Kansas City is famous for its barbecue, not its start-up scene. That’s why it came as quite a surprise when Google selected it to become the pilot city for its Google Fiber program.
Despite lacking the resources normally considered essential to tech hubs–including a solid VC base, established mentors, and universities with Stanford’s cachet–Kansas City is hopeful that affordable, lightning-fast Internet will somehow spark a surge in the region’s start-up activity. It’s been a year since Google Fiber officially kicked off in Kansas City, so how are things going so far?
The good news is that fiber works, enabling 1-gigabit connections that are 100 times faster than standard broadband. Other than the fact that residents have an unfair advantage at World of Warcraft, however, it is still not quite clear exactly how most Kansas City entrepreneurs can take advantage of it.
“The majority of the start-ups based here were founded before this gigabit revolution started to take hold,” says Matthew Marcus, chief technology officer of Local Ruckus, a curator of local events. “No one relied upon it, so we’re just starting to figure out how we can leverage it to increase productivity.”
Part of the problem is that though Kansas City has a sneak peek at where the Internet is heading, the rest of the country is probably still years away from having 1-gigabit Internet. It’s like being the only neighborhood with telephone service–it’s cool but somewhat limited.
For example, Mike Farmer, founder of the search start-up Leap2, says Google Fiber has “ignited” his imagination. He has envisioned a 3-D version of his product that would utilize 1-gigabit speeds. Still, he thinks it would be premature to actually build it, given the limited number of people with Google Fiber. “It doesn’t make sense at this point,” he says.
If nothing else, Google Fiber has certainly strengthened the esprit de corps of the Kansas City tech community. That can certainly be seen in the Kansas City Startup Village, a tightly packed neighborhood of roughly 20 start-ups in the city’s Hanover Heights section, the first area to go live with Google Fiber.
The Village has lured start-ups from as far away as Los Angeles. It has also attracted the attention of venture capitalist Brad Feld, who played a role in building Boulder, Colorado’s tech community. Feld bought a three-bedroom house in Hanover Heights in February, and he recently handed the keys–rent free–for a year to Handprint, a 3-D printing software start-up that launched in Boston.
A local software developer has also started a Homes for Hackers program that offers start-ups interested in moving to the area three months of free rent in a house in the Startup Village. Eager to try Google Fiber but not ready to move to the Midwest? “Fiber tourists” interested in taking Google Fiber for a weekend test drive can rent a room in the house on Airbnb for $39 a night.