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Where exactly is the Silicon Prairie?

Geoff Wood

Chet Culver's idea of the Silicon Prairie

There is a weird buzz going on around the term “silicon prairie”. I’m particularly attuned to it because I work with the organization Silicon Prairie News, an online news publication promoting the activities of high tech, high growth and innovative companies in Des Moines, Omaha, and the surrounding areas.

The term derives from an obvious a play on the idea that there is a both a technical foundation and a technical future in the areas of this country that were at one time occupied by nothing more than grassland. It’s catchy and it makes folks familiar with the renowned “Silicon Valley” region of California smile a bit when they take the time to look at the thousands of miles of American in between the two coasts.

However, it has no inherent boundaries and for that reason it seems that everyone who is trying to find a clever reference to their locale is claiming it.

As far as I know, it started smartly with some good folks in northwest Iowa (and later across the border in South Dakota) who built a small and then-successful computer hardware company called Gateway 2000. They had a cow-skinned box for their hardware and advertising that noted they were “on the Silicon Prairie”. It was cute and it worked (so much so that I remember it 15 years later).

Wikipedia cites four regions (Dallas, Chicago/Champaign, Wyoming, and the Des Moines/Omaha/SPN area)(1), while a current Google News search shows three (the SPN area, Dallas, and Indianapolis). It’s the last mention that inspired me to write this post. I received multiple emails last week pointing to a story from MediaPost where a director at ExactTarget, an email marketing giant headquartered in Indianapolis, claimed the name for the Circle City. The post is about the marketing technology cluster of businesses that have developed in Indianapolis including firms like Aprimo, ExactTarget, and Compendium Blogware.

The writer of the post, David Goetzl, goes on to say this:

It's unclear whether the successor term to Silicon Valley and New York's copycat Silicon Alley is just a casual one, but Central Indiana has a moniker for its thriving digital marketing community. MediaPost has covered the expansion, which continues to help the economy.(Omaha also claims the nickname.)(2)

The emails were sent to me for several reasons, such as my relationship with Silicon Prairie News and the fact that from 2004-2009, I was part of the technology community in Central Indiana. I have friends working at several of the companies that make up said cluster not to mention that almost exactly a year ago several MBA classmates and I wrote a research paper on this exact topic. We called it the “marketing automation” cluster, but to each his own.

I suppose that Indianapolis, though late to the game, has the same right as the rest of us to use the “silicon prairie” nomenclature though I have a hard time considering anything in the Eastern Time zone to be part of “the prairie”.

Also, someone should probably tell Ben Nelson and Chet Culver.

(1)I've contributed to the Wikipedia entry for "Silicon Prairie" (2) Emphasis is mine and "ha!"