: Singaporeans drawn to Austin Texas where big tech firms and migrants are powering its rise
AUSTIN – “Keep Austin weird” the slogan goes – and it seems to be working.
The famously liberal city in otherwise heavily conservative Texas, which has branded its “weird” factor that is best described as laidback, funky and offbeat, has emerged as one of the biggest winners from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Austin’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth today is the second fastest of any city in the United States, after San Francisco.
In October 2022, the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina estimated that Austin’s GDP grew 4.3 per cent in 2022, second only to San Francisco’s 4.8 per cent.
Its population is also expanding. Yet its cost of living, while climbing, is much lower than that in either San Francisco or Los Angeles. And, most crucially for bottom lines, Texas has no corporate income tax.
Equally crucial, the explosion of remote work during the pandemic dramatically expanded options.
Austin has long been underpinned by solid, decades-long academic and tech credentials from the University of Texas, Dell and Texas Instruments, among others. But it is migrants from other states – often from California, often young and often in tech – who are today powering Austin’s ecosystem.
In 2021, Oracle moved its headquarters to Austin. That same year, Mr Elon Musk moved Tesla’s headquarters to Austin. The Tesla Gigafactory, a building over 1km long, occupies 809ha of land just outside the city.
The pandemic was also a factor in bringing Singaporean Anthony Chow to Austin.
Mr Chow, 36, is chief executive and co-founder of igloocompany, which started with a couple of soldering kits and components in Singapore, and launched its first product in 2016. Now, its smart locks and lockboxes are sold in more than 100 countries, including the US, where the company ships from two rows of shelves in a warehouse in Austin.
Mr Chow believes in a keyless world of smart cities, in which a property manager does not have to drive large distances with multiple keys, for instance. Operating locks remotely also minimises human contact.
His locks found enthusiastic support from short-term homestay booking platform Airbnb, and the company’s first foreign market was Australia.
But their application goes much beyond houses and apartments to offices and factories, as well as shared infrastructure from cars to tennis courts.
And when the pandemic struck and economies in Asia ground to a halt, the US continued to rumble on.
Mr Chow and his team saw an opportunity there. The pandemic suddenly induced many, to varying degrees across the globe, to limit human contact.
“Working remotely actually enabled them to continue to operate,” said Mr Chow. “But to enable that, you need digital solutions to help you manage your operations. And keyless access solutions became very important because contactless access became the trending term.
“Everything needs to be contactless. Nobody wants to meet each other any more.”
Enterprise Singapore helped Mr Chow and his team to travel and connect with city councils in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and Austin.
“Austin was the most welcoming,” Mr Chow told The Straits Times in an interview at the warehouse from where his products ship.
“I think the entire city in Austin wanted to become a tech hub,” he added. “Over the past couple of years, that’s what the mayor and everyone here has been pushing for very, very strongly.”
“We found that tech talent was getting more and more vibrant over here, especially during the pandemic. A lot of people are moving, from the East and West Coasts into the Sun Belt area, where the rent is cheaper.”
And “there’s no income tax here, and no state tax”, he said. “There’s only federal tax.”
A third major factor is location. For a consumer product that needs to be shipped, being on either US coast means one would have to ship cross-country.
But Austin, besides all the rest of its plus points, has location in its favour. It is close to the major port of Houston and roughly equidistant from each coast.
Another Singaporean, Mr Dan Poh, also 36 but in a very different line of work, took just five days to decide on setting up an office in Austin.
He is chief revenue officer and co-founder of Cynopsis. It helps clients navigate and comply with the world of regulatory technology – international rules, regimes and protocols designed to know one’s customer and prevent money laundering associated with terrorism, fraud and transnational crime.
Cynopsis has offices in Singapore, Britain, Abu Dhabi, Vietnam, Taiwan, New York and San Francisco. Austin is the site of its middle and back office, Mr Poh said in a cafe in downtown Austin.
It had taken him just five days, he said, to decide on Austin.
“One key reason is the people here are pretty much talented and... There’s a lot of energy, given that these people are also young,” he added.
“They come from different perspectives as well, (which) adds value to our company.”
Austin, given its pluses, is not a very hard sell for Mr Roland Pena, senior vice-president of global tech and innovation at the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
“I don’t think there’s any other place, specifically if you’re focused on tech, where you should be,” he said.
“It just has so many (of the) right ingredients… for someone on the personal side who’s looking for a home, who’s looking for a place to land and find all the amenities and find what they’re looking for: affordability, opportunity, that type of thing.”
Enterprise Singapore noticed the potential and rise of Austin.
At least seven Singapore companies are set to travel there on March 10 to 19 to participate in South by South-west, a major event which celebrates the convergence of tech, film, music, education and culture.
“Austin... traditionally started off with strength in advanced manufacturing,” said Mr Clarence Hoe, executive director of the Americas and Europe at Enterprise Singapore. He is based in New York.
“University of Texas at Austin is one of the top-ranking schools when it comes to engineering talent in the whole of the United States,” he added.
“(But) I think over the years, what we have seen is that they have grown to be more diversified… (and) done very well in start-up rankings. Their innovation ecosystem has been growing well.”
At the warehouse in Austin where igloocompany ships its products from, omni logistics distribution manager Erik Mora chimed in after a staff pizza lunch.
“It’s not just tech companies,” he said. “It’s companies in general.
“I don’t know what it is about the vibe of this city. In any kind of ranking, Austin is always at the top.
“People just want to be part of Austin.”
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.