#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Ryan Weber, President of the KC Tech Council
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
This week we talked with Ryan Weber, President of the KC Tech Council, a group that represents tech companies and works to attract and retain players in the tech industry in Kansas City. Weber credit's the area's growth to several factors, including the presence of the health tech industry as well as how easy it is to travel from Kansas City to anywhere in the U.S. On his policy wishlist is a new look at how to train the tech talent of tomorrow.
What’s your personal role in the Kansas City startup ecosystem?
The KC Tech Council is an association that represents technology companies, primarily larger enterprises. I would say that our best value-added to the startup scene, however, is our ability to facilitate connections between these large companies and startups. Experienced executives at these companies tend to be great mentors, board members, or even investors.
My first foray into the startup world came when I worked for an angel investment group. I was a fundraiser by trade and went from raising money for charitable foundations to early stage companies. There are surprisingly quite a lot of consistencies between the two.
Can you tell us more about the KC Tech Council and some of its programming?
We host an online jobs portal that seeks to draw attention to Kansas City as a destination for technology talent and investment. Another major piece of our programming is our CEO Council, which includes some of the larger companies as well as startup founders whose companies are a bit further along. While some members of the council don’t particularly identify with the startup community, these events are great education and networking opportunities for everyone involved.
It’s important for relationships to form amongst these key leaders in the Kansas City technology scene. However, we don’t usually see these sorts of interactions occurring organically within the current model. While I think enterprise executives would love to be involved with early stage companies, they need someone to broker that relationship and that’s what we strive to do.
What’s the most exciting or important development that has happened to the KC ecosystem in the last year?
The council has hosted a number of legislative days where we’ve taken leaders from the Kansas City technology community to Jefferson City to advocate for tech-related issues and workforce needs. I love seeing that because the voices of companies are heard much more loudly than associations like ours and other intermediaries.
While there’s a disparity in legislative knowledge about tech issues at the federal level, this problem is significantly worse at the state level. Having some of our executives and other members of the technology community take an active role in the policy sphere plants the seed for these issues to become more pressing in upcoming election cycles.
What makes KC an ideal place to start a company?
Our biggest strength is where we’re located. There is such a competitive advantage to being right in the middle of the country. Virtually everywhere is within a 3-hour flight.
Contrary to popular perceptions, there’s also a great number of technology firms based here. Kansas City has 3,700 technology-based employers and nearly 100,000 workers in the industry. While we know that here, it’s all about getting the word out nationally. There’s a belief that the pay is less in places where the cost of living is lower. This is not true in the case of Kansas City.
We also have a huge concentration of healthcare technology. Cerner, one of the largest medical records companies in the country, is based here and several of their executives have launched spinouts in the healthcare tech sector.
What is the biggest challenge the KC ecosystem still faces?
Our workforce needs further development. We have been actively working on education reforms at the K-12 level that would ensure computer science is taken seriously in the curriculum and that students have access to opportunities to learn those skills. Only about 40 percent of the schools in the entire state even teach computer science. While that’s not necessarily below the national average, it still narrows the talent pipeline.
In general, the technology sector is driven by perception and we need to be able to create the perception that we have the workforce of the future based here. In the not so distant future, technology companies will only be able to exist in places that can produce their own talent. One component of this is attracting people by being seen as a destination but there’s also retraining, apprenticeships, and other systems that can generate that talent locally.
Whatever city can figure out that talent piece is going to see a huge benefit. The coasts are unpredictable with tax and cost structures constantly in flux. As a result, many tech leaders are looking towards other places in America for a second headquarters and I think the middle of the country provides the best option for them.
What industries have historically thrived in KC? How has this shaped the ecosystem there?
Our strength as a region has always been agriculture and transportation logistics. Because of this, we should be leading more so on new industries like e-commerce and be home to more critical data centers. Some of this has yet to really mature in Kansas City but nearly all of the nation’s fiber and roads connect through here.
One project I’ve been personally excited to see is the Hyperloop project. The interstate system started in Missouri and I would love to see the future of transportation begin here as well.
Are there specific public policies or government initiatives that have enabled startup growth in KC?
The education component is definitely the most important work going on in the policy space here. We can guarantee a great deal of future success in the digital economy if we figure that piece out.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to train instructors who are capable of teaching high-level computer science skills. I believe the industry should be able to play a more active role in that as the state’s ability to invest in such programs is highly constrained.
There’s a state government bill that would allow for a fund to be created where companies could invest in the future of computer science education in Missouri. The tech community can’t wait for the state to move on this and needs to be able to take action itself.
How involved are your government representatives in the KC startup space?
I think it’s a generational thing. The older legislators see the development of the state’s technology economy as nice but nonessential. Younger candidates view their friendliness towards tech and their relationships with young companies as a differentiator. These candidates are much more eager to accept our invitations and they’re wise to do so because the only companies growing in Kansas City (and in the state at large) are technology companies.
From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for your startup ecosystem?
I really hope that we can build more thought leadership around technology regulation at the state and local level. My biggest frustration with policy work has been watching legislators overregulate technology because they don’t understand it. This is happening at a federal level as well.
Are there some startups to watch coming out of KC?
C2FO - The world’s market for working capital where companies that need cash connect with companies that have cash to liberate working capital.
Fishtech - Identifies cybersecurity gaps and introduce next-generation solutions that helps companies minimize risk, maintain compliance, and increase efficiency.