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High tech grows inside Beltway

The District of Columbia joins the rising number of U.S. regions that want to compete with Silicon Valley.

Sitting from his eighth-floor office in Virginia with a bird's-eye view of the Dulles Toll Road, Robert Templin has seen technology companies bloom in his region like Washington's famous cherry blossoms in the spring.

America Online (AOL), Novell (NOVL), and Computer Associates (CA) have set up shop along the heavily traveled corridor. And if Templin has his way, other technology firms will also soon find a home in the greater Washington, D.C., area.

Templin's group, Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology, supports recent efforts under way by the Potomac KnowledgeWay Project, a nonprofit group designed to attract and spur growth of tech companies in metropolitan Washington.

KnowledgeWay, however, is up against many other regions aggressively vying for technology companies.

It will join about a dozen other regions through out the United States--from Silicon Alley in New York to Silicon Valley in California--that are looking to bolster their economies with tech companies, workers, and investments to develop prominence as the region for high technology.

"We clearly know there are competitors out there--not only in the U.S. but also overseas like in Malaysia and China," KnowledgeWay spokeswoman Clair Sassin said. "But we have natural resources to draw on. We have information and knowledgeable workers."

Sassin defines the natural resources as the depository of information stored at government agencies that line the streets of Capitol Hill. And, she notes, a growing number of entrepreneurs and companies are taking this information, repackaging it or creating new content, and distributing it over the Internet.

KnowledgeWay, which incorporated in June 1995, has in its database more than 500 entrepreneurs from suburban Maryland, Northern Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

The group is seeking to raise $10 million to achieve three main goals in the next five years: Attract 2,000 new digital firms, create 50,000 new jobs beyond the normal growth rate, and increase the region's personal consumption by $3.5 billion annually by 2,002.

The role of KnowledgeWay is to support growth in the tech industry, but the group doesn't have the authority or responsibility of cutting tax-break deals and other arrangements to attract companies to the area. That task falls to such groups as Templin's Innovative Technology organization.

Greater Washington employs 262,000 technology workers at more than 2,300 companies--giving it the second-highest concentration of technology companies in the country, according to a George Mason University study.

Templin said efforts to bolster the region's reputation as a tech center have emerged as Washington has seen the role of the defense industry dwindle.

"Before, our economy was heavily dependent on the government, and technology itself was not yet mature enough to need applications for the talent that we have here," Templin said. "But downsizing of the government and the role of the Internet and telecommunications have been a major stimulus for entrepreneurialism here."