Tech Hubs: Competitive Centers of Innovation Spark Economic Development

Designated U.S. regions build momentum to advance a burgeoning workforce and create new business opportunities.
technology world concept, tech hubs

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In 2022, in the face of lingering post-pandemic supply chain issues and uncertainty about the country’s economic future, the federal CHIPS and Science Act was signed into law. It included funding for competitive grants to boost development of Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs—Tech Hubs for short. Last fall, the federal Economic Development Administration designed 31 regions from among roughly 400 applicants to be eligible for the first round of Tech Hub grants. This spring, up to 10 of these applicants will be awarded implementation grants of $40 million to $70 million.

Located in both urban and rural areas across 32 states and Puerto Rico, the designated Tech Hubs are multi-jurisdictional consortia of public, private and academic partners looking to become global centers in arenas ranging from quantum computing to biotechnology, precision medicine, clean energy, semiconductor manufacturing, and many more.

The grants are intended to help consortium members take innovations coming out of research and development into commercial applications at a global scale while developing a domestic workforce that can fill the wide variety of jobs to be created. Twenty-nine applicants, including 11 of the designated Tech Hubs, received planning grants.

Here, we take a closer look at three of the designated Tech Hub regions. Whether or not they receive implementation funding, these and other hubs will be worth keeping an eye on for associated commercial real estate opportunities in the coming months and years.

A Corncob by Any Other Name

The Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing Tech Hub

If there’s one thing Central Illinoisans have plenty of, it’s corn—sometimes, almost more than they know what to do with. That should change in a big way with the help of the Tech Hub centered in Champaign-Urbana and Decatur, Ill.

In the heart of the nation’s corn and soy production— and building on a robust base of food processing and agriculture-related research—the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is leading a 31-member consortium to make the region a hotbed of biomanufacturing. The goal: Be a critical part of feeding a burgeoning global population while cutting climate-harming emissions, reducing petroleum dependency and producing “sustainable chemicals.” Innovation in precision fermentation is the key, or as the consortium puts it, using “single-celled organisms acting as ‘micro factories’ to convert plant feedstocks … into high-value ingredients, materials, fuels and more.”

Beth Alexandra Conerty is the regional innovation officer for the Tech Hub—each designee is required to have one—and associate director of the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Lab at U of I. Precision fermentation, she says, can be used to create alternatives to meat—think Impossible Burger—and for the use of animal byproducts, such as collagen, used in cosmetic ingredients and derived from pig intestines. “It’s also being used to make less biologically impactful pesticides and herbicides,” Conerty says. “There are processes to create nylon and performance materials, the building blocks for skis, snowboards, outdoor outerwear.” It also provides ingredients that will be needed for sustainable aviation fuel, she adds.

“There are so many startup companies growing these products in labs, but they need help getting to market,” Conerty says. “They need an industrial scale of production that doesn’t exist in the U.S.” For that reason, she says, “our Tech Hub is very build- and construction-heavy. We have four capital construction projects,” to build incubator space and expand production capacity. The consortium is working closely with locally based ag-processing giants ADM and Primient with the idea that startups’ facilities can be “co-located with them so there are no transportation requirements” for startups’ feedstock needs.

Training all workers will be critical, Conerty says. “Today, there is no degree program in precision fermentation. So, our tech hub has a workforce development project that includes education for trades workers, along with certificate and degree programs at our community colleges and one-year and graduate degrees at the university.” The consortium also includes two local workforce development agencies that will use a separate grant from the EDA, dubbed Recompete, to help prepare currently unemployed residents for some of the coming jobs.

“Through the Tech Hub and Recompete, we plan to train 2,500 people into entry and skilled trade positions in manufacturing over five years,” says Cristobal Valdez, president of Richland Community College in Decatur. “We have received word from ADM that they expect a need for 1,000 workers in the next five years in the precision fermentation and alternate proteins development they are doing under the Tech Hub.” A key goal in the workforce development effort is reducing the prime age employment gap, or PEG, among adults 25–54 who aren’t currently working. “All of Macon County and Decatur has a very high PEG, and we have the second highest rate for unemployed Black residents in the nation,” says Valdez.

In its early stages, the Central Illinois Tech Hub already has room for local real estate development. “I am talking to our [real estate agent] about 26 acres adjacent to campus that we hope to acquire and renovate for a $10 million purchase and buildout for a training facility.”

Predictive Health Care

The Baltimore Tech Hub

Silicon Valley, perhaps the country’s best-known technology hub, is famously exclusive. “The vast majority of investment goes to people who are white and male,” says Pothik Chatterjee, the regional innovation officer for the Baltimore Tech Hub.

Baltimore intends to stand that statistic on its head.

Leveraging local medical powerhouses Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, as well as the Baltimore region’s health care industry leaders, the Baltimore Tech Hub aims to make the region a center for “precision medicine.” That cutting-edge approach uses artificial intelligence and biotechnology to personalize medical treatments and identify susceptibility to disease based on genetic and data analysis, says Chatterjee, who is the chief economic officer for the Greater Baltimore Committee, which leads the 38-member coalition. The GBC is a collective of 400 organizations promoting the civic and economic development of the Baltimore region.

Allied technologies are behind the rapid approval of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, Chatterjee says. Research in this arena led recently to the first cell-based gene therapies for the treatment of sickle cell disease, which were approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration last December.

The region has been a font of medical innovation for some time, says consortium member Kory Bailey, CEO of UpSurge Baltimore, a nonprofit supporting local startups founded by women and people of color. The problem has been that, once those products show promise, they are whisked off to the traditional tech hubs in Silicon Valley, Boston and New York, he says. Chatterjee calls it a “brain drain.”

