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How regional technology hubs drive inclusive innovation

How regional technology hubs drive inclusive innovation


The U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) designated 31 Regional Technology Innovation Hubs (Tech Hubs) in October 2023. This summer, EDA will award implementation grants of $40-70 million each to approximately five to 10 of these 31 regional coalitions. The goal is to foster innovation clusters that strengthen national security, improve supply chain resiliency, and bolster America's position as a global leader in technology.

The federal government has been investing in innovation for decades, investing much more than the Tech Hub program's initial allocation of $500 million. But what makes this program notable is that it is designed to invest in ways that don't replicate the highly unequal economic, demographic, and geographic outcomes of America's current innovation economy. In fact, the EDA has made equity and inclusion a clear priority, calling on regional coalitions to develop strategies to intentionally invest in historically underserved urban and rural communities to unlock the full potential of the innovation economy.

Yet while the U.S. remains a leader in tech innovation, it lacks a clear roadmap for a comprehensive innovation strategy, nor a clear operational system for how to implement large-scale programmatic investments that connect technology investments to inclusive growth. Given this gap, the 31 tech hubs represent a unique inventory of the types of investments and organizational partnerships that regional innovation actors currently believe can simultaneously achieve innovation and inclusion as mutually reinforcing goals. In this article, we explore the tech hub strategies as diverse examples of current practice.

Ultimately, the Tech Hub Programme seeks to foster inclusive economic growth – a complex process influenced by many factors, including talent development, entrepreneurship, and the research processes and infrastructure needed to support technological innovation. As such, we reviewed 31 Tech Hub proposals in each of these areas and identified clear references to equity and inclusion in proposed investments, as well as opportunities for further engagement and action.

Equity and inclusion are now universally integrated into talent development strategies

All 31 tech hubs proposed specific, comprehensive workforce development strategies. Of these, training for technical jobs was the most common, mentioned in 81% (25) of tech hub proposals, as shown in Figure 1. Most of these strategies involve partnering with existing, scalable workforce training organizations with a proven track record of serving workers in underserved communities. For example, the NY SMART I-Corridor tech hub plans to increase collaboration across local workforce systems with Northland Workforce Training Center, which serves 876 students (62% people of color, 87% employment rate), as well as other organizations such as Tech Buffalo, Say Yes Buffalo, and Say Yes Syracuse.

Many regional coalitions also emphasize the important role of higher education institutions and employers in building a comprehensive talent pipeline. A majority (22) of the proposals include partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Tribal Colleges, or Other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) with existing accredited and specialized degree programs. Additionally, 71% (22) of the proposals include plans to engage employers to adopt more inclusive hiring and retention strategies, especially by reducing barriers of access for skilled workers without a four-year degree.

Nearly two-thirds (61%) of tech hubs plan to support inclusive entrepreneurial opportunities

Overarching strategies targeting new business development are also common, included in nearly two-thirds (61%) of the proposals. Strategies range from partnering with existing accelerators and incubators to provide targeted support to entrepreneurs in underinvested communities to expanding access to venture capital and specialized facilities to foster growth.

The Baltimore Tech Hub plan includes strategies to expand programs focused on connecting minority entrepreneurs to insurance provider innovation resources and supporting founders focused on healthcare access solutions, including the Conscious Venture Partners learning lab and 1501 Health, an incubator led by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield's innovation and investment arm. As part of the Minnesota MedTech Hub 3.0 coalition, Brown Venture Group will work with federal technology transfer offices such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to expedite the creation of licensing agreements for entrepreneurs of color, then partner with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to help expedite intellectual property (IP) applications.

Relatedly, 11 tech hubs, or nearly one-third (35%), have plans for inclusive procurement that will leverage existing resources and support organizations to expand opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses to access capital and enter into contracts with public and private entities. In Vermont, the GaN-VT Coalition will conduct outreach efforts and lead a database development effort to connect women-, minority- and Vermont-based startups, suppliers and service providers with industry and product needs.

Investments in innovation research, commercialization, and customized infrastructure are less likely to incorporate equity and inclusion.

At least compared to the workforce development and business development areas, equity and inclusion were mentioned less explicitly in proposed strategies related to innovation: Fourteen of these initiatives aimed to advance equitable research and commercialization, including prioritizing equitable research processes and outcomes (45%), and seven focused on building infrastructure to increase access to innovation opportunities for historically underserved communities (23%).

In advancing quantum research, Chicago's Block Tech Hub has demonstrated its commitment to prioritizing research that benefits equitably. For example, the coalition decided to prioritize fraud detection as an early use case, recognizing that addressing financial fraud disproportionately benefits low-income and unbanked communities. Meanwhile, the Birmingham Biotech Hub is building on decades of research at the University of Alabama to propose collecting racially diverse genomic data and providing diverse recruiting services to researchers to ensure communities of color are actively involved in developing medical technologies. The tech hub coalition also includes Acclinate, a Black-owned company that uses predictive analytics to find diverse leads for clinical trials.

The location and accessibility of physical infrastructure to drive innovation are also important to equity and inclusion, with nearly a quarter of tech hub proposals including infrastructure strategies that explicitly mentioned equity and inclusion. The Texama Semiconductor Tech Hub will build phablets (advanced, targeted, accessible labs with equipment enabling electronic design, semiconductor manufacturing, packaging, and/or testing) across the region to expand access to technology pilot activities, particularly in areas that have historically underinvested.

All tech hub applications mention equity and inclusivity in their approach to the consortium's governance.

The EDA required each applicant to develop a governance approach to organize a consortium of stakeholders to plan, fund, implement, and monitor their tech hub strategy. Indeed, recent findings from our effort to explore early implementation of similar locally-based policies (the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge) found that effective regional coalitions must embed equity and inclusion into the functional structures of collaborative governance that track progress, course-correct, and secure and allocate additional investment over time.

Given this finding, it is notable that all 31 tech hubs incorporate equity and inclusion goals into their governance strategies, albeit with considerable variation in how and to what extent. While some proposals simply state equity and inclusion as core values, others explicitly design governance structures that center historically excluded communities throughout the decision-making process. For example, the Tulsa Hub for Equity and Trusted Autonomy is intentionally structured to be co-led by Black Tech Street, Cherokee Nation Aerospace & Defense, and Osage LLC. All of these organizations have demonstrated the ability to engage and serve diverse communities.

Every region can contribute to achieving inclusive innovation and enhance national competitiveness

As EDA announces the recipients of five to 10 large-scale Tech Hub Implementation Grants this summer, this will be just the beginning of this federal effort to drive critical innovation in key strategic sectors to support the nation's emergency mission. Over the coming months, these tech hubs will face day-to-day and long-term choices including where to invest, which partners to engage with, and how to approach collaboration and decision-making as they execute their strategies. These decisions will ultimately determine whether they achieve inclusive growth and realize the full potential of their local economies.

Every region has room to grow. In this analysis, we counted only initiatives and strategies that explicitly involve or benefit historically underserved or excluded communities, such as women, people of color, workers without a four-year college degree, and rural and remote communities. That said, as the intentionally equitable and inclusive strategies highlighted throughout this article demonstrate, a wide range of other initiatives could easily be reimagined with intentional efforts to reduce barriers and ensure equal access to opportunities.

Importantly, it’s not just the five or 10 tech hubs that win implementation awards that have a role to play: regional partners such as state and local governments, philanthropic organizations and universities can play an increasingly important role in driving inclusive innovation and growth across the country, especially given the challenges of reduced funding and uncertainty at the federal level.




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