New Hampshire tries to reclaim tech vibe

DYN director of deliverability Steve Wheeler at work with his dog Lacie by his side. Floor to ceiling live plant wall hangings, right, decorate sections of the lower level workspace. CREDIT: Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe
DYN director of deliverability Steve Wheeler at work with his dog Lacie by his side. Floor to ceiling live plant wall hangings, right, decorate sections of the lower level workspace. CREDIT: Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe

MANCHESTER, N.H. — In one corner, a guy was hunched over his laptop, working on a pitch for a smartphone app that would allow golfers to summon the beverage cart from anywhere on the course. On another side of the office, a tech staffer was working the phone while keeping his eyes on two flat-screen monitors.

The location was one of those trendy-looking technology incubation centers, with glossy wood floors and exposed ventilation ducts, that are common in downtown Boston or Kendall Square. But Alpha Loft is in New Hampshire, a state better known for its mountains, lakes, and minimalist approach to government.

And more remarkable, Alpha Loft probably wouldn’t exist were it not for the concerted efforts of government and business leaders to boost New Hampshire’s start-up community.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Granite State had a sizable technology sector, with companies lured by the state’s low taxes and business-friendly reputation — marketed as the “New Hampshire Advantage.” With the likes of industry giants such as Digital Equipment Corp., New Hampshire in the late 1990s had the most high-tech professionals per capita of any state.

But where New Hampshire once reaped the benefits of its proximity to the Massachusetts technology belt, today its distance from the urban innovation scene is a disadvantage.

Dynamic Network Services Inc principals security administrator Neil Schelly, left, and automation engineer Matt Goodwin, right, make the kitchen their workspace for the day. DYN is a startup tech company situated in a renovated mill building. Photo: Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe.

Massachusetts got about $4.7 ­billion in venture capital investment in 2014, according to data from the National Venture Capital Association, or $694 on a per-capita basis. In New Hampshire, investment totaled $112.8 million, or $85 per capita.

(As the state’s boosters will point out, New Hampshire’s per-capita investment­ still places it among the top 10 states in country.)

So New Hampshire officials are increasingly­ turning their efforts toward marketing the state as uniquely hospitable to startups and entrepreneurs. Last year, the New Hampshire Business Finance Authority launched a program called “Live Free and Start.” A take on the state’s motto (“Live free or die”), the program aims to connect startups with advice, investors, and seed money.

Alpha Loft, with locations in Manchester, Portsmouth, and Durham, is a nonprofit that receives funding from the University of New Hampshire and a consortium of tech companies.

Underlying the efforts is a sobering economic reality: New Hampshire is a rapidly graying state. The proportion of seniors in Southern New Hampshire compared to adults between 25 and 44 has doubled since 1990.

In contrast, the ratio in the Boston area has held steady in that time period at about 1 to 3.

New Hampshire also­ has the second-highest percentage in the country of high school students who leave the state for college.

Ross Gittell, formerly a leading UNH economics scholar and now the chancellor of the state’s community college system, said the things that once made New Hampshire attractive to baby boomers — low taxes, good schools, tidy suburbs — don’t hold much sway with millennials, who are seen as the lifeblood of the new tech economy.

Owner of Vector Spect, Donald Schwartz, seen through a window, at work in Alpha Loft. Alpha Loft incubates and accelerates startup and early-stage companies in NH. Photo: Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe.

“This new generation is a little more attracted to urban areas, wanting less to be dependent on cars and maybe delaying having kids,” Gittell said.

Given these demographic concerns, it’s no wonder that a company called Dyn has emerged as the great hope for New Hampshire’s tech scene. Dyn operates as a kind of traffic manager for the global Internet, contracting with companies such as Twitter to optimize the performance of their websites.

The company has grown to more than 400 employees, and the vast majority work at its headquarters in a sprawling former mill building in Manchester. The space is brimming with the kind of quirky amenities one might find in Silicon Valley: a climbing wall in a conference room, vintage arcade games, a cafeteria that serves up gourmet farm-to-table fare.

Jeremy Hitchcock, the company’s founder and chief executive, said ­during a recent tour that he wanted to add even more of the amenities that coveted tech workers have come to ­expect.

“If we’re in Manchester, New Hampshire, and not downtown Boston, we have to have something different, more unique,” he said.

Hitchcock doesn’t fret about New Hampshire losing ground to Boston, viewing the city as an integral part of a shared regional economy.

“Yeah, there’s a state border there,” he said, while pointing out that the distance between Boston and Manchester is comparable to that between San Francisco and San Jose.

Longtime business leaders insist that tech investors are increasingly taking notice of the startup scene in New Hampshire.

Matt Rightmire, a managing director of Borealis Ventures, a New Hampshire venture capital firm that has invested in numerous local startups, notes the state has several tech clusters: in Manchester, Portsmouth, and in the Lebanon area near Dartmouth College, where a program is underway to spin off biotechnology ventures.

Borealis and the Business Finance Authority teamed up to create the Granite Fund to identify and finance promising startups based in New Hampshire.

As for the challenge of attracting young talent to a state that’s not known for its hipness, Rightmire said that it’s necessary to give New Hampshire time.

“These things ebb and flow. At the same time millennials say they want an urban location, they say, ‘I appreciate all the things a place like New Hampshire can offer me in other aspects of my life,’ ” Rightmire said.