When I reached out to Robbie Melton, executive director and CEO of the state’s High Technology Development Corporation (HTDC), on the premise of talking with the organization’s “new” leader, I was shocked when she mentioned that she’d been there for an entire year.

Wow, where does the time go? But, more importantly, what has Melton been up to this whole time? And what’s on HTDC’s to-do list for 2015?

Established in 1983, HTDC’s mission is to “help develop and retain high tech in Hawaii.” Its core initiatives are to provide incubation facilities, business development services, access to technology and research grants, and to support workforce development.

Aligned with that mission, Melton’s pet project is the so-called “80/80” plan, which aims to create 80,000 new technology jobs with salaries of at least $80,000 by 2030.

Robbie Melton

Robbie Melton gives legislators a recent overview of the HTDC’s innovation center incubators.

Courtesy of HTDC

“Tech isn’t just software or hardware or telcom, which is what pops into everyone’s mind,” Melton explained as we began our conversation.

“It’s more than that, especially for Hawaii, and it has to be. There’s biotech, ag tech, aquaculture. Tech is everywhere, and we want to focus on its long-term development for Hawaii.”

But it’s difficult getting people to focus on “tech” as more than just iPhone apps and Uber, which is why Melton and the HTDC team hit the road late last year for a “SPIN Crawl” tour of Honolulu’s “startup paradise innovation network.” (Get it, S.P.I.N.?)

They set up the event for legislators because Melton recognized early on that leading HTDC was also going to be a difficult crawl.

“When I came, people said, ‘HTDC? That’s the incubator in Manoa, right?’ But we’re so much more than that. We want to develop the entire tech industry in the state, explain to people what an incubator is and why it’s important, and show how the local co-working spaces and accelerators fit into the whole picture.”

“I can see that there’s a hub building around tech in Hawaii. It gives me hope. It gave me hope before I moved back here. And I think that I can make a difference.” — Robbie Melton

The 80/80 jobs plan was announced at the SPIN Crawl, and it’s a pretty lofty goal, especially for a region with little to no existing tech jobs.

At least that’s what I thought.

“According to the Hawaii Business Roundtable, there are about 76,000 tech positions in Hawaii today,” Melton added.

Wait, what? Seventy-six-thousand tech jobs? In Hawaii? Where?

Looking at the data for tech jobs that was included in Enterprise Honolulu’s recent “The Innovation Framework Forward” report, and assuming it’s similar to HBR’s (because they reference HBR’s research), they’re using a very broad definition of “technology.” While they include obvious professions, such as computer support specialists, they also count the not-so-obvious, such as architects, surveyors, psychologists, and social scientists.

The Innovation Framework Forward report explains that HBR used a “standard method of sizing an industry,” which means that the chef employed by Google is considered a tech worker just as the software developer employed by Marriott is a tourism worker. (That’s called politician’s math, I think.) Anyway, since HBR’s report has yet to be released, we’ll have to wait to see its math.

But still, 80,000 new jobs is a lot, regardless of their category. And, $80,000 is a nice salary for Hawaii, especially given that the 2013 average salary for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs is under $63,000 in Hawaii. (Although, keeping pace with just 1 percent annual inflation, that $63K will be $73K in 2030, so there’s not much growth required to hit HTDC’s 80/80 salary goal.)

Talk of salaries prompted Melton to relay her own story, and how she had to take a significant pay cut to return home to Hawaii, even though the cost of living is higher than what she was used to near the nation’s capital. Hawaii needs more higher-wage jobs, obviously, and Melton thinks that tech is the most-promising path.

“I can see that there’s a hub building around tech in Hawaii. It gives me hope. It gave me hope before I moved back here. And I think that I can make a difference. I think that someone has to figure out what’s missing here, and I have the added experience to help make things happen in government.”

“According to the Hawaii Business Roundtable, there are about 76,000 tech positions in Hawaii today.” — Robbie Melton

And then the talk turns to innovation, which seems to be the buzzword of the decade.

“Innovation is happening everywhere, not just in the city,” Melton explained.

“Tech is part of innovation. It’s new processes, new ways of doing things, creative ideas. ‘Resistance to change’ is an old mantra, and it’s no longer true here. Things here are changing, evolving. And if we want to help the economy, if companies in Hawaii want to help the local economy, then we have to think big.”

So what is HTDC’s big thinking for 2015? When pressed about HTDC’s focus for the year, Melton offered up a few areas of interest, including broadband, tech parks, and more funding for existing programs, all helping to support the 80/80 plan.

“The lack of broadband here is squashing business, but it has to be affordable for everyone so we need to do something there. There’s a new research and development tax credit, but it’s only for incremental R&D dollars so it’s not going to be very useful. We want more funding for those types of programs, ones that give businesses an incentive to innovate and add tech jobs.”

And therein lies the crux of the challenge for Hawaii: we need to incentivize companies to innovate and add tech jobs. We need to use taxpayer dollars to educate business owners on why running a “lifestyle business” isn’t helping our economy, it’s hurting it. That growing a business isn’t a burden, and that being innovative is good for business.

But then that’s not free-market capitalism, is it? That doesn’t mesh with the #LuckyWeLiveHawaii lifestyle, does it?

It’s almost as if we’re trying to recreate Silicon Valley in a place that has no desire to ever be anything but Hawaii.

Why bother?

About the Author

  • Jason Rushin
    Jason Rushin has nearly 20 years of experience in software marketing, consulting, and engineering, and currently works as a marketing consultant for high tech clients, both locally and in Silicon Valley. Prior to relocating to Hawaii in 2010, he led marketing at several Silicon Valley software startups. Once in Hawaii, he launched and subsequently sold his own startup, and has been an active supporter of Hawaii’s small-but-growing startup ecosystem. Jason holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.