Northeast Commerce Park in Fishers, Ind., is getting closer to hosting the one business that might truly cement a reputation for economic diversity: the state’s first Internet of Things lab.
The squarish former home of Bates Technology, a maker of honing stones and machine shop tooling that moved to another Indianapolis suburb slightly north, doesn’t look entirely revolutionary from the outside.
But the city’s mayor and two local entrepreneurs — ardent supporters of the lab they expect to open during the year’s fourth quarter — are adamant that technology and IoT will continue to transform this city of more than 86,000 and yield huge dividends for the state and region.
The issue has also been a focus for Gov. Eric Holcomb. He visited Fishers to announce the lab in February and his Next Level Fund, part of a legislative agenda with the same name, will invest a quarter-billion over the next decade into venture capital, a potential boon for startups.
"To maintain our position as a leader in the new economy, IoT must be part of our strategy for the next generation of Hoosiers," Holcomb said in a statement earlier this year, commending IoT lab organizers.
Fishers is far from an unknown quantity. The freeway-adjacent community has grown so swiftly that it asked for a special census in 2003 from the U.S. Census. It became a city in 2015; last year, officials conducted another partial special census to assess high-growth areas.
Simultaneously, it is building a reputation for supporting technology. Launch Fishers, a co-working space near the future IoT lab, opened in 2012 under the aegis of entrepreneur John Wechsler, its CEO and founder; Mayor Scott Fadness; and John McDonald, CEO of IoT systems integration business ClearObject.
Discussions at Code and Coffee, a weekly development group meeting in the co-working space, helped create CrimeWatch, an app one of its developers built in consult with the Fishers Police Department. The app lets residents report suspicious activity; more than 5,000 have downloaded it.
Agency360, a company formed to create solutions to assist public safety personnel in doing more with less, has created field training software that lets officers quickly, easily and accurately document trainees’ progress. The company is headquartered at Launch Fishers.
“There’s already easily 10 IoT-focused companies in Fishers without them doing this. There’s already a ‘there’ there. It’s less aspirational than building it in the middle of a cornfield,” McDonald told Government Technology.
But he immediately called the lab — adjacent to Launch Fishers — a “bold move” and a “calculated risk” from a city “well ahead of most of its competitors in the U.S. and maybe in the world.” By supporting IoT, Fishers hopes to create a technology generator that could produce the state’s next bumper crop of signature industries.
Fadness, the city’s first-ever mayor, started at Fishers as an intern in 2006 and said officials have set a bold outward agenda even as they pursue an IT modernization intended to integrate solutions enterprise-wide and enable the free flow of data among departments.
He said the trio — McDonald, Wechsler and himself — see the IoT lab as “what’s next.”
The state does three things well: agriculture, distribution and manufacturing, the mayor said, and ranks in the top 5 in each category as a state.
“The challenge with all three of those is they’re about to be disrupted by the IoT in a way that they’ve probably not seen since the Industrial Revolution,” Fadness told Government Technology. “And what we want to make sure in Indiana is that we have an economy that’s growing around these technological innovations.”
Fishers is closely involved in the 24,562-square foot IoT lab at 9059 Technology Lane. Similarly to Launch Fishers, the city will pay for the lease of the building; while Launch Fishers, a 501c3 nonprofit, will pay for the lab’s day-to-day operations through membership fees and sponsorships.
More than 50 members have joined at a fee of $1,000 each, which entitles them to work out of the facility when it becomes available.
Major sponsors, whose contributions are more substantial — amounting, Wechsler said, to funding “specific functional areas or physical parts of the building” — include Comcast, AT&T, Indiana University and DeveloperTown, an Indianapolis ideation, app development and design company.
The lab’s soft opening date, originally thought to be this summer, has been pushed to October with a grand opening date likely in early 2018. But when its resources do become available, they’ll include a laser cutter, 3-D printer, a pick-and-place printed circuit board maker; and a stereolithography (SLA) printer that deploys 3-D printing technology to refined tolerances.
Being immediately south of Launch Fishers could stimulate some interesting connections, McDonald said, noting that research labs and co-working spaces have developed separately but not, to his knowledge, so closely together.
“We’re trying to get it up and running, and we’ll kind of build the airplane on the way down in terms of what this is going to be in the marketplace over the long-term,” Wechsler said, referring to the strategy as both “offensive and defensive.”
He characterized it as “an opportunity for us to extend our leadership position and kind of define the next industries that will lead our economy.”
The lab has yet to find its exact market position, but Fadness said it could one day offer employment to Indiana residents as existing jobs in agriculture and elsewhere become more automated.
Bigger picture, the mayor — who was successful, McDonald noted, in wooing ClearObject to relocate from Indianapolis to Fishers — said he’d like to convince Cummins Inc., headquartered in Columbus, Ind., to utilize it for developing IoT devices for their diesel and alternative fuel engines.
Depending upon its path and the solutions it creates, the lab could also play a role in providing IoT solutions to public agencies, Wechsler said.
“I think it’s not only smart from an economic development perspective to foster innovation in this space, but it could lead to better municipal services as well,” he added.
McDonald agreed, but pointed out that despite the city of Fishers’ dominant support, not every solution will have a place in the Indianapolis suburb. One issue, he said, will be leveraging the data.
“Just because you can collect it doesn’t mean it’s useful. And all too often, the challenge of municipalities has been in how do you apply the data to something productive for the running of a city,” McDonald said, noting that some solutions that have done well elsewhere like Shotspotter, the gunshot detection system, would be out of place in low-crime areas like Fishers.
But even these issues, he added, could be an entry point for the lab.
“We’re struggling with the use cases in smarter cities. The lab can explore those things and do interesting things and be an incubator for ideas just the way they’re an incubator for private reasons,” McDonald said.
Fadness said cities need to be “thoughtful” about the problems they’re trying to solve with IoT — but in Fishers, he emphasized, “we have always opened our doors to new technology.”
Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.