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Charlotte’s aspirations to become big in Big Data



blog-details-eye-slashFeb 14, 2014


Essential parts missing to create hub in information technology’s frontier

Charlotte wants to be big in Big Data. That would be no small feat as technology and analytics expand possibilities for using the petabytes of information generated annually worldwide.

Local leaders in business and government aim to make Charlotte a national hub for Big Data companies and related services. And promoters can claim some successes.

The region is already home to Premier Inc., the company that analyzes health-care data and employs 950 in Charlotte. It has a market capitalization of more than $1.1 billion.

UNC Charlotte’s data science and business analytics program is ramping up, offering graduate certificates in the field now and by this spring will offer graduate degrees. The Charlotte Chamber has put Big Data companies at the top of its recruiting targets.

But the industry’s focus is shifting from hardware — the storage capacity — to analytics, which is the translation of the data into something useful. In that translation and analysis side of the business, Charlotte is not yet producing or attracting the employee base it will need to compete with emerging centers such as Boston, New York, Atlanta and Raleigh, says Abhi Mehta, co-founder of homegrown Big Data startup Tresata.

“We are incredibly weak in that area,” he says.

To date, Tresata’s solution has been to have offices in Charlotte and New York for its roughly two dozen employees. Put simplistically, Mehta hires the industry experts here and the programming experts there.

Derek Wang, who teaches at UNC Charlotte and has his own Big Data startup, Taste Analytics, agrees that analysis is increasingly the key in a world where data is produced each year in quadrillions of bytes (the definition of a petabyte).

“Big Data is actually dumb data,” he says. “The challenge and the opportunity is to make it talk to us.”

Taste Analytics produces software that converts data into visual representations that can be used by people not trained in data analytics. To date, Taste has sold products in the retail and financial-services industry and to government offices.

Although his company is smaller than Tresata, Wang agrees the talent pool in Charlotte is not yet big enough to support a national hub.

“Everyone is fighting for talent,” he says. “I think we have a long way to go in comparison to Boston, San Francisco and New York.”

Yi Deng, UNC Charlotte’s dean of the College of Computing and Informatics, says filling that gap is a principal focus of the data sciences and business analytics initiative.

“Everyone is talking about how we don’t have the people available,” he says. “We have the scale here at the university to make it happen, to provide those people.”

He sees UNC Charlotte filling a specific and important niche. The Research Triangle universities have a reputation as a hub for technology. Charlotte, he says, can make itself the hub for “the intelligent use of technology.”

Sean Cassidy, general manager for enterprise provider analytics at Premier, thinks the efforts at UNC Charlotte will prove important.

Premier started in 1968. It has grown from a database company for a small group of owner-hospitals to a company offering purchasing services and a broad range of information technology — including analytics — to a network of 2,900 health-care organizations nationwide.

It has 1,600 employees. With that national reach, Premier has more options for attracting the employees it needs than Charlotte’s Big Data startups. But Cassidy sees the initiative at UNC Charlotte as a boon to his company and a resource for the local business community.

“We hire a lot of graduates out of the local universities,” he says. “And if you think about the organizations that need Big Data — banking and financial, retail, health care, telecommunications and energy — they are already here in Charlotte.”

Cassidy says that creates a base for attracting data companies that will hire students trained locally.

Mehta says the university initiative is a step in the right direction. But Charlotte does not fully understand what it needs to create the kind of data hub it envisions, he says.

Training people to develop and use Big Data is important. But to turn the region into a hub, you will need jobs created here. And that requires a startup-friendly business climate, which he says Charlotte lacks.

“The concentration of household names in Charlotte should translate into the city becoming an entrepreneurial hub, and we are far from that,” he says.

“It befuddles me why I am talking to New York’s largest energy company and not Duke Energy,” he adds. “Why I am talking to the largest telephone company in the world in New York and not the health-care system in Charlotte?”

Charlotte has a unique opportunity to become a hub for Big Data, he believes. That’s one reason he has kept Tresata’s headquarters here — to prove a world-class Big Data startup can be created in Charlotte.

But he says the business community here has to develop the sensibility already common in Silicon Valley, Boston and New York where big companies are willing to buy technology from small, cutting-edge companies.

He says of all the large companies in Charlotte — including those that have provided significant support for UNC Charlotte and the Big Data effort — only Harris Teeter Supermarkets Inc. has shown that mindset.

“If we want to establish an entrepreneurial ecosystem, the most important thing is a large-company ecosystem that loves buying from small companies, then ends up buying the small company itself,” he says.

“This is what I call the system of ‘capital regeneration’ that exists in Silicon Valley, but doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

Wang has run into some of the same problems getting Taste Analytics in front of potential customers. And unlike Mehta, he has not ventured outside the region for opportunities for growth.

“It is challenging, and the really key question is where to find clients,” he says. “We deal with what we have.”