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Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Tech execs
in Hawaii

Telecom event officials are
hoping to sell the merits of
doing business in the isles

By Tim Ruel

Finding the right hub for workers is a major issue for Silicon Valley businessman Robert Harbison, who wants to start a new software business in Hawaii.

Pacific Telecommunications Council Money, however, is not a problem.

"I could probably pull $10 million together in 90 days," Harbison said in a quick deadpan tone from his cell phone, noting he has secured venture financing for several fast-growing California companies in recent years.

Harbison is in town for the 23rd annual conference of Pacific Telecommunications Council at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, which has drawn more than 1,800 tech executives from around the world.

Although the four-day event wraps up today, Harbison said he plans to join a tour tomorrow of the state's high-tech business locales, which he hopes will help lay the groundwork for his new company.

The Tech Tour, spawned by organizers of the conference, kicks off downtown with visits to the offices of technology firms Adtech, WorldPoint Interactive, NetEnterprise Inc. and Summit Communications.

Council officials said the three-day tour has already attracted about a dozen mainland technology executives, like Harbison, who are looking at Hawaii for their next venture or for an office of an existing firm.

The tour also will visit the West Oahu offices of Campbell Estate, where Seattle-based Mid-Pacific Broadband Inc. will present its plan to build a massive Internet data warehouse in Kapolei.

Afterward, participants will split up over the weekend to visit sites on the neighbor islands, including the Maui supercomputer, the Pacific Missile Range facility on West Kauai, and the Keck telescope on the Big Island.

"It's all about seeing what's going on here in terms of high tech," said Hoyt Zia, executive director of the local nonprofit Pacific Telecommunications Council.

"There's a perception among businesspeople from the mainland and elsewhere that Hawaii is a tropic paradise and it's for one purpose only, right?" Zia asked. "We're hoping this is what will help bridge that credibility gap."

Harbison said he is primarily drawn to Hawaii's government-funded technology sites, such as the supercomputer, because that is a place where high-tech growth occurs, he said. He said he has had preliminary talks with Campbell Estate and the economic development boards of Oahu and the Big Island about where to locate the company.

"Those are exactly the kinds of leads that we're picking up at the conference," said Jeanne Schultz, marketing manager for Campbell Estate. She's gone to the event for years, but noted this is the first time she's seen it lead to local business deals.

Harbison said he has also been talking with state agencies to look at ways to staff the company with Hawaii residents who have left the state in search of high-tech jobs on the mainland. Initially, he'd be looking for about 10 employees, and finding the right ones comes before anything else.

"I'm a different kind of entrepreneur. I don't think of an idea and then try to find the right people."

Born in Nashville, Tenn., Harbison founded San Jose, Calif.-based StarVox Inc. in 1997 and secured $32 million for it from venture capitalists while serving as chief technology officer, he said. The company, which develops software to handle voice communication over the Internet, has gone from six employees to 70, and now has offices in London, Chicago and Atlanta.

Harbison said he left the company in March and now is a principal in VentureView Associates, a Sausalito, Calif.-based firm that consults venture capitalists and start-up companies looking for venture financing.

After buying a residence in Kona a year ago, Harbison said he found the state has the perfect climate for a new company, at least in comparison with San Francisco.

"I have had it with the Bay Area," he said. "The price of housing has gone through the ceiling. People are rats in a cage."

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