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Las Vegas Takes Steps Towards A Tech Revolution

(AP Photo/John Locher)

A tunnel boring machine sits at the bottom of a construction site during a media tour at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, in Las Vegas. Officials held an event Friday to mark the start of a year-long project by Elon Musk's The Boring Company to drill underground tunnels for a people mover to whisk passengers between stations at the Las Vegas Convention Center.


Ten years ago, neck-deep in the Great Recession, politicians, business people and others promised economic diversification.

While there was an improvement in some areas, it wasn’t a revolution of new companies, at least not in Southern Nevada. 

Now, they’re saying it again. This time, it’s the COVID-19 recession that’s pushing it. 

Business owners have expedited a digital move, doing away with brick and mortar storefronts and focusing on e-commerce.

Public and private transportation services are adapting their models to be more efficient, safe, and environmentally friendly.

Tech incubators from UNLV and the City of Las Vegas are housing and cultivating tech startups

Ryan Smith is the business development manager with the City of Las Vegas’ Economic Development Department.

The city created an innovation center to help support new startup businesses. Smith told KNPR’s State of Nevada that the center has 13 companies right now. It has also partnered with Startup Nevada, which uses federal economic development dollars to help companies scale up and get seed funding.

“I think one of the issues Southern Nevada has always had is: Where is the money coming from to invest in these companies and who is building that portfolio,” he said.

Smith said startup companies pitch their idea to Startup Nevada every month. If their pitch is accepted, they’re assigned a mentor and technical expertise to scale up and secure more money.

Smith said the city’s efforts to lure in more high-tech companies got a boost when it created an innovation district downtown. The city allowed tech companies to use public infrastructure to test some of their newest tech like autonomous vehicles.

One drawback was that while the companies were testing, they did not have a physical presence in Las Vegas. The city’s innovation center was launched to change that.

“We subsidized some of those companies to come in on rotating basis, do their project with the city and then hopefully, help them build their business scale and find success in Southern Nevada,” he said.

Smith said they have seen some successes from that model.

He predicts there will be even more success stories because over the past several years Las Vegas, and downtown Las Vegas, in particular, has started to bring in some of the housing and amenities that are needed to draw in and keep a high-tech workforce.

“When companies look to the location of where they’re going to choose to set up, they really take a look at the city, and it all comes down to: Does that technology worker want to live in that city and what are they looking for,” he said.

Now, with more housing, retail stores and restaurants downtown, Smith believes technology companies will be more likely to set up shop and stay in Las Vegas.

One company that did move to Las Vegas from California is Terbine. CEO David Knight told KNPR’s State of Nevada that Las Vegas is a viable place for big companies to set up an outpost or for startups to start from scratch.

However, he doesn’t think the focus should be on large legacy tech companies but on the new emerging technologies, like the new transportation technology the Boring Company is working on.

 “These are new frontiers which means the die is not cast,” he said, “There is nothing that says they have to be in Silicon Valley… I, frankly, think Las Vegas has a better platform than a lot of states.”

While Southern Nevada hasn’t seen an influx of new tech companies or startups, Knight said tech workers are moving here.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, people are moving to Las Vegas because companies have decided their work-from-home arrangements can now be permanent. Since Southern Nevada is a lot cheaper than San Francisco or Los Angeles, people are choosing to move here.

Robert Lang with Brookings Mountain West agreed an explosion of “extended commuters” from the Bay Area and Southern California will benefit Nevada.

“The fact is you can just live in a cheap state like this and work in those regional economies that is actually hopeful in that they’re essentially counted as extended commuters by the Census, which is: you work in one region and you live in another,” he said, “There will be an explosion in those numbers and we will benefit.”

What Southern Nevada hasn’t benefitted from, Lang argues, is money from the state to bring in high-tech companies. In fact, he says money from Southern Nevada, where the majority of people live, has been used to subsidize a tech revolution in Northern Nevada.

“Whatever money this state has had for inducing business relocation via tax relief, Las Vegas, in our data… has secured approximately a quarter of that while we’re three-quarters of the population,” he said, “One of the largest, most diverse urban counties in the United States has handed over the lion’s share of the money that it would use to induce relocation for firms in California, and so on, to two-thirds of the state expenditures were in a county of 4,200 mostly white people in Storey County.”

