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Rural Communities Unlocking Millions to Support Tech Innovation and Entrepreneurship Through Federal Grant Program

Hartland, US, 14 Oct. 2022, 14:46 CEST
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The tech economy can — and should — be available to anyone, especially in rural America.

Increasingly, rural communities are realizing the transformational impact the tech economy can have for them. And local leaders in rural places are putting their efforts and resources into economic development programs that can create tech opportunities and entrepreneurship where they live.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration's most recent cohort of Build to Scale (B2S) grant recipients, announced earlier this month, is proof. Small towns and cities around the country that have unlocked millions of dollars to support innovation and entrepreneurship. The Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) helped seven rural communities secure more than $12.8 million to accelerate innovation and tech-based entrepreneurship.

But why tech and why now?

Research shows that every tech job leads to the creation of three to five additional jobs in the local economy, and tech jobs were the second-fastest-growing rural occupation between 2019 and 2021, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Investors have recognized these trends. That's part of the reason why, in the last five years, the amount of venture capital flowing into rural zip codes grew from $3.2 billion to $42.5 billion, an increase from 0.5% to 2.5% of all venture capital across the U.S., according to an SEC report. Unprecedented public