It was huge news last fall when Amazon announced it would be building a second company headquarters somewhere in North America. Of the more than 200 cities which applied to be chosen for "Amazon HQ2," the ecommerce giant has now whittled the list down to 20 contenders: Toronto, Columbus, Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, Nashville, Los Angeles, Dallas, Austin, Boston, New York City, Newark, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Montgomery County, Washington (D.C.), Raleigh, Northern Virginia, Atlanta and Miami.
It's an enormous opportunity expected to bring with it as many as 50,000 jobs and tens of billions of dollars' worth of investment, but in reality only a handful of areas are best suited to be chosen by Amazon. That's according to Matt McIlwain, managing director at Madrona Venture Group, the most active and largest VC firm in the Seattle area and an early investor in Amazon. He has been investing in machine learning, AI and intelligent apps lately including several co-invests with Bezos Expeditions, Paul Allen's Vulcan Capital, Amazon and Microsoft. Here are McIlwain's words on which locations are most likely to make the final cut.
Several Centers of Excellence
Overall, I continue to believe that an Eastern time zone location is the most likely location should Amazon pick one location for their HQ2 city. With that in mind, I believe Washington, D.C., Boston and Atlanta are the top three contenders. However, it still seems more logical to me that Amazon will chose to have three to four "Centers of Excellence" cities where they may commit to 10,000 to 15,000 employees per city and pick those cities for certain areas of deep talent and expertise. If that proves to be true, then Toronto, Dallas, Austin and Pittsburgh become prospects for the "Centers of Excellence" cities.
Washington, D.C., Area
Amazon picked three of the 20 finalists in the greater Washington, D.C., area, which has a long history of telecommunications depth, government work, AOL and international talent. There are three major airports in the region and while traffic is troublesome there is good mass transit. There is also the growing importance of government relations and public policy in the technology world. In addition, Amazon Web Services has one of their largest and most frequent testing regions in Northern Virginia along with their Government Cloud efforts. Finally, it doesn't hurt that Jeff Bezos is remodeling a large home in Washington, D.C., and owns The Washington Post.
This region has very strong technical talent and a positive (from Amazon's perspective) supply and demand imbalance of deep technology (robotics, AI/ML, systems technology) capabilities. Many of the largest technology companies that once headquartered in Boston (DEC, EMC, Lotus) are gone and even the newest "anchor tenant" GE is potentially getting much smaller. The infrastructure (one airport, older mass transit) is not as good as other cities and the taxes are comparatively high. But, the current governor is pro-business and strategic on trying to attract such a larger and impactful company. Finally, Amazon already has a good presence in robotics and AI/ML in the area.
Atlanta has a very interesting mix of executive talent with companies like Delta Airlines, UPS, Coca Cola and Home Depot and CNN/Turner all being based there. There are substantial strengths in transportation, logistics and technology from these companies and large regional or US headquarters for other corporations (Dallas can make a similar claim). Research institutions like Georgia Tech, Emory and others nearby also help. Atlanta has a world class airport and strong public transportation although they struggle, like these other finalists, with rush hour traffic. Finally, Georgia has a pro-growth and investment governor and the Atlanta civic leaders have become increasingly strategic on growing their ecosystem. While I wrestled with whether Atlanta or Dallas (and Texas is even more pro-growth with no state income tax), the preference for an Eastern time zone city led me to Atlanta on the short list.
If they go with more than one city, I do think the other four finalist cities above have a strong chance of being included. I just don't see them picking Toronto if it is truly the HQ2. The one out of those that could surprise me as the sole HQ2 is Dallas.