You don’t have to search far to find someone who is ready to be done with 2016. For many, the combination of an unprecedented election of Donald Trump; the death of icons like Prince and David Bowie; and a variety of shootings, attacks and international crises made it feel like a particularly bad year.
Even on the Austin tech level, there were several developments seen by many as setbacks for the tech community — the departure of Uber and Lyft; new laws on short-term rentals and an ongoing funding gap. But, don’t forget, 2016 saw the launch of dozens of promising Austin tech startups. Efforts to improve diversity in tech moved into high gear. And new venture capital funds continue to come online almost as fast as new ride-hailing companies enter the market.
There’s a lot to chew on. And we’ve summed up five of the biggest stories of the year, and added the 11 other biggest stories in Austin tech. Let’s dive in.
From the moment Austin City Council members revisited the city’s ride-hailing regulations in 2015, Uber began using aggressive tactics aimed at retaining laws that it viewed as favorable to its business model. Even though the city council passed its new fingerprint-based background check laws in 2015, the issue has had its biggest impact in 2016. In January and February, an Uber- and Lyft-backed coalition gathered thousands of signatures to force a citywide vote on whether to reverse the new fingerprint check laws. Uber and Lyft spent more than $10 million advertising and campaigning, an unprecedented amount of political spending in Austin.
Austin’s second-most watched regulatory debate involving tech pitted a home grown business — HomeAway — against City Hall. After getting complaints about short-term renters partying too hard and disrupting neighbors, the city council moved to ban Type 2 rentals, which are properties owned by someone who doesn’t live there and rent the property out on a short-term basis. Before that vote, HomeAway leaders and their supporters proposed self-policing measures to handle any complaints of bad renters. But the move failed, even after HomeAway and its supporters marched to city hall. The city council approved the gradual phasing-out of those rentals in a 9-2 vote.
Even though the full ban doesn’t start until 2022, the decision had immediate impact. Silicon Valley investor and former Austinite Mike Maples said in response that his fund is no longer going to invest in on-demand companies in Austin.
Michael Dell may not be the most outspoken of tech leaders, but his ambition may be unrivaled. After re-taking control of his company in 2013, Dell has been extolling the virtues of being a private company that doesn’t have to please investors with each quarterly earnings report. In 2015, he announced Dell had begun talks to acquire tech giant EMC Corp. It represented the largest tech deal in history with a $67 billion pricetag. In September 2016, after months of financial manuevering and selling off companies Dell had previously acquired, Dell closed the deal, acquiring EMC for about $63 billion. You can see a full timeline of the transaction here.
Austin voters in 2012 agreed to add 5 cents to every property owner’s tax rate to help the University of Texas build a medical school. In 2016, Austin started seeing the results as new buildings rose and the Dell Medical School began inviting technologists, medical experts and the wider community to pitch ideas in hopes of rapidly improving community health and expediting promising technologies. Though it’s just getting started, 2016 was a pivotal year for the school and the greater Austin healthcare and health tech communitites.
Just months after getting a $19 million infusion of capital and winning a NASA contract, Cedar Park-based Firefly Space Systems announced a major investor had pulled out and the company would temporarily cease operations. It marked the likely end of one of the most promising new startups in Central Texas — a company that would further cement the region’s reputation for rocket testing. It remains unclear what the company will do with its remaining technologies and equipment.
Here are the rest of 2016’s biggest Austin tech stories
data.world Emerges from Stealth to Connect Siloed Data: The company, founded by former Bazaarvoice founder Brett Hurt, is a social network for data scientists, reserachers, journalists and others to share data sets, queries and other anlaysis with aims to connect data knowledge around the world.
Magic Leap, Still Mysterious, Opens Austin Office as VR/AR Grows: It’s not augmented reality. It’s not virtual reality. Magic Leap calls it mixed reality. And, while we still don’t know what Magic Leap is really doing, their new R&D facility in North Austin is said to be pivotal to the company’s work. And it’s part of a massive push into the VR space in Austin, which includes a forthcoming VR studio in Capital Factory and several new AR/VR companies.
Police Swarm Capital Factory to Find Renegade Ride-Hailing Company: Austin added at least 10 ride-hailing companies after Uber and Lyft left. But Arcade City wasn’t, officially, one of them. It continued to operate against the city’s will, and, in July police entered Capital Factory to find the company’s founder to issue a cititation. Arcade City continues to operate and is now looking to expand to Houston, which has a ride-hailing regulations debate of its own.
President Obama Talks Tech in Austin at SXSW: It was the first time a sitting president spoke at SXSW, and Obama’s call to bring more tech talent into the government was followed by several visits from high-ranking Obama administraiton officials.
Diversity in Tech Shifts from Talk to Action with Launch of DivInc, True Wealth Ventures and Notley Ventures: Diversity in tech was one of the year’s biggest themes, and Austin tech leaders took on the challenge by launching new diversity-focused venture capital funds, accelerators and support groups as diverse founders launched new companies.
Co-Working and Coding Schools Rapidly Expand in Austin: There seems to be no limit to the number of new co-working spaces and coding schools as the city’s startup scene expands rapidly. WeWork added offices at University Park and the Domain. Industrious opened offices at a new building at 5th and Colorado, and several other smaller offices opened elsewhere. In 2017, Vuka plans to open two new offices — one in north Austin and another in south Austin.
Yeti Files for IPO, but Delays Offering: The cooler company’s growth has been amazing, and the company decided to file paperwork to take the company public. Since then, however, the company has backtracked and its IPO date remains unknown.
Department of Defense and Army Launch Hacking & Innovation Efforts in Austin: Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Army Secretary Eric Fanning each visited Capital Factory to announce new programs to take advantage of Austin tech and cybersecurity experts’ innovations.
Austin Tech Gets Political as ATA and ATC Launch Policy Groups: After the Uber vote, the Austin Technology Council started a policy group to weigh in on issues at city hall and the statehouse. The Austin Tech Alliance, founded by Joshua Baer and Dan Graham, also launched with aims to inform the tech community of tech-related issues in city hall and beyond.
Indeed Expands with Plans to Hire 1K New Employees: The job-hunting company expanded rapidly in 2016, opening a new office in northwest Austin and announcing plans to hire 1,000 more workers.