Wyoming Grows Technology and Innovation Assets
30 Sep, 2015
By Rachel Duran
Caption: Technology workers at a Cheyenne uplink facility. Photo: Cheyenne LEADS
With a population of a little more than 580,000 people, Wyoming’s economic development officials face challenges in terms of workforce numbers. Wyoming Grown is a workforce-related initiative to encourage former Wyoming residents and/or graduates of the University of Wyoming to learn what is happening in Wyoming’s communities and business sectors and consider coming back to the state.
“The effort personally connects with them and matches them up with job opportunities in the state,” says Shawn Reese, CEO, Wyoming Business Council. The website, www.wyominggrown.org, allows people to upload résumés, refer people, explore resources outlining the state’s communities, all about moving to Wyoming, things to do and more features.
“When we talk to businesses we talk about how much time they and their employees are spending in traffic in more populated states,” Reese says. “We don’t have that; yet, we are as connected with the broadband access that we have.”
He is referring to the 100-gigabit broadband network that runs throughout the state. Reese says the private sector will find the network provides advantages to doing business nationally and internationally. “Businesses can locate wherever they want,” he says. “But they are going to find we have infrastructure that allows them to locate in more rural settings, in very picturesque western towns, with modern amenities and new cultural activities.”
Companies such as Microsoft are taking advantage of the benefits of the infrastructure. The company continues to expand its data center operation in Cheyenne. “They are more than doubling their initial capacity; and are poised, although haven’t announced it, for a doubling of that yet again,” says Randy Bruns, CEO, Cheyenne LEADS. “The latest expansion will take them up in the neighborhood of three quarters of a billion dollars of capital investment.”
Cheyenne is at the convergence of major broadband trunks. “Our initial effort to attract data centers was driven in part by the capacity we were aware of,” Bruns says. “And it turns out we were only aware of a fraction of the total capacity that flows through here.
“We knew enough to secure the NCAR Supercomputing Center, which is the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and then Microsoft for a data center,” Bruns continues. “We had an existing industry, EchoStar Corp., which has been here since the early 1990s with their primary uplink satellite facility. Their business is data. They have a huge antenna farm and satellite uplinks. They tell us they are the largest consumer of broadband in the West.”
Homegrown Greenhouse Data in Cheyenne recently completed an expansion. And smaller data centers are in the works or in operational stages in other parts of the state, such as Sheridan and Jackson.
Bruns adds an important part of Gov. Matt Mead’s emphasis is to diversify the state’s economy. This includes a clear vision of technology and digital technology being an important part of Wyoming’s industrial diversity.
Down to Business
• Industrial electric rates in Wyoming average 21 percent below the national average, and its natural gas rates are 25 percent below the U.S. average, as reported by the Energy Information Administration, July 2012.
• Wyoming does not charge a state income tax or inventory tax, and has a low sales tax and a low property tax.
Industries and Innovations
Wyoming’s Internet network also supports an emerging entrepreneurial base. “We are working to develop those companies that could use the high-speed Internet,” Reese says. “Basically, we want to find those industries that would bridge our energy economy and our growing technology economy. We are focused on a number of advanced industries that will complement our energy economy.”
Examples include finding new uses for CO2. “We are working with the X Prize Foundation to incentivize research that will turn CO2 from coal-fired power plants into beneficial products for carbon dioxide,” Reese says.
Wyoming’s energy and minerals rank nationally in the top 10 across major energy industries, including first in coal production and coal reserves, according to www.wyomingbusiness.org. “It is a measure as coal and natural gas prices go down we have security in that we have such a large rainy day fund, and we are able to realize the interest earnings off of those different accounts,” Reese says. “We have been able to invest billions into infrastructure and also into our different markets.”
Reese says economic development officials are working with the governor, the legislature and industry to look at opportunities for larger-scale industrial developments. “We have become familiar with the Heartland industrial area in Alberta, Canada, where they are taking their mineral resource, oil, and some 30 companies are refining the products and using the off gasses from one business as a feedstock for another to come up with hundreds of different products, chemicals, liquids, gasses. We are looking at that model and its applicability here in the state.”
Reese says officials are evaluating infrastructure and the different requirements these businesses would have with the end goal of adding value to the natural resources, whether it is natural gas, coal or trona. “Beyond that we are taking the lead from the governor and working to put together a cohesive international trade initiative, not only for exports but also to encourage FDI into the state,” Reese says. “We think the international companies that use our commodities would find the value of adding value to those commodities here in Wyoming.”
Talent and Education
The state is also developing a strong base of innovation, research, development and technology at the University of Wyoming. “Over the past several years, the governor has worked to make our college of engineering at the University of Wyoming a tier I school to attract nationally renowned faculty and students,” Reese says.
“Underwriters Lab is hiring the graduates from the computer science program at the University of Wyoming for its new operations in Laramie,” Reese adds.
Reese says officials are evaluating the state’s regions to ensure they are industrial ready. This includes helping community leaders understand their resource base, understand reverse supply chain analysis and how the minerals are refined into other minerals elsewhere, as well as market trends.
A piece of the efforts include a site certification program for the state’s business parks. The first site certification took place in Sheridan a few months ago.
Industrial and commercial sites in Cheyenne include the Swan Ranch Industrial Park, which is 1,000 acres and provides access to both the UP and BNSF rail lines. “The immediate demand [for the park] came from the oil and gas industry,” Bruns says. “Schlumberger is expanding, even as the industry turns down, generally.”
Other support functions for oil and gas have located at the park, as well as other industries such as Searing Industries, which manufactures steel tubing.
The Cheyenne Business Parkway, owned by Cheyenne LEADS, offers immediate access to Interstate 80. Tenants include Magpul Industries, which relocated from Colorado and started shipping from the new site in January. Microsoft is located at Cheyenne’s North Range Business Park.