It started like so many business deals, over chicken wings and beer following a round of golf.
It culminated Thursday in the grand opening of a Microsoft-led technology partnership and business incubator in Summerlin, with Gov. Brian Sandoval and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman on hand to celebrate.
Both Sandoval and Goodman have emphasized diversifying the state’s economy away from the construction and hospitality-services jobs that have long dominated, and each said the 8,500-square-foot lab, called the LINQ360 Innovation Center, represents an important step toward attracting new industries.
Sandoval noted that LINQ360 is the first tech center of its kind in the country.
"This is the essence of why I’m optimistic about the future of our state," Sandoval said after a tour of the center. "Things are starting to trend upward. We’re showcasing places like this that are making Las Vegas, and Nevada, the center for technology in the United States. This is going to be a model for other people to see. It’s going to be a magnet for technology and for innovation ."
Added Goodman: "We’re very proud of the fact that you chose us to have this wonderful service and business. It’s cutting-edge, it’s going to benefit our lifeblood industry, and with all these brilliant people here, I’m sure you’ll be able to expand into all aspects of our business community."
The LINQ360 Innovation Center will house Microsoft Hospitality Ecosystem Partners, a group of technology firms that develop software and services for the hotel industry. The center’s idea: to create an incubator, or a haven for the development of new technologies and businesses, and to give hospitality executives one place where they can sample those offerings.
"The mission was to create a facility to collaborate, integrate and innovate for the world’s leading hotel brands," said Michael Infante, the global alliance and industry manager for Microsoft’s hospitality segment. "With so many complex systems required to operate modern high-end hotels, the task of selecting solution providers is often a daunting one. The goal of the partner Ecosystem is to align best-in-class partners to make these decisions easier for hotel operators. Now, with the LINQ360 Innovation Center, hospitality executives can experience them all in one place. It’s really the ideal way to convey the benefits of a truly integrated set of technology solutions."
Aside from Microsoft, the center’s 15 partners include Hewlett Packard, Alcatel-Lucent, SuiteLinq, Cenium and Red Rock Software. The Nevada Development Authority, which has marketed the center to partner businesses, will also have space on-site. In its earliest stages, the center will house 20 to 30 employees earning around $35,000 at the entry level, with incomes in the "triple digits for senior players," said Scott Garrison, president of LINQ360.
Dan Levine, principal of New Jersey relocation and site-selection consultant MetroCompare, said the partnership has strong prospects because of its focus.
"It’s leveraging a core Las Vegas competitive strength, which is hospitality," Levine said. "Incubators are most successful when they grow organically from a strength already in the community, as opposed to aspiring to something that isn’t there already. It’s always a good idea to attract entrepreneurs and promote innovation in a key cluster."
Whether the center could expand, or lure technology developers from outside hospitality or Las Vegas, would depend at least partly on how broadly its early innovations can be applied beyond the hotel sector, Levine said.
"My guess is they’ll be successful in exactly the areas they think they’ll be successful in," he said. "They’ll hire good entrepreneurs with good ideas regarding specific problems they’re trying to solve. If promising technologies pop up, the developing companies will enter into licensing agreements and be able to grow. It does have the possibility to spill off into other directions in a positive way."
Though the center is starting small, it probably won’t stay that way, Levine said.
"The fact that it’s small shouldn’t dissuade anybody. By their very nature, incubators are small. They attract entrepreneurs with a limited number of employees," Levine said. "But the right ideas might grow. And you have to start someplace. Having a company like Microsoft invest in an incubator in your community is tremendous. It’s not a bad name to be dropping."
The center had its beginnings a year ago, over a table inside Red Rock Country Club. On hand were Infante, Garrison and Craig Ziegler, president of Philadelphia-based SuiteLinq, a company that provides on-demand entertainment and business services for hotel customers.
"We were talking about MicroSoft’s innovation center in Redmond (Wash.), and how we should bring a center like that to Las Vegas and have it focus on hospitality," Garrison said. "We envisioned a center of excellence where academic institutions, business incubators, businesses and professional associates could have a permanent home to serve the hospitality industry."
Inside the center, hospitality executives visiting from around the world will be immersed in an environment that replicates all of a hotel’s systems, from back-of-the-house catering operations to in-room controls.
"As a hotelier, you will be able to experience all these technologies, and we will collaborate with institutions of higher education to develop road maps and curriculums for the next round of employees we’re looking for," Ziegler said.
Early interest in the center has proven big enough that its operators already plan an additional 5,500 square feet of space. Seven to eight members could join the partnership in coming months, Ziegler said.
The founders said they expect the center to spur business development, as startups move into the building to develop their technology under the Microsoft umbrella, and existing tech businesses move to Las Vegas to work inside the center. It’s already happening: Ziegler said he’s relocating SuiteLinq’s headquarters to Las Vegas in the next six to eight months, and another partner, Norwegian hotel-software developer Cenium, has chosen the center as its North American base. Ziegler said LINQ360’s office park is home to more buildings that might draw still other technology companies looking to be near the center.
"We want to create a mini Silicon Valley in Summerlin," he said.
Somer Hollingsworth, president and chief executive officer of the Nevada Development Authority, said the center takes local economic development to a higher level.
"Look at the players involved in this. Nothing like this has ever happened in Las Vegas," Hollingsworth said. "It creates a huge amount of synergy, and it gives huge credibility to what we’ve always said: We are a technology-driven community, and some of the best tech infrastructure in the world is right here."
Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at email@example.com or 702-380-4512.