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Lake Tahoe provides powerful draw for techies

John Seelmeyer

In the competition for top talent that’s one of the critical factors determining the success of a technology company, a growing number of companies are learning that a Lake Tahoe location is a powerful competitive advantage.

The number of technology-based companies headquartered at Incline Village, Zephyr Cove, Stateline and other towns around Lake Tahoe remains modest, and most of them employ relatively small numbers of workers.

But the industry is providing a much-needed shot of diversity to the Lake Tahoe economy, reducing its reliance on tourism.

Among the pioneers of the technology industry in the Lake Tahoe area is Zephyr Photonics, launched 25 years ago as a research-and-development firm. Then known as Opticomp, the Zephyr Cove company worked on deeply secret projects to develop communications systems for the Pentagon.

Acquired late last year by Torch Hill Investment Partners of Washington, D.C., Zephyr Photonics today is moving into commercial markets. It employs 35 and operates a 17,000-square-foot facility that includes a clean room and on-site fabrication and testing facilities.

It continues to work on defense contracts. It also struck a partnership with Teledyne Microelectronics Technologies, and it’s developing technology to deliver high-bandwidth communications in harsh environments.

While the company recently added a facility in Los Altos, Calif., Zephyr Photonics remains committed to Zephyr Cove for the long haul, says Tom Steding, its president and chief executive.

“We have access to a lifestyle that supports a great work-life balance for our team,” Steding says. “This is home.”

He says the company expects to boost its staff to 53 in the two locations by the end of 2012, and it’s looking to fill positions for photonic, electrical and testing engineers. Historically, a large portion of the company’s workers have held doctorates in their fields.

A much-smaller company, Incline Village-based GreenArrays Inc., shows how the technology industry can affect the Lake Tahoe economy even though the company doesn’t technically have any employees.

GreenArrays, founded by computing pioneer Chuck Moore in 2009, is developing high-powered computer chips that use exceptionally small amounts of power.

Most of the company’s work from business operations and marketing to testing of printed circuit boards is conducted at Incline Village, says Greg Bailey, the president of Green Arrays.

Even though neither Moore or Bailey draw a paycheck from the company, they work for GreenArrays fulltime.

Then, Bailey explains, the company’s staffing works like this:

“There are three other fellows who contribute their time in significant quantities and who visit Incline often; for that reason the house I rent has extra bedrooms so we can afford to house our people when they visit. In addition there are four more technical people who get involved mostly on specific projects but who do not have daily duties. Three more people participate in the management of the company as directors but do not have any day to day duties, and several more people helped found the company and are likely to be available for work in the future.”

The total: Five who act like employees, four who act like consultants, and at least 10 who act as shareholders, advisors, consultants and potential employees.

“Welcome,” Bailey quips, “to the wonderful world of startups.”

GreenArrays is headquartered at Incline Village, he says, for the simple reason that Moore decided to live in the Lake Tahoe community.

But the company now finds business advantages as well in its Incline Village location.

“All other things being equal who would not want to live and work in this peerlessly beautiful and clean environment, which by the way comes with no personal income tax?” Bailey says. “Net connectivity is excellent, delivery services are fast so that everything from office supplies to electronic parts and test equipment can be had next day when desired, and rents for living and office space here are comparable with those in urban areas such as Portland, Ore.”

Similar motivation the combination of a Lake Tahoe lifestyle with Nevada’s business-friendly tax environment led to the growth of Tavormina & Associates at Incline Village, says Carla Freeman, director of marketing for the company.

Privately held Tavormina & Associates employs 15 at Incline Village, along with a cadre of remote employees in the region.

The company provides consulting services about RF and wireless technologies. A recent major contract, for instance, has found Tavormina & Associates working closely with Pacific Gas & Electric to design and implement its SmartMeter program.

While many of the technology companies at Lake Tahoe are small, growth of the sector will be felt across northern Nevada.

“The growth in technology companies at Lake Tahoe is important for the entire region as many of the employees that work there will be living in the Reno, Sparks, Carson City area and therefore providing an economic impact that supports the region,” says Mike Kazmierski, president of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. “Additionally, as we push the region to grow the technology sector there is a natural synergy that occurs with the increased density of the similar types of companies. So adding more technology companies at Lake Tahoe will make it easier to attract other technology companies to the region in the future.”


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