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DataRobot CEO sees potential in W.Va.

Photo Courtesy/WVU VIEW FROM ATOP — Views of West Virginia University’s Downtown, Evansdale and HSC campus areas as seen from Granville.

CHARLESTON – Over the last couple of years, West Virginia has seen steady growth in technology companies calling the Mountain State home, creating a new kind of Mountaineer explorer.

Most recently, Boston-based DataRobot announced an expansion into West Virginia. The “Augmented Intelligence” company is opening an office at Vantage Ventures in Morgantown.

In a phone interview, DataRobot CEO Dan Wright said he was convinced to open a DataRobot office in West Virginia after conversations with John Chambers, the former chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems and the namesake for the John Chambers College of Business and Economics at West Virginia University.

Vantage Venture, which also grew out of conversations with Chambers, is a business and technology incubator designed to foster entrepreneurs and innovators. The organization works to recruit talent and businesses, such as DataRobot.

“John obviously is from West Virginia,” Wright said. “He’s a big, big advocate for the state and we were catching up and he told me about the opportunity that he saw with West Virginia to create a real hub for entrepreneurship and innovation.”

DataRobot specializes in enterprise artificial intelligence, using computers to take data to develop strategies for business, healthcare, insurance, banking and financial markets – a process called “decision intelligence.” DataRobot employees are already using these technologies to develop tools to help communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 to ensure resources go to those most in need.

Wright’s continued conversations with Chambers, WVU officials, and state and federal officials helped seal the deal to expand into West Virginia. Working with the state, Wright said the relationship between DataRobot and the state can be mutually beneficial.

“They saw an opportunity to create jobs in a rapidly growing field and to solve hard problems together, like academic preparedness, how do we make sure we’re better prepared for future pandemics, including through the use of AI and technology, and also things like improving health outcomes in rural communities,” Wright said. “Those are the types of problems that are kind of worthwhile and worth spending some time and energy to see if we can help solve.”

One of the officials who helped recruit Wright was State Auditor J.B. McCuskey. He sees an opportunity to work with DataRobot to help make state government more efficient and helpful to citizens.

“From the very beginning of my term as Auditor, we have been committed to the utilization of accurate data to improve how our government functions and improve the lives of the people in our state,” said McCuskey. “I am incredibly excited to have brought DataRobot to West Virginia as we begin to build our economy in a technology and data-driven way.”

It’s just solely a business decision for Wright. Morgantown’s proximity to Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and the east coast, combined with the state’s outdoor recreation opportunities makes West Virginia an ideal location for young workers.

“I noticed immediately as I was coming into Morgantown the really green rolling hills and the river,” Wright said. “I heard from everybody that I met about the world-class hiking and climbing and skiing and all of the different things that you can do. That also played into our desire to not only create an innovation hub, but I think a lot of the excitement from our current employees and from others to settle in West Virginia and to stay in West Virginia and to build their lives and their careers in the state.”

DataRobot is just one tech company out of several setting up in West Virginia, seeing a place to try new ideas. Just this week, the state approved FreedomTrust through the new fintech (financial technology) regulatory sandbox. FreedomTrust works with financial institutions and investors who wish to invest in the cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin.

“We are honored to be the first company admitted into the West Virginia fintech regulatory sandbox,” said Joshua Bryant, partner and digital asset advisor at FreedomTrust. “It feels like West Virginia wants us to be here. It is very exciting to see the state encourage entrepreneurship – especially companies in the digital asset and cryptocurrency industry, which we believe will revolutionize finance.”

Last fall, Virgin Hyperloop announced the construction of their Hyperloop Certification Center on 800 acres of land between Tucker and Grant counties. The Virgin Hyperloop project proposes a high-speed passenger and cargo transportation system using pods that travel through vacuum tubes using a proprietary magnetic levitation system. Pods would move up to 28 people at a time and bring down the cost of transporting goods, while having a lower environmental impact.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies discovered that their employees could easily work from home. Brad Smith, chairman of financial software firm Intuit, launched Ascend WV – an effort to recruit remote workers to West Virginia. The program offers $12,000 for remote workers to move to West Virginia, as well as one year’s worth of free outdoor recreation.

Wright said he sees the possibility of more tech companies setting up in West Virginia, much like how Silicon Valley in California started as small businesses began to set up in one area. Wright believes the state is a welcoming place to start a new tech hub.

“I really do feel like we are being welcomed and I expect that we’re going to continue to invest as the state invests,” Wright said. “If that happens, what that’s going to do is set an example for everybody else and more companies…will want to come to the state and that’s how these big tech hubs get started. I like the idea of a new Silicon Valley in Morgantown and West Virginia. That has a nice ring to it. And I think it’s definitely in the cards here.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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