Announcement released by USA Today

SAN FRANCISCO — Best-selling author JD Vance and AOL co-founder Steve Case are taking a road trip through America’s heartland this fall.

This isn’t a buddy picture conjured by Hollywood screenwriters, but a serious campaign to drum up interest in tech start-ups not based in Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, Seattle and other coastal tech hubs.

Case, co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based venture capital firm Revolution LLC, started the crusade with Rise of the Rest, a 3-year-old nationwide initiative to support and promote entrepreneurs in emerging start-up ecosystems.

Vance, a technology investor who signed on to Rise of the Rest in March, reached an even larger audience with Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. His reflections on the struggling white working class in eastern Kentucky and an Ohio town pummeled by the decline of a steel-making company provided insights into President Trump’s appeal with those who live in so-called flyover country.

Both Case and Vance believe in the power of the technology industry to breathe new life into the American Dream in places where it has been slipping away for decades.

“The feeling is out there and again the data suggests it’s not just a feeling, it’s kind of a reality. Because you are only backing the entrepreneurs in places like Silicon Valley that are disrupting industries, sectors and companies in the middle of the country, but you are not at least partially offsetting that by backing entrepreneurs in those cities who could be creating companies that create jobs,” Case said. “It’s not surprising that we have a disconnect and a problem and a lot of people who are fearful of the future and not eager to embrace the future.”

The seven city, five-state tour starts in Pennsylvania on Oct. 10 and wends its way through Michigan, Indiana and Ohio before wrapping up in Green Bay, Wisc., on Oct. 17, places that were once a hotbed for innovation and where they see promising new ideas springing up in agricultural tech, robotics and transportation.


“The thing that occurs to me when I think about the cities we selected for this particular tour is one, they are all in the area of the country that is often called the Rust Belt, and as a consequence these are areas that have seen a fair amount of struggle, they have been hit hard by the trends of globalization,” says Vance, who was raised in Middletown, Ohio and worked for a venture capital firm run by Peter Thiel in the San Francisco Bay Area, before returning home, to Columbus, in February.

The caravan, now in its fourth year, will follow a similar format in each city: A breakfast with civic leaders and business people to get a sense of the community. A start-up crawl of incubators, accelerators, coding academies and young companies. And, finally, a fireside chat and pitch competition, in which Case invests $100,000 in a local start-up. Over the past three years, Case has been to 26 cities and logged more than 6,000 miles.

Case and Vance found common ground through a series of conversations on Twitter and met up in person late last year. The presidential election added urgency to the conversation.

“Clearly, the 2016 presidential election brought into focus that there are a lot of people and lot of parts of the country that feel left out and left behind,” Case says.

Despite first class research universities and a wealth of Fortune 500 companies, the heartland reaps 3% of venture capital in the U.S.

“The data is the data and last year the (National Venture Capital Association) said that 75% of venture capital went to just three states: California, New York and Massachusetts,” Case acknowledges. “A year before, it was 78%, so I guess that’s progress for us. But it’s pretty modest progress. So that suggests to us that there is still a lot of work to do.”

Vance and Case say they have a message for Silicon Valley. They want investors to get out of their cars and their comfort zones and onto planes to check out technology being hatched in the Midwest.

Capital, and the advice and networks that come with it, is the missing ingredient to building more and better companies there, they say. In turn, Silicon Valley can get in on deals being overlooked.

“Rise of the Rest is really not an anti-Silicon Valley thing, it’s a pro the rest of the country thing,” Case said. “Obviously Silicon Valley is well positioned and will continue to spawn all kinds of iconic, change-the-world kinds of companies. But at the same time there are a lot of great entrepreneurs who are also building change-the world-companies in other places that just don’t get the attention and don’t get the capital, so we are trying to address that.”