Unicorn hunting: SLC looks to attract startups to compete with (and complement) Silicon Slopes

Unicorn hunting: SLC looks to attract startups to compete with (and complement) Silicon Slopes

(Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL, File)



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SALT LAKE CITY — After five years in Los Angeles, Fulcrum Labs CEO Patrick Weir announced this week that he’s relocated Fulcrum’s corporate headquarters to Utah.

Calling itself the “industry leader in AI-powered adaptive learning technology and training outcomes,” Fulcrum set up shop in downtown Salt Lake City. In explaining the choice of Salt Lake, Weir cited reasons both practical and aesthetic.

“It’s nice to have a little urban element, walkability, lots of different restaurants and bars and so forth,” Weir said. He and his early hires live in the city as well.

“Coming from L.A., we didn’t want to put ourselves in another traffic jam going back and forth.”

Salt Lake City’s place in the state’s tech ecosystem is a point of keen interest for the city’s leaders and businesses. Though the capital city is home to the University of Utah, the state’s urban core and many Silicon Slopes employees, the majority of the state’s tech companies have headquartered in Utah County at the Point of the Mountain.

Blake McClary, chair of Silicon Slopes’ Salt Lake City chapter, said companies like Fulcrum may increasingly opt for Salt Lake in the coming years.

“One of the trends we’re seeing is that Bay Area startups who are looking to dip their toe in the water in Utah oftentimes start downtown,” McClary said. “Now, they may not always end up downtown if they’re going to grow really rapidly or have a lot of people, but oftentimes they’ll start downtown just because that’s going to be easier to recruit from.”

A variety of factors, McClary said, have lured tech companies to Utah County in recent years: inexpensive land, cheaper leases, more room, and a “center of gravity” that has developed there.

“There’s an attitude that you want to go where everybody is, and you want to go where the talent is, and right now that’s Lehi,” he said.

But for startups, McClary said Salt Lake may prove a more attractive option moving forward.

“I think Salt Lake City is best suited for startups and not larger unicorns,” he said, using the industry term for a startup valued over $1 billion. “Meaning, if Pluralsight decided (they) want to go downtown, they’ve got 1,000 employees. It would be extremely hard for them to find the space that they need.”

But under, say, 30 employees? “It’s not hard to find space,” McClary said. “And oftentimes, it’s going to be the same amount of money or cheaper than what you’ll find in Utah County. So in order to be successful, I would say we need to continue to exploit that advantage of startups.”

McClary also noted that some companies are now opening satellite locations, splitting the workforce between Lehi and Salt Lake to capture talent throughout the Wasatch Front. He’d like to see more companies follow suit.

Weir’s company, Fulcrum Labs, was founded in 2014. It uses artificial intelligence to personalize lessons for students and employees — lessons that adapt to the learner, rather than one-size-fits-all, Weir said.

“We turn students into learners, and then turn learners into confident subject-matter masters,” Weir said of his company’s mission. “And that’s a throughline that threads throughout our entire products and services.”

Weir said his company was attracted by Utah’s business-friendly climate and growing tech industry.

“We felt it would be a good place to settle our roots and move to the next phase,” he said. “And take advantage of the great talent that’s being produced, both in the education systems and by people flocking from New York and California.”

He said Fulcrum is “definitely in a growth stage” right now. But whether downtown Salt Lake is Fulcrum’s final destination or a stop on the way to more wide-open spaces, Weir said he’s been “thrilled” by Salt Lake City’s welcoming reception.

“People (are) very proud about Salt Lake, and a lot of open arms about moving here,” he said. “Oftentimes you can get a bit of the opposite, as you sort of come in and settle into a new area. But even as it’s getting more and more crowded in Salt Lake, I’ve just found the warm welcoming by strangers and others, and the willingness to help and get us settled and situated has just been tremendous.”

Boosting the Salt Lake City tech industry was among the policy positions articulated by new Mayor Erin Mendenhall during her campaign. “She will build a tech ecosystem in the city so innovative,” her campaign website declares, “high-paying jobs stop slipping away to the Silicon Slopes.”

In a five-page position paper, then-candidate Mendenhall wrote that high-paying tech jobs “are not simply going to materialize” in Salt Lake City. “We need to grow our city in a way that values diversity and sustainability, and improves the lives of all our residents, so we need to focus on bringing tech businesses into our city that want to be part of the city’s progress.”

She cited a lack of affordable housing, poor air quality, gender inequity and a reputation of hostility to startups as obstacles Salt Lake will need to overcome.

McClary said the airport, the University of Utah, and the city’s diverse population will all help in working toward that goal. He gave an example of a possible future for the city — not an “exact comparison,” he admits, but an instructive one.

“This is what happened in the Bay Area,” McClary said, “where most of the larger companies were located in Silicon Valley down south. And you have all these cool startups located in the city, and it was kind of a radical thing. And all of a sudden, there was more talent there. … Now, San Francisco actually overpowers Silicon Valley, and you’ve got really large unicorns there.”

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