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Summit draws 14k for celebration of Utah tech scene

The second annual Silicon Slopes Tech Summit attracted over 14,000 attendees to two days of speakers, presentations and breakout sessions focused on tech issues. The event almost tripled the attendance from last year's debut version.
The second annual Silicon Slopes Tech Summit attracted over 14,000 attendees to two days of speakers, presentations and breakout sessions focused on tech issues. The event almost tripled the attendance from last year's debut version.
Herb Scribner, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Titans of innovation, both Utah-grown and from across the country, helped launch day one of the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit Thursday, and the 14,000-plus in attendance where no less amped for it than any arena-rock show.

Executives and board members from Silicon Slopes, a nonprofit advocacy group for the state's tech sector, were particularly ecstatic with the turnout, which almost tripled the 5,000 who attended the debut gathering last year.

"We're all now witnessing the biggest tech event in Utah history," Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Betts told the morning audience. "The people in this room believe that a world-class tech summit, and a world-class tech community, could be built in Utah and I believe we proved that today, don't you?"

Utah's technology and innovation industry has evolved into an economic powerhouse, contributing to ongoing economic prosperity and fueling the lion's share of the state's nation-leading job growth rate of over 3 percent. The success of local tech ventures is also outsized for the market, as noted by Silicon Slopes board member and Qualtrics founder/CEO Ryan Smith.

"We could be seeing four IPO's in the state of Utah this year," Smith said. "For our size, that's unbelievable."

The state's tech sector can trace its roots back to innovators that predate the dawn of the internet, like Novell and Wordperfect, but the modern iteration is proving to be a more vibrant ecosystem. Companies finding high levels of success are helping seed further ventures in a sort of self-replication process that's growing the slate and impacts of tech-focused Utah businesses.

One of those examples is the path of serial entrepreneur and Domo founder/CEO Josh James, who previously built web analytics company Omniture, which he would go on to sell to Adobe in a move that brought Adobe to Utah. Now, Domo is thriving and Adobe announced plans last year to double-down on Utah with a new facility and the addition of another 1,000-plus employees. On Thursday, James, who also founded the Silicon Slopes effort and is a board member, noted that the playing field has changed for the better since the early days of his first endeavor.

"Things are dramatically different than they were 20 years ago when I started Omniture with Johnny (Pestana)," James said. "It's been really cool to see the evolution. The thing that always resonates with me ... is we can do anything we put our minds to. Omniture was the fastest growing software company in the world for three years. That's the kind of stuff that can be done here."

Some support of that assertion was in evidence when just a few hours before James was on stage at the summit, news broke that Provo-based InsideSales was getting a new round of funding from software giant Microsoft. InsideSales, a predictive analytics company that industry watchers say is worth north of $1 billion, is set for an infusion of $35 million from Microsoft, according to a report by the Wall St. Journal. InsideSales founder/CEO Dave Elkington said the funding will help fuel new strategic partnerships for his company's artificial intelligence-driven platform.

Elkington joined BYU and San Francisco 49ers legend Steve Young on stage Thursday, where the two discussed Young's post-football endeavors as a Bay Area venture capitalist.

Young, who is a Super Bowl champion, member of the NFL Hall of Fame and has the highest career quarterback rating of all time, said he's now been working in venture capital longer then he played football. He offered insights on finding success in the second-chapter of his career, where he is working primarily with tech ventures. Young said he's followed a philosophy of "abundant thinking" that dispenses with looking at things as a zero-sum game, an approach he said has been particularly effective when negotiating venture deals. He also noted that getting guidance from those with experience, like his former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, has been a key to his success.

"In 1991 I almost lost my job," Young said. "In 1992, I was the league MVP. We all need mentors around us to keep from doing stupid things."

Another notable speaker at the Summit Thursday was author J.D. Vance, whose memoir, "Hillbilly Elegy," became a touchstone for political conservatives during the 2016 presidential campaign. Vance has since been involved with a venture capital effort calling itself "Rise of the Rest" that is aiming to provide funding to disruptive companies outside the established tech zones like Silicon Valley and Research Triangle.

Vance offered praise for the tight-knit Utah tech community, noting that adversarial environments can end up dragging down both companies and the wider business environments in which they operate.

"Founders and CEOs that become too insular, too selfish, end up suffering and so do the ecosystems they work in," Vance said. "One of the things I've seen in Utah, and that I really like, is the collegiality among tech entrepreneurs. The ecosystems that do well ... recognize they're all playing on the same team."

The Tech Summit continues on Friday with presentations from former Massachusetts governor, two-time U.S. presidential candidate, and likely 2018 Utah senatorial candidate, Mitt Romney; Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; President Alice Steinglass and others. Friday afternoon also includes a full slate of breakout sessions on a wide variety of tech-related issues.