the way one might at the mention of San Francisco. But the tech community has always been there.
Utah was the birthplace of old school tech companies like WordPerfect and Landdesk. The University of Utah’s computer science department claims Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull as one of its own. Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder of Atari, graduated from the engineering department there.
But some worry the state is still defined mostly by its religious ties and not for its technological contributions. Templeman and another organizer debated whether they should drop the “SLC” part and rename the festival just “Start” in the following years. They weren’t sure if it limited the participation or if Salt Lake could overcome the stigma it has for being a conservative and deeply religious state.
The State has reached a new technological peak in the last couple of years. It was recently recognized as the number one place for the highest startup dollars-per-deal in the U.S. Some of that can be attributed to PluralSight, Qualtrics, Vivint and a handful of other Utah tech companies now valued at over a billion dollars.
The state’s low cost of living, business-friendly attitudes, relatively young, well-educated population and good engineering schools have fostered some outside interest as well. Apple’s Steve Wozniak joined Utah-based Fusion IO a few years back as its chief scientist. Some Silicon Valley venture capitalists like Mark Gorenberg from Zetta Venture Partners have started coming to look for up-and-coming startups in the state. Zetta was one of the investors in Utah-based Domo.
There’s even a glamping camp associated with Powder Mountain called Summit. It regularly attracts Silicon Valley founders looking to decompress from technology.
Clint Betts, editor-in-chief of regional tech blog Beehive Startups and co-creator of StartSLC, hosted the pitch portion of the festival. He started his site right around the time Silicon Valley began paying attention to what some call the “Silicon Slopes” a few years back.
There’s a rival tech blog to Beehive Startups in the state actually called Silicon Slopes, but don’t use the term around Betts. He hates it. “We’re not Silicon this or that. We’re our own thing. We’re Utah. We don’t need to try to be Silicon Valley,” he told me.
There’s a pretty fierce debate on where the moniker came from. Domo founder Josh James claims it as his. He runs Silicon Slopes with a two-person team inside Domo and claims to have coined the term while sitting in the governor’s office one day a number of years ago. Others say the term actually came from the Salt Lake Olympics committee.
However the term came about, it seems to be a catchy one for outside media to use when referring to the growing Utah tech scene.
Some of the biggest tech leaders in the state participated in StartSLC, including PluralSight co-founder Aaron Skonnard. “Whatever I can do to help the startup culture here I’ll do it.” Skonnard said of the fledgling festival. He spoke about developing tech culture within the community and about creating that within his own company.
Skonnard said he agreed that the tech scene has always been there for Utah. It’s just now getting the recognition it deserves. A lot of people shared the same sentiment with me. They say they feel it just hasn’t been covered enough for others to know about it.
Startups and old hat tech companies came out to show their support and sponsor various events during the three-day event. Local Eventbrite competitor SpinGo handed out sushi, Overstock.com put on an after party with a free and open bar full of the state’s homemade High West whiskey.
“We would like to see this event become like SXSW in the coming years,” communications point for the event, Jeff Lind told me. He rapped ideas with Templeman about possibly moving StartSLC to Park City to coincide with everything at Sundance or doing a Salt Lake City and Park City duel event.
“What we have here is something people care about. Enough people came out to support and it seems it’ll just get bigger from here,” Templeman said about StartSLC. Whatever it becomes, it’s off to a good start.