The Baltimore hub has a focus on lifting up the work of Black, Brown and women-founded enterprises and providing jobs for a broad range of tech and medical workers—a concept they’ve dubbed “equitech.”

“We have aspiration to be known for that,” Bailey says. “The challenge will be to prove how we can be the most equitable tech economy. We have to set the standard for what that looks like. We need concrete data sets to show [measured success].”

“The ethos in Silicon Valley is ‘move fast and break things,’ ” Chatterjee says. “Executing at the scale we are proposing is a real challenge. So is building trust among diverse members and coordinating action that can equal the private sector. We all have to learn a new way of cooperating so we can move as fast as Silicon Valley.” Pulling together the consortium across private sector, public and institutional players is already paying dividends in efforts to keep those innovations closer to home.

“There is momentum for some of our startups to succeed,” he says. “We have unprecedented alignment from state to city. For the first time, the technology, university and governments came together to make a joint proposal, rather than compete.”

A GBC board member and prominent cheerleader for the Tech Hub, Greg Fitchitt is executive vice president for government affairs and business development for Howard Hughes Holdings, a real estate development and management company.

“Baltimore has tremendous assets—a great educated workforce and great institutions like Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. But there have been missed opportunities, and we haven’t always capitalized,” Fitchitt says. “As someone interested in commercial and real estate development, I see this as bringing a lot of opportunities.”

Adapting to Change

South Florida Climate Resilience Tech Hub

In South Florida, climate change is big business. That’s not to make light of the intensifying tropical storms, sea rise, reef degradation and other impacts already being felt. It’s an acknowledgement of the significant investment needed to harden infrastructure; adapt to changed conditions with new approaches to construction and heating and cooling; and create more resilient materials. That need is driving the creation of new products and business lines, says Francesca de Quesada Covey, Miami–Dade County’s chief economic development and innovation officer for the South Florida Tech Hub.

The situation is far from unique to coastal Florida. Global demand for climate-responsive technology has given rise to a new economic sector dubbed sustainable and resilient infrastructure. “We are ground zero for climate change, sea level rise and extreme weather conditions,” de Quesada Covey says. “We are surrounded by water as a peninsula, and we are sitting on top of water. We have a vital interest in thinking about resilient infrastructure and innovative technology ‘from sea grass to saw grass’ ”—in other words, from water’s edge to inland marshes. The sustainable and resilient infrastructure market is “exploding,” de Quesada Covey says. “It’s expected to reach $1.3 billion globally by 2032. We’ve seen a big influx of venture capital dollars over the last five years, R&D dollars in the area are increasing, and related patents are growing 10% year over year. And we in South Florida are positioned to have a global competitive advantage.”

Led by the Miami-Dade mayor’s office, the 39-member consortium includes Florida International University, a national leader in research into all things coastal, along with several other higher educational institutions, philanthropies including the Knight Foundation, several venture capital entities, and local corporations. “The single biggest thing [launching the tech hub] has done is create greater connective tissue,” de Quesada Covey said. “That we now have at least 70 people meeting every week—every week!— to work toward the same goal, even if they are working on component pieces, is just amazing.”

The Tech Hub will focus on commercializing and scaling up innovations in four areas of sustainable and resilient infrastructure: coastal resilience and marine infrastructure, clean cement, energy-efficient building operations, and clean energy generation, transmission and storage. Climate change is leading to stronger and more frequent tropical storms akin to Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida in 1992. After that experience, Miami-Dade implemented strict, resilient building codes known as the Dade Standard. The Tech Hub is working “to go beyond that, to new ways to heat and cool” and develop technologies that both mitigate against and adapt to climate change, de Quesada Covey says.

One is adding the capacity to produce “clean cement.” The production of cement for concrete construction accounts for an outsized 7%–8% of global carbon emissions. The decarbonization of cement, and potential to capture existing carbon emissions in concrete, is a key piece of climate-responsive infrastructure, she says.

“The coastal reefs are another place we need to focus,” she notes. The Hub will work to boost research into and deployment of artificial reefs and sea walls both as barriers to inundation and for ecological restoration. “The coastal reefs we are building, and the way we are thinking about changing the built and natural environment—about building with nature instead of on top of it—will transform the way we do development.”

Hub leaders hope to create 23,000 jobs through 2032 in construction and related trades, and for software developers, engineers and scientists. Seventy-five percent of those would not require four-year degrees. And the spin-off effect—additional jobs that serve the tech hub workers and enterprises—could lead to an additional 63,000 jobs, the consortium predicts. “We are one of the most diverse communities in the U.S.,” says de Quesada Covey.

The consortium is working to establish a climate tech apprenticeship program aimed at giving students and workers from underserved populations practical experience on a path to good jobs. It’s also developing coursework for a climate skills academy to train existing workers doing climate resilience work. Higher-ed members are moving in tandem to create and coordinate coursework, certifications, and cross-enrollment programs in sustainable and resilient infrastructure.

“I think of the economic opportunity, 10 years from now, for people to find good-paying jobs that are doing well by the environment and their households. That’s the real promise of this designation and this funding,” de Quesada Covey says.


What Are Tech Hubs?

The federal Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs initiative is a program of competitive grants designed to spur innovation and help develop several U.S. regions into global centers in their respective fields.

student working in lab at University of IL


Tech hubs student at University of IL


Tech Hub consortium members are developing a domestic workforce that can fill the wide variety of new R&D jobs to be created.

tech hubs student in goggles working robotic arm


tech hubs student in lab working on laptop


tech hubs two students reviewing paperwork


Tech hub sustainable infrastructure


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