CHARLOTTE … Although the high-tech bubble has burst, a brave new technology world is filled with possibilities, especially in North Carolina, according to speakers at the second annual Charlotte technology conference, sponsored by the North Carolina Electronic and Information Technologies Association.

Aptly enough, the conference Wednesday at the University of North Carolina Charlotte was titled TopTech 2003: North Carolina Innovation/ Global Opportunities.

“The fall of dot-coms was not the fall of technology,” Al Segars, a professor at the UNC Chapel Hill, told conference attendees Wednesday. The $95 billion of consumer e-business expected to be conducted this year is proof alone of that, he says.

Kathy Harris, vice president and chief of research for market research firm Gartner, paints an exciting picture of the future featuring milk cartons with chips that send a message to your computer when the freshness date has expired and a message system that automatically reads e-mails to you when you’re driving and holds all work messages when you’re at the movies.

We’ll also see computers, networks and data on chips, Harris predicts, as well as devices powered by batteries and fuel cells and computers embedded in everyday objects.

Microsoft is spending $5 billion annually on research and development, senior researcher Turner Whitted says. Although Microsoft’s research arm was founded only 12 years ago, virtually every product the company now ships uses technology it developed. In the works right now are high-speed networks, wireless technology, data mining, large display units, Smart Personal Object Technology and computers than can see, hear and sense touch.

More seed money needed

But the conference was more than an evangelical event for true believers in tech. Another common theme expressed by the speakers was the lack of seed money for start-up firms.

“The biggest hurdle is taking something from concept to production,” says Mark Wdowik, director of the Office of Technology Transfer at UNC Charlotte. “But the money isn’t there for it.”

Joe Freddoso, Research Triangle Park site manager for Cisco Systems, suggests that the state provide tax incentives for companies, especially small ones, for R&D and for hiring graduates of North Carolina colleges. Cisco recently awarded 30 grants to university researchers across the country, including UNC Chapel Hill.

“The growth of companies like ours is helped by a healthy start-up community,” Freddoso says. “Tech workers are attracted by a culture of innovation.”

Responding to the need for seed money for start-ups, Durham-based Southeast Interactive Technology Funds now makes investments of $250,000 to young companies, says managing director Norvell Miller.

“We see it as due diligence dollars,” he says. “It allows us to move more quickly and to take more risks.”

Risky business

Still, it was pointed out that 80 percent of the venture capital invested in North Carolina still goes to the RTP area and most of it goes to later-stage companies. Is North Carolina a risk aversion state?

“Well, it takes a long time for a region to grow up,” says Mike Elliott, a partner with Wakefield Group in Charlotte. “We’d all like it to go faster.”

Miller says Charlotte is a large area that has not fully developed. “It’s a financial center, and there are a lot of older companies that use technology,” he says. “I’d like to see a marriage between the mature users and the new innovative companies.”

A number of the speakers also agree that the next trend in technology innovation will be consumer-oriented.

“The next great opportunity will be in touching consumers, not enterprises,” Miller says. “They will be products that empower consumers. Ebay and are the early predecessors of that we’ll be seeing.”

But he notes and others agree, “It will be a very volatile next five years.”