SALT LAKE CITY — A surprise announcement on the opening day of the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit unveiled a first-of-its-kind investment fund that will be seeded by a group of local tech stalwarts and dedicated exclusively to backing emerging Utah companies.

A novel structural aspect of the Silicon Slopes Venture Fund will also create a new, and ongoing, funding stream for the nonprofit Silicon Slopes advocacy group that, among other things, puts on the annual gathering set this year to draw over 25,000 to the two-day event.

Qualtrics co-founder and CEO Ryan Smith, Domo founder and CEO Josh James and Pelion Venture Partners general partner Jeff Kearl will form the initial investment group. All three are BYU grads and have track records of investing in fledgling tech companies, including prominent Utah companies such as Divvy, Galileo, Lucid, MX and Weave.

Smith, who is also a co-founder of Silicon Slopes, said he is “all in on Utah” and sees the fund as a way to give back to the tech community he helped build.

“With more than 7,000 tech-focused companies in Utah, the tech community has never been more promising here,” Smith said. “The model of this fund allows us to give back to the community in a meaningful way, keep complete focus on continuing to build our own companies, and ensure that the Silicon Slopes organization is supported for years to come.

“We have seen the power of what happens when we all come together to do something — just look at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit. With approximately 85% of the venture capital dollars going into Utah startups coming from out-of-state venture funds, we knew there was an opportunity for us to get more involved.” 

Silicon Slopes Tech Summit attendee Eldon Passey, of Mequon, Wis., and volunteer Sara Pendleton, of South Jordan, help pack 1 million healthy meals for the Utah Food Bank during the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Kearl was named in October as the new head of Utah-based Pelion’s operations in Southern California, and noted he and his colleagues in the venture are aiming to launch the kind of fund they wished was around when they were building new companies.

“Each of us flew to Sand Hill Road” — a Bay Area thoroughfare famous for its concentration of venture and equity investment firms — “when we raised venture capital for our businesses,” Kearl said. “As a result, we were able to observe firsthand how legendary funds like Accel, Benchmark and Sequoia operated when they invested our companies.

“Now with Pelion and the Silicon Slopes Venture Capital Fund, we have the chance to build the fund in Utah that we wish existed when we were fundraising.”

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Bigger and better

Kearl, James and Smith, who is another of the Silicon Slopes co-founders, celebrated the continued growth of the tech summit event and noted it was a coup to be able to host the first gubernatorial debate of the 2020 election season, as well as feature Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg as the headline keynote speaker on Friday.

During an interview with the Deseret News, Smith and James gave a shoutout to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who they said played a pivotal role in bringing Zuckerberg to the event.

Reached by phone, Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said the senator had met Zuckerberg at an event several years ago and the two hit it off. Since then, Carroll said Zuckerberg typically stops in to visit Lee when he’s in D.C. and, when Utah’s senior senator heard that Silicon Slopes was looking to bring the man who famously launched the world’s biggest social media company while still a student at Harvard University, he made a call. Zuckerberg said he’d do it.

Into the great blue yonder

How about a direct flight from Provo to Maui?

JetBlue founder and Utah native David Neeleman dropped that tidbit Thursday morning during a summit talk about his latest airline effort. Neeleman is an airline startup veteran who got his start in Utah launching Morris Air in partnership with another Utah company, Morris Travel. He would go on to launch Brazil’s Azul airlines after leaving JetBlue and now has a project in the works that will be based in Salt Lake City.

Neeleman said Provo to Maui was one of a thousand or so different routes being considered for his new endeavor that will focus on “flying places no one else does now.” For now, it is unclear whether the carrier will be offering flights in and out of its homebase city.

Last month, Neeleman’s new venture, which has been variously referred to as Moxy or Breeze Aviation, earned a post-performance tax rebate package from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. The deal could represent as much as $1.1 million in tax rebates for the airline on plans to make over $3 million in capital investments and hire about 370 new employees in Utah.

Passport to the future

Education figured largely in the morning speaker program at the first day of the summit, with Pluralsight co-founder and CEO Aaron Skonnard appearing with Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

At last year’s summit, Skonnard and a group of tech founders dropped a $5 million matching challenge on the Legislature for funding committed to putting computer science curriculums in every Utah K-12 public school. A couple of months later, the Legislature passed a bill that put a little over $3 million toward the effort and, last month, Gov. Gary Herbert’s budget included a proposal for $10 million in ongoing, computer science-dedicated funding.

Wilson said the world is on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution and that the economy, as currently known, is about to be upended.

“What we’ve got to do as a state ... is find ways to make sure Utah is on the leading edge,” Wilson said.

Adams didn’t mince words in expressing where he thought Utah should be positioning itself in the ongoing technological revolution.

“We can’t just be the leader in technology, we have to dominate it,” Adams said. “In order to do that its really, really important that we have coding and computer science in every classroom.”

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks with Fifi Teklemedhin, a 10th grade computer science student at West High School, during the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan interviewed West High School 10th grader Fikir Teklemedhin and West computer science instructor Nicole Reitz-Larsen.

Duncan lauded Reitz-Larsen for her role in advancing computer science education efforts and asked Teklemedhin about her experience as one of only two black students to take a particular computer science course last year. Not just the only two in her class, or the school, but the entire state.

“I feel like I just kind of beat the odds and was just one of those outliers, and my success wasn’t really anything that should be noted,” Teklemedhin said. “I should have just been able to take the class as a kid, not a colored kid or a female.”

Growing pains

Some summit attendees reported issues with long lines at registration and, ironically, problems with the smartphone app created especially for the tech-focused event.

An event spokesperson said the high volume of attendees checking in Thursday morning led to a server crash that delayed the process for about an hour. Some people were allowed in without credentials while the problem was resolved.

Summit organizers in a statement told the Deseret News:

“Unfortunately, during our peak registration time this morning, our registration vendor’s servers went down at the most inopportune moment, especially considering we had a record number of attendees this year. The outage was short-lived, and we were back up and running as quickly as possible. Other than that minor inconvenience, the feedback on the summit so far has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Next up

Friday will feature Zuckerberg, as well as the gubernatorial debate.

Silicon Slopes co-founder and Executive Director Clint Betts celebrated the timing of Zuckerberg’s appearance amid a booming period for the tech sector in Utah.

“Mark is clearly recognized as one of the great entrepreneurs of our generation, and we are thrilled to have his insights shared from our stage,” Betts told the Deseret News last week. “We look forward to hearing from Mark, especially at a time when Utah’s tech scene is booming and all eyes are on the growth and success we are experiencing.”

Betts will also be moderating Friday’s debate, which will feature the top six Utah candidates for governor. The square-off, which was winnowed to only candidates who have raised $50,000 or more for their campaigns, will take place at 11 a.m. on Friday at the Salt Palace Convention Center. Non-attendees will be able to livestream the event via siliconslopes.com.

The hourlong debate will include candidates Jeff Burningham, Spencer Cox, Greg Hughes, Jon Huntsman Jr., Aimee Winder Newton and Thomas Wright.

“We’re thrilled to host Utah’s first gubernatorial debate of the 2020 campaign cycle at Silicon Slopes Tech Summit,” Betts said. “With every major candidate currently running on stage, we’re looking forward to a robust conversation on the future of Utah.