A number of common themes emerged from the “Conversation with the Greats – Tech Icons Panel during the opening lunch at the CED’s Tech Venture Conference today. Those included what makes the Triangle a great place for companies that grew large here, such as Red Hat, Cree, and SAS, as well as for entrepreneurs just starting out, and the need for continuing investments to keep it that way.

The panel, led by Jim Whitehurst, president and CEO of Red Hat, inlcuded Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS, Jesse Lipson, vice president and general manager, Citrix, Mac Noel, executive chair of Nomaco Inc, and Chuck Swoboda, chair and CEO of Cree.

Swoboda noted that “The Triangle is a great place to recruit people to from other parts of the country and often when we get them here, they want to stick around.”

Noel said, “We came here with 20 people and today we’re 700. Everything matched up for a company that was going to grow.”

More WRAL TechWire coverage of CED conference:

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  • CED Tech Venture Conference features some 80 startups

The Triangle has all the that attract young talent to the region, said Goodnight, “Entertainment, food, music and we’re two hours from the coast and three from the mountains.”

Goodnight added that SAS continues to grow. “We just opened a new building and have more on the drawing board.” Goodnight emphasized the need for continuing investment in STEM education to keep the region vital. “STEM is where the action is.”

Cree, Swaboda said, “has spent well over a billion dollars” developing its business in North Carolina. “But it’s not about what we’ve done, it’s about where we’re going. There is a tremendous amount of technology being developed in this state.”

Lipson called attention to how the density of startups in the area has increased, citing a study that lists Raleigh/Cary up to number 8 in 2010 from number 11 in 1990 and Durham’s big jump from not even being in the top 10 among mid-sized cities in 1990 to number 3 in 2010.

Citrix, Lipson said, recently moved its headquarters to downtown Raleigh for “That networking effect.” Citrix, he added, wants to build entrepreneurial “on-ramps” that help talented university students “see a path to stay in the area.”

Lipson said that both the increasing startup density combined with population growth will “Lead to amazing changes in certain areas. We’re already seeing some.” The startup activity in downtown Durham, for instance, transformed its Main Street from boarded up stores to an influx of businesses from pharmacies to a book store and restaurants.

Swoboda noted that “Investment over the last 30 years made all this possible. It didn’t happen by accident. We have to keep investing.”

Noel said North Carolina’s balance between agriculture, manufacturing and capital is healthy, but we we should ask, “Where are we and where can we go?”

Goodnight added that increasing density is a good thing. “We need to move more people closer to where they work and cut down on traffic. I don’t think we can do much to improve I-40 and it’s a parking lot out there now in the morning.”

Whitehurst added that transportation issues are important when competing for talent and we need to be thinking 20 years ahead.

“We have to avoid spreading ourselves too thin,” said Lipson. “I think it hurt us that we were a little dispersed in the past.”