How Regional Technology Hubs can advance inclusive innovation

Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA downtown city skyline at twilight.
Tulsa, Okla. | Photo credit: Shutterstock

In October 2023, the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) designated 31 Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs (Tech Hubs). This summer, the EDA expects to award implementation grants of $40-$70 million to each of approximately five to ten of these 31 regional coalitions. The goal: grow innovation clusters that enhance national security, improve supply chain resilience, and bolster America’s position as a global leader in technology.

The federal government has invested in innovation for decades, including at much larger sums than the Tech Hubs’ program’s initial $500 million allotment. But the program is notable because it is designed to deliver investments in ways that avoid replicating the highly unequal economic, demographic, and geographic outcomes present in America’s current innovation economy. In fact, the EDA has made equity and inclusion an explicit priority, calling for regional coalitions to design strategies that intentionally invest in historically underserved communities—both urban and rural—to activate the full potential of their innovation economy.

Yet, while America remains a technological innovation leader, there is no definitive roadmap for an inclusive innovation strategy nor a clear “operating system” for how to deliver programmatic investments, at scale, that translate investments in technology into inclusive growth. Given this gap, the 31 Tech Hubs represent a unique inventory of the types of investments and institutional partnerships which regional innovation actors currently believe can unleash innovation and inclusion together, as mutually reinforcing objectives. In this piece, we examine Tech Hub strategies as diverse examples of current practice.

Ultimately, the Tech Hubs program seeks to enhance inclusive economic growth, a complex process influenced by many drivers: talent development, entrepreneurship, and the research processes and infrastructure required to support technological innovation. In each of these domains, therefore, we reviewed the 31 Tech Hubs proposals, identifying explicit references to equity and inclusion within proposed investments as well as opportunities for further engagement and action.

Figure 1

Equity and inclusion were universally incorporated into talent development strategies

All 31 Tech Hubs have proposed specific inclusive talent development strategies. Among these, technical job training is most common, mentioned in 81% (25) of the Tech Hub proposals, as shown in Figure 1. Most of these strategies involve partnering with existing, scalable workforce training organizations that have demonstrated success in serving workers from underserved communities. For example, the NY SMART I-Corridor Tech Hub plans to increase alignment in its regional talent system across the Northland Workforce Training Center, which serves 876 students (62% people of color, with an 87% placement rate), and other organizations such as Tech Buffalo, Say Yes Buffalo, and Say Yes Syracuse.

Many regional coalitions also highlight the important role of higher education institutions and of employers in building inclusive talent pipelines. A majority—71% (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 certification and professional degree programs. Additionally, 71% (22) proposals include plans to engage employers in adopting more inclusive hiring and retention strategies, particularly by reducing barriers to access for skilled workers without four-year degrees.

Nearly two thirds (61%) of Tech Hubs plan to support inclusive entrepreneurship opportunities

Inclusive strategies targeting new enterprise development are also common, included in nearly two thirds (61%) of proposals; strategies range from engaging existing accelerators and incubators that provide targeted support to entrepreneurs from underinvested communities, to expanding access to venture capital and specialized facilities to bolster growth.

The Baltimore Tech Hub plan includes a strategy to expand programs focused on “connecting minority entrepreneurs to payer-provider innovation resources and supporting founders focusing on healthcare access solutions,” including Conscious Venture Partners’ learning laboratory and 1501 Health, an incubator led by the innovation and investment arm of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. As part of the Minnesota MedTech Hub 3.0 coalition, Brown Venture Group plans to work with federal technology transfer offices—including those at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—to facilitate the creation of licensing agreements for entrepreneurs of color, and then partner with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to help fast-track intellectual property (IP) applications.

Relatedly, 11 tech hubs, or roughly a third (35%) have plans for inclusive procurement, engaging existing resources and support organizations to expand opportunities for minority- and women- owned businesses to access capital as well as purchasing contracts with public and private entities. In Vermont, the GaN-VT coalition will conduct outreach and lead efforts to “develop a database to help connect women, minority… and new Vermonters-owned businesses, suppliers, and service providers with industry and product needs.”

