FRANKLYWNOW - Butterfly's Levine Joins Development Team

Butterfly's Levine Joins Development Team

David Levine twice has had a firsthand view of companies leaving instead of growing in West Virginia. Now, as director of technology and transformation in the state Development Office, he is in a position to help write a new ending for what has become the same old story. "I've seen it," he said. "You can build a successful company here." Levine opted to remain in West Virginia after his Martinsburg-based company, Butterfly.net, moved its headquarters to California this year. The company, of which he was CEO, produces online games for Sony Computer Entertainment using an IBM-powered grid that uses a network of servers. Investors stipulated the company would have to move from West Virginia after recently completing $10 million in financing. "I had to make a decision on whether to move or stay here and do something new," he said. "I've spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, and I couldn't in good conscience move my wife and three kids to either of those areas. My wife and I have once asked each other, if we could have grown up anywhere, where would that have been? This would be the place." Levine remains on Butterfly.net's board of directors, and the company still has a location in Martinsburg that concentrates on designing military simulation and educational games -- but he isn't happy about the company's move. "I believe the company will be successful with its current configuration, but I don't think expansion will happen any faster," he said. "It would've been better to stay here because it wouldn't have had the disruption of a move and a gap created between production and development and the head of the company, which is sales and marketing." Of the company's 20 employees, Levine said, probably one or two will make the move to California. "I think the company's growth will slow down," he said. "I don't think they'll actually hire anymore in West Virginia, which to me is a disappointment. ... I do believe, though, the office will remain an essential part of the company." Stigma and Promise He's seen it before. He was CEO of Ultraprise Corp., a business-to-business Web service, from 1998 to 2000, when it moved its headquarters from Shepherdstown to Virginia. The company had been in the state since 1994, when it launched with the help of $190,000 in state grant money. "The feeling is you can't scale a company here," said Levine, who founded three Internet startups before Butterfly.net. "With Ultraprise, the board of directors and some clients felt that if it was going to go public, it couldn't have its headquarters address in West Virginia. That was the only reason they moved the company to Virginia. And the move adversely affected the company and hurt the culture -- 110 employees had moved here because they wanted to work in a different environment." He was planning to start another business in West Virginia, but he thought another company would reach the same point and move out of the state. Levine was on Gov. Joe Manchin's transition team and said the governor's genuine concern for the state's future impressed him. The state, he said, has a unique opportunity with Manchin as governor to expand technological industry and infrastructure. "I don't think, with all the stars aligned like they are now, this chance will come again," he said. "It made sense at this point for me to leverage my experience and passion for the state and help transform it into a productive high-tech center." Not only does the state have a governor "passionate about prosperity," Levine said, it could be in position to take advantage of movement within the technology industry. Jobs are going to India and Argentina, "and if Argentina can get these tech jobs, why not West Virginia?" he said. "It seems we have an economic opportunity based on change." The Internet, he continued, has "collapsed time and distance." "So it becomes a question of where you want to live," said Levine, a Maryland native with a philosophy degree from Yale University who first discovered West Virginia in the early 1990s when he was part of the pit crew for the Army of Darkness motorcycle racing team. "West Virginia, I think, is the perfect place to live." Levine said many people feel as he does. They would stay in the state if opportunities existed. Skilled engineers remain even as the chemical industry slowly dissipates from the Kanawha Valley, for instance. "The talent is here," Levine said. "It's a matter of setting the mission and getting people to stay." Pieces of the Plan Levine hopes to eventually have four people working under him and in different parts of the state. His office is technically in Charleston, but he pointed to his personal digital assistant and said, "My real office is here." Levine's management philosophy, which he hopes to apply to the public sector, involves bridging employees, customers and the market, as well as introducing innovative technology to the market at the right time. "It's not going to be enough chasing old technology and old industry, even if they are only 15 minutes old," he said. "We have to create lasting value. ... The state needs to get to the point where we have all the pieces so we don't face the issue of lack of belief." His goals: improving broadband through public-private partnerships, exporting energy production innovations and developing technology that could solve some of West Virginia's problems, such as poor health. His message is that West Virginia can support both entrepreneurs and large companies. "But it's a lot more than marketing," he said. "Everyone wants to live in a small town, but they don't know if they can. We need to make companies like Cisco and IBM think of West Virginia in the same way they think of India and Argentina." Cisco, Yahoo and Intel have shown interest in "rural outsourcing" in West Virginia, Levine said. Outsourcing to countries such as India means cultural gaps in methodology and style. The technology industry moves fast, "and everything is about the next moment," Levine said. His new position allows him to step back and look at a state moving slowly. "I really love that shift in perspective," he said. "We still have to move fast; it's just that the stakes are higher. You have to be more careful because a lot more people are affected. ... Knowing where you're going is probably the primary asset in this job."

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