Gov. Rick Perry is determined to make Texas a top destination for innovative technology companies and IT professionals. Cities such as Austin already attract more than their share of high-tech employers. But Perry envisions the state becoming a true "epicenter" of the technology industry, edging out traditional heavyweights such as northern Virginia and California's Silicon Valley.
He views the state's Emerging Technology Fund, which Perry signed into law in June 2005, as pivotal to attracting scientists and researchers to Texas universities, and thousands of high-tech jobs to communities throughout the state. The fund sets aside $200 million for investments that increase research collaboration between public- and private-sector entities, and providing seed money for innovative start-up companies.
Perry also signed telecom reform legislation in September 2005, which the governor credits with luring $800 million in communications infrastructure improvements from SBC. The bill -- which simplified regulation and boosted competition for video, cable and telecommunication services -- played a key role in SBC's decision to beef up video and high-speed Internet technology in Texas. The improvements lay the groundwork for delivering high-speed voice, data and video transmissions through electric power lines.
In an interview with Texas Technology, Perry discussed his views on using information technology to boost government efficiency, stimulate local economies, protect citizens and improve the quality of life.
Q: The cover story of the first issue of Texas Technology magazine focused on the IT reforms going on here in the state, particularly the changes brought about by HB 1516. What do you want these reforms to accomplish?
A: I may speak even in broader terms than that. IT is an ever-changing world. It's never static -- it hasn't been, certainly, in my 20 years of being involved in the political process. Government should be all about making things more efficient, making them more effective. And that's what information technology really is about -- it's getting information to people in a simpler form or more quickly, or saving taxpayers money because you've created a single Web portal where you can go, and it's a one-stop shop.
I want to have people around like [state CTO] Larry Olson who are on the edge of new technologies, new concepts. And then broader than that, I want to make this state a haven for those technological advances. So how do you put out the welcome mat for companies to come into the state and to invest in the state? That's where our Emerging Technology Fund becomes very important; it's a major tool to lure men and women who share our vision for technology, and to make Texas the real epicenter for technology innovation.
We're working on some really intriguing projects right now -- some of which I'm not at liberty to talk about -- that could change this state substantially in the future.
Q: Do some of the IT reforms going on right now -- the centralization, the consolidation -- build a foundation for that work?
A: The consolidation will help state government function more efficiently. But I don't look at it just as state government. I look at my role as being a coordinator between the private and public sectors.
I'm talking about how you make the state more friendly to technology; the people who have the fertile minds -- the scientists, the technologists -- why will they want to come to Texas? What have we created here that is enticing for them to move here, to invest here? That is the next big thing from my perspective.
Of course, we'll keep pushing the DIR [Department of Information Resources] and pushing state agencies for more efficiency. The Legislature's gonna meet, and members are gonna say, "Okay, I want you to do this, this,
this and this." And we'll have roaring debates on issues like whether it's appropriate to change over to private-sector call centers versus public call centers for health and human services.
That's the everyday IT work that goes on. To me, the more intriguing thing is how you make Texas the destination for innovators. I want people from California because the business climate has gotten onerous there. I want folks from the east coast to move to Texas because we have great weather and great live music, and this is a cool place to live.
That, to me, is the real challenge. And one that I think Texas is well placed to compete in. I look at these people as being not unlike professional athletes. They're going to go where the money is, and you need to have a little [George] Steinbrenner in you to compete for them.
They have big egos, they're the best in the world at what they do, and we want them to come here. So we need money, we need prestige, we need all of the recruitment tools that you can use, because these people are being wined and dined, and persuaded to come to particular places today. The good news is, we're at the ground floor of this, we got in the game at the right time with enough money to be competitive. So the $200 million we have in the Emerging Technology Fund is a good balance to start with.
Q: Let's talk a little bit about that. Obviously, you're competing globally. Tell me more about the fund and your vision for what it can do.
A: We know that there will be $2 trillion over the next decade that is created by technology. It will happen somewhere, so how do we get a piece of that? First and foremost, we think it's important to have a fund to be competitive, to close the deals. It's been a proven winner for us in the Texas Enterprise Fund. That's a different concept from the Emerging Technology Fund, because the enterprise fund is for bringing capital improvements in a lot of places. But it's similar in that it's a pool of money you can use to close the deal.
Because of the very specialized nature of what we're dealing with, we've created a peer review board that will recommend how we use the Emerging Technology Fund. We'll make the final decisions, with some very bright, capable men and women giving us advice.
This is a collaborative effort of the federal government, the state government, and in some cases, the counties and cities putting dollars into a deal to get somebody to come to their particular location to create whatever they're going to create. In the old days, economic development was all about getting capital, and that's not to say we still don't do that. I mean, we'll go after a GM or a Toyota or you name it plant to come and build a truck tomorrow. We're going to be out there luring people to build manufacturing in the state. But we also understand that there's this extraordinary amount of money that's going to be developed in the technology world, and it is important for Texas to be on the cutting edge of this.
So having a well funded public school system where employers know there's a steady work force, having higher-education institutions in the state that are on the cutting edge of technology, having our current congressional delegation being able to bring more national science academy dollars and more Department of Defense grants into the state -- all of it works in combination.
Q: Since education is such a key part of creating the well educated work force you need,
what is Texas doing to strengthen technology, math and science programs in schools?
A: We're clearly making math and the sciences an important part of our schools -- all the way down into our elementary and middle schools. We created the Technology Workforce Development Act several years ago to increase the number of college graduates with computer science and electrical engineering degrees. And just last month, Texas 4th and 8th graders had some of the highest scores in math and reading.
That's not to say that history and others subjects are not important, but in the technology world, you'd better understand science and math. We obviously give them a little special cache.
Q: Texas just took in hundreds of thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. We've heard quite few stories about state, local and private industry officials coming together to create systems to locate victims, to help find them housing and other vital tasks. Is that a good model for the future?
A: I think it's a good starting point. One of the reasons we practice disasters so often is so that when the real thing happens, we learn from every exercise we go through. We had over 150 exercises from Sept. 11, 2001, until Katrina struck Louisiana. So all of those helped us to be more efficient.
Were we perfect? No. did we learn things? Absolutely. And there were things we learned about our technology capability or our lack of capacity and capabilities that we're taking now and developing new procedures, so that next time a disaster strikes, we're better prepared.
All in all, it was a very good effort by the state government and local governments and volunteers and the private sector. It was a real collaborative effort. And technology was absolutely a very important part of that. So satellite technology and developing telecommunications approaches that give the ability to communicate with people in a disaster area are very important. Dealing with the potential for a massive pandemic, that's another challenge. There are things we might not have even thought about 60 or 120 days ago, that are very much on our radar screen now, and technology will help us address those.
And we haven't even addressed technology's impact on the quality of life. In Texas laboratories, in the fertile minds of scientists and researchers, are cures for diseases that have hamstrung us forever. Or cures for new ones that have cropped up that are causing us great heartache. The answers to those and other maladies are in the laboratories. And to get them from the laboratory to commercialization is the goal of the Texas Emerging Technology Fund.