What are the city’s priorities when it comes to driving technological change for the 21st Century? While the New Orleans economy is powered mainly by tourism, many community leaders envision the city as an emerging technological hub anchored by its most recent high-tech achievement: The Naval Information Technology Center. The NITC brings to the city more than 1,500 technology-based jobs with average salaries ranging from $40,000 to $60,000 a year. The center marks a city- and statewide-commitment to rapid growth technology through a three-way partnership: business, government and education. With 24 universities statewide involved in the consortium, major universities like the University of New Orleans now have an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with technological advancements. While many educators and technology experts rank biotechnology as the leading action item on the tech-priority list, New Orleans is bolstering its playing field to meet cutting-edge technological demands and create a market niche in the process.
New Orleans is in the best position yet to build a strong economy driven by technology-related enterprises and activities. Of course, the city has a remarkable tourism industry that has provided immense momentum in many areas, but not enough of that force is technology-related. The Naval Information Technology Center provides New Orleans with one of the best opportunities it’s ever had. There are more than 1,500 new jobs–many software-related–associated with the center. Building a strong information technology segment in New Orleans requires trained workers, and at this point we simply don’t have enough talent. That concern goes beyond New Orleans, and penetrates many Southern states. But the Naval Information Technology Center provides the chance to draw hundreds of skilled Oracle programmers. Some of those people with advanced training will start businesses and raise venture capital– fueling the more important effects of technology and economic development.
Last year, nine students at the New Orleans Center for Science and Math became Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers. Our student body enjoys a 75-percent passing rate. They take six tests, and each part is a separate Microsoft certification that qualifies the student for a certain type of job in the industry right away. The testing time is limited. Our teachers drive students to the test site, and watch through the window as they take the exam. I found it fascinating to note that most of our students seem to finish the exam in 15 minutes, whereas other people taking the test need almost an hour.
Seventy-three percent of our students are on a free or reduced-lunch fee program. These are the same kids who have never had computers in their homes. The New Orleans Center for Science and Math has allowed them to blossom by providing them with opportunities and resources. Every school should have technology at students’ disposal, but in a poor urban setting, very few do. We also have an outside support group in the community that provides the school with state-of-the-art equipment– computers, microscopes, everything. And the state funds Internet access in every classroom.
A number of national surveys and reports have placed Louisiana and New Orleans specifically at the bottom of states and cities that are wired or technologically ready. One study put out by the U.S. Commerce Department called ‘The Digital Divide’ places Louisiana at number 47 in the nation. That specifically refers to people having Internet connections in their homes. Another survey placed New Orleans 37th in the nation for Internet use at work and home, the number of Web sites that promote the city, the number of businesses that have an Internet presence, and the government’s internet involvement. New Orleans has actually dropped a few notches on that survey since last year. Our city and state still face a big challenge.
However, a community isn’t successful because 45 percent of its residents are connected to the Internet at home. It doesn’t mean that at all. You have to create a legislative and legal environment that will pass laws to facilitate business in a state, and enable Internet communication. While it’s important to get your numbers up, it’s also necessary to have an environment that enhances and promotes the Internet community.
The Internet Coalition’s mission is to create awareness about Internet-related issues at a low entry value. From start-up Internet developers to multi-million dollar companies, everyone will be able to access and participate in the Coalition. We have an Internet-awareness committee that makes the national and international Internet community aware that New Orleans is an Internet-friendly town and promotes the Internet throughout New Orleans. The e-commerce committee was designed to help local businesses be more knowledgeable about Internet commerce issues, and to make sure New Orleans and Louisiana get their fair share of money spent online. Internet commerce could theoretically harm local businesses, so it’s important that small business owners are able to plug in and retain their customers.
Young entrepreneurs need to take the lead to advance technology. The original economic structure in New Orleans is still in place. People used to say things couldn’t get done in New Orleans because of the ‘cold water crowd.’ Every time something got hot, the city fathers would throw cold water on it. That’s still true today. The mentality hasn’t changed much from ‘We’ll stick to knitting. We know what has worked here. And this Internet stuff, that’s California.’ New Orleans’ social structure revolves around Mardi Gras. Do I see it changing? Only if young, enthusiastic entrepreneurs want to change the city. Their enterprise is the driver of change.
Biotechnology is extremely important. We want to foster a climate that’s conducive to that sort of new venture here in Louisiana. Gene therapy may be a niche where Louisiana has some distinct advantages because we have two very fine medical institutions located in the state. Both Louisiana State University and Tulane are included in the academic medical center. Tulane alone has a school of public health, a school of medicine, a primate center and a center for bio-environmental research. LSU and Tulane recognized that we have all the right ingredients, including talent within the university structure. If you’re going to genetically alter something, you’ve got to physically get into the cells. That is where the Tulane primate center comes in. Many of these therapies are not ready to be tested on humans yet, but a non-human primate model provides a real opportunity and advantage.
At this point, we need government funds for the core facilities because some infrastructure needs must be met before we can even get started. Some money has already been appropriated, we’re just deciding which agency should administer it. The legislature approved $6.8 million dollars to create the infrastructure needed to start building a gene therapy initiative within our state.
We’ve also recognized the multiplier effect of bringing research dollars into our community. Those dollars generate skilled jobs. When you get a million-dollar grant over five years from the National Institutes of Health, that translates into $200,000 a year. Plus, you’re probably going to hire a post-doc or two. And you’ll need some skilled technicians, so we’re bootstrapping the economy by bringing in high-caliber jobs.
Louisiana wants to increase its per capita spending on research. As we do that, I think we’re going to see more technology spin-offs. University technology is a valuable resource. Now there are many examples of successful products that have emerged from universities and or have been incubated by universities. The Louisiana strategy will be to license new jobs and opportunities for the people of the state. “Vision 20/20” outlines those areas as medical, biomedical, micro manufacturing, software, and telecommunications.
The establishment of universities, research facilities, and medical schools should be a development priority. Professors and doctors must be given the opportunity to conduct research that will grow new industries. The city of New Orleans is trying to educate its citizens about the academic resources we have right here at home. We are currently focusing on gene therapy because an industry like biotechnology will undoubtedly bring in more companies and more jobs. Establishing universities as research institutions is key to developing and sustaining growth industries.
The Naval Information Technology Center at the University of New Orleans is another major technological development. And growing such technology leads to more jobs, especially if you create an opportunity for a number of spin-offs. We have high hopes that the Naval Information Technology Center will get a critical mass of the community engaged in technology, and encourage companies in the software industry to move in.
The New Orleans Technology Council wants to help city government understand the benefits of bringing the technology industry into this city. We say, “Look, if Computer Associates moves an office here, it’s going to hire 10 local programmers at $65,000 to $125,000 a year or it’s going to bring in workers who will buy houses and grow the community. That’s economic development.”
Also, the Naval Information Technology Center reflects the new scope of technological activity in the new economy. I think the center serves as wake-up call to the community. It will make people recognize that things are starting to happen in New Orleans.
“The new economy in New Orleans will be driven by a new group of New Orleanians who are really focused on the technology industry. There’s a tension between this group and traditional business circles in New Orleans because these tech-minded individuals are doing business a little different. It’s extremely exciting. The energy is driven from passionate New Orleanians who’ve moved back to the area and want to make something happen here. The city is starting to understand this fresh mentality as local stars emerge and local companies produce results.”
Return to Reinventing New Orleans