Lang said he is stunned by that, and he notes that doesn’t happen in other states.

A city like Las Vegas can’t just bring in new industries without the infrastructure to support those new workers. One area of the infrastructure that is looking at high-tech ways to improve is transportation.

David Swallow is the deputy CEO of the Regional Transportation Commission. The commission is looking at several new modes of transportation to make it easier and faster for people to get around.

One project is called GoMed. It is supposed to launch in 2022. The $7 million to fund the project is mostly coming from grants, and it will include self-driving shuttles, smart transit centers and more.

Swallow said the plan is to link the RTC’s main transit hub downtown with the medical district on Charleston Boulevard.

“Where you have University Medical Center, Valley Hospital, UNLV the school of medicine, having that big cluster connected to our main transit hub in downtown but doing it with autonomous shuttles, that are literally driving themselves,” he said, “It’s not about just that location it is more to demonstrate: Does this technology work? Could we deploy it in other parts of the valley?”

He said if the technology does work it might be deployed to areas of the city where a big bus is not needed but smaller autonomous neighborhood circulators could get people around instead.

Another transportation technology that is coming to Las Vegas is the Boring Company’s transportation system of tunnels and electric vehicles at the expanded Las Vegas Convention Center.

The company recently received approval to extend the tunnel to Resorts World, which is under construction on the other side of Las Vegas Boulevard from the convention center.

“Great opportunity for us to see a new type of transportation mode,” Swallow said, “If you’re going to demonstrate it anywhere, Las Vegas is the place to do that. I think what’s interesting about this concept going point to point. Instead of trying to group everybody onto one vehicle and to make various stops along the route. They’re grouping everybody who is going to the same place on the same vehicle and going directly there.”

Lang said if the Boring Company’s technology works out it could make Las Vegas the home base for the technology allowing it to be sent around the world from Southern Nevada.

New technology doesn’t always mean a brand-new way to do something like the Boring Company is creating. It can also mean improving on an existing technology or industry.

That is part of the idea behind UNLV’s technology park.

Zachary Miles is Associate Vice President for Economic Development at UNLV. UNLV recently opened the Harry Reid Research and Technology Park. The university predicts it will create 25,000 jobs and generate $2.6 billion in revenue.

Miles said bringing in a new company into Southern Nevada where the infrastructure may not exist for that industry can be difficult.

“I think building off of what you already have, taking the right steps forward has to be thought out or else you could have a lot of resources that establish and they’re just left empty or under-utilized,” he said.

UNLV partnered with Caesars Entertainment to create Black Fire Innovation at the tech park, which focuses on producing new technology for the casino, resort, entertainment and hospitality industries.

Miles said the technology developed can go beyond Nevada’s hospitality industry.

“These can spur other areas of innovation, diversify the economy but also tap into those regions,” he said.

It is not just large businesses and corporations that have had to adapt to the changing world caused by the coronavirus. Small businesses have as well.

Ken Evans is the president of the Urban Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas. He said many members of his chamber, especially in the food and beverage industry have had to adapt.

“They went online and they figured out ways for people to order online, pay online, whereas before they may not have been doing that,” he said, “That enabled them to realize revenue streams that they might not have had before and even if they did have them before, they did it more efficiently or effectively.”

Evans said many business owners he spoke with said they appreciated the “silver lining” of going online and they plan to have a hybrid even after the pandemic is over.

Ken Evans, President, Urban Chamber of Commerce; Ryan Smith, manager, Las Vegas Economic and Urban Development;  David Swallow, Deputy CEO, Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada; Zachary Miles, Associate Vice President for Economic Development, UNLV; Robert Lang, Executive Director, Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute; David Knight, CEO, Terbine

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Zachary Green is the Coordinating Producer and a Reporter for KNPR's State of Nevada Program. He reports on Clark County, minority affairs, health, real estate, business, and gardening. You'll occasionally hear Zachary Green reporting and fill-in hosting on the State of Nevada program.