Investments in innovation — research, commercialization, and tailored infrastructure—were less likely to incorporate equity and inclusion

At least relative to the talent development and business development domains, proposed strategies related to technological innovation were less likely to explicitly mention equity and inclusion. Fourteen of these initiatives sought to advance equity-informed research and commercialization (45%), including by prioritizing equitable research processes and outcomes, and seven focused on building infrastructure that increases access to innovation opportunities for historically underserved communities (23%).

In advancing quantum research, the Bloch Tech Hub, in Chicago, has demonstrated a commitment to prioritizing research with equitable benefits; for example, the coalition has decided to prioritize fraud detection as an early use case, recognizing that addressing financial fraud will disproportionately benefit low-income individuals and underbanked communities. Meanwhile, the Birmingham Biotechnology Hub proposes to build on decades of work at the University of Alabama gathering racially diverse genomic data and providing researchers with diverse recruitment services to ensure communities of color are actively engaged in developing healthcare technologies; the Tech Hub’s coalition also includes Acclinate, a Black-owned company that uses predictive analytics to source diverse leads for clinical trials.

The location and accessibility of physical infrastructure to advance innovation matters for equity and inclusion as well, and nearly one-quarter of Tech Hubs proposals included infrastructure strategies that explicitly mention equity and inclusion. The Texoma Semiconductor Tech Hub plans to build “fablets”—sophisticated, targeted, and accessible labs containing equipment to enable electronic design, semiconductor manufacturing, packaging, and/or testing—throughout the region to expand access to technology piloting activities, particularly in historically underinvested areas.

Every Tech Hub’s application mentioned equity and inclusion in its approach to consortium governance

The EDA required that each applicant create a governance approach for organizing a consortium of stakeholders to plan, finance, implement, and monitor the Tech Hubs strategy. Indeed, a recent finding from our work examining the early implementation of a similar place-based policy—the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge—found that effective regional coalitions need to embed equity and inclusion into functional structures for collaborative governance which track progress, course correct, and secure and allocate additional investment over time.

Given this finding, it is notable that all 31 Tech Hubs have incorporated equity and inclusion objectives into their governance strategies, although varying significantly in the ways and extents to which they do so. While some proposals simply state equity and inclusion as core values, other proposals have explicitly designed governance structures that center historically excluded communities throughout the decision-making process. For example, the Tulsa Hub for Equitable & Trustworthy Autonomy is deliberately structured to be co-led by Black Tech Street, Cherokee Nation Aerospace & Defense, and Osage LLC—all organizations that have demonstrated an ability to engage and serve diverse communities.

All regions can help deliver on inclusive innovation to bolster the nation’s competitiveness

When the EDA announces five to ten winners of sizeable Tech Hubs implementation grants this summer, it will signal just the beginning of this federal effort to advance critical technological innovation in key strategic sectors to support the nation’s urgent missions. In the months to come, these Tech Hubs will face both day-to-day and longer-term choices—about where to invest, which partners to engage, and how they approach collaboration and decision-making—as they implement their strategies. These decisions will ultimately determine whether they successfully deliver inclusive growth and activate the full potential of their regional economies.

All regions have room for growth. For this analysis, we counted only initiatives and strategies that explicitly named the involvement of and/or benefits to historically underserved or excluded communities, including women, people of color, workers without four-year degrees, and rural or remote communities. That said, a wide range of other initiatives could easily be reimagined with deliberate efforts to reduce barriers and ensure equal access to opportunity, as demonstrated by the intentionally equitable, inclusive strategies highlighted throughout this piece.

Importantly, it is not just the five to ten Tech Hubs that receive implementation awards which will play a role. Especially given challenges of decreased and uncertain funding at the federal level, regional partners—including state and local governments, philanthropies, and universities—can play an increasingly important role in powering inclusive innovation and growth across the nation.