Lincoln’s silicon prairie

by Tegan Colton

Lincoln, Nebraska is part of what’s known colloquially as Silicon Prairie. The name is taken from California’s Silicon Valley, home of international tech giants like Apple, Google and Facebook. Silicon Prairie is a greater collective of cities in the Midwest that are ripe with budding tech startups and are considered ideal places to incubate new companies. It’s a perfect way to describe Lincoln’s downtown area, home to Nebraska’s homegrown tech giants Hudl, Nelnet and Allo. 

Hudl stands proudly in the heart of Lincoln’s Haymarket. Visitors will recognize it instantly; its enormous orange, circular logo, lit up in bright neon lights, is difficult to miss. Inside you’ll find a vast, white room with a single pair of sleek elevators that will take you up to the business level. When the doors open, you’ll find something rather curious: a wall of lockers and what looks like a full-sized basketball court, complete with bleachers and dotted with employees busy on their laptops. It might seem like unusual décor for a tech company, but it makes sense for Hudl—a business dedicated to developing technology for high school and college sports teams. 

Hudl was founded in 2006 by David Graff, Brian Kaiser and John Wirtz, three graduates from Lincoln’s Jeffrey S. Raikes School in Computer Science and Management. Graff, who worked with Nebraska’s football team as a graduate assistant, noticed that distributing DVDs and paper playbooks was wasting valuable time and resources. He teamed up with Kaiser and Wirtz, fellow students who lived across the hall, to develop software to put these study tools online. What began as a way to help the Nebraska Cornhuskers train more efficiently developed into a multimillion-dollar company serving 130,000 teams and 3.5 million unique users in several countries around the globe. 

Hudl serves soccer, basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, American football, track and field, wrestling, ice hockey, golf, basketball and softball teams at the high school, college and professional levels. Hudl allows coaches to record games, practice and training sessions, upload video to a sharing platform and help their teams and individual players see areas of improvement. Add-ons to this service provide advanced performance analysis, automatic game breakdowns by professionals, smart cameras that automatically record games, software to help coaches make critical in-game adjustments and to help make data-driven decisions with real-time statistical analysis. These products have helped coaches train their teams more effectively and have saved teams thousands of hours of practice time. 

The software is so influential it’s been mentioned in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CBS News and Tech Crunch. Hudl’s popularity continues to grow, and it may soon become the new standard for how professional and amateur teams alike train their players.

A few blocks away from Hudl, on the corner of 13th and O streets, a building that once housed an iconic Lincoln department store, is now the headquarters for Nelnet. Founded in Lincoln in 1996 by Mike Dunlap and Steve Butterfield, Nelnet is the United States’ largest servicer of student loans. Inside the building, behind a pair of tall glass doors, you’ll find a smattering of lime-green décor and the bustle of finely dressed businessmen and women. Their job is to ensure that their clients—46 percent

of student loan borrowers in the United States and many more abroad—can wisely and effectively finance their education. Nelnet not only allows prospective students to borrow money for school, but also offers a variety of repayment plans, loan consolidation and public service loan forgiveness. 

One of Nelnet’s biggest contributions to education, both in the U.S. and overseas, are their business solutions, which include tuition management, financial aid assessment and school administration software for K-12 schools and college campuses. This includes software that helps colleges manage their students’ tuition payments as well as administer grants, scholarships and other forms of student aid. Nelnet also helps schools maximize their federal funding and provides services for teachers to keep them sharp on their educational methods. 

As Nelnet expands, the company aims to continue helping students in the US and around the world achieve their educational ambitions. The company is also acquiring new tech companies that help communities stay connected and flourish.

One such company is Allo, a subsidiary of Nelnet that was created in 2003 out of a need to provide better communication services to Nebraska. Allo was started by Nebraska native Brad Moline and Jeff Kuenne, who saw the opportunity to build a state-of-the-art fiber network around the state. Fiber technology is significantly faster and more reliable than standard cable, so as Allo grew, so did Nebraskans’ access to fast and reliable internet, TV and phone services. 

What initially began as a small startup meant to serve locals in Scottsbluff and Gering, now serves more than 380,000 people in Alliance, Bridgeport, Lincoln, Ogallala, North Platte, Hastings and Fort Morgan, Colorado. 

Nelnet acquired Allo in 2015 in pursuit of creating a more connected city, and soon after the company began building an intricate network of fiber cables beneath local neighborhoods. Starting downtown, this endeavor introduced one gigabyte internet speeds to Lincoln for the first time, which is why over the past three years Lincolnites may have seen Allo’s construction workers—clad in bright, lime green—digging around their homes and under their workplaces. The digging ended in early 2019; now Lincolnites all over the city can enjoy Allo’s speedy internet, phone service and crisp, reliable TV.

One of the reasons Allo was able to so quickly connect the downtown—and a major reason for coming to Lincoln—is that 30 years ago visionary city engineer Virendra Singh convinced Lincoln to connect downtown and city offices with a 355-mile copper conduit system for fiber optics, part of which Allo now leases.

Hudl, Nelnet and Allo have flourished in Lincoln due to the progression and inventiveness that’s key to the city’s culture. Not only do these companies provide Lincolnites and Nebraskans with fresh, new tech and innovative services, but they also lay the groundwork for others to walk in their ambitious footsteps. As more inventors and entrepreneurs flock to the Midwest to establish their companies, Lincoln will become home to many more tech startups and will further solidify its place as a paramount city in the Silicon Prairie. 

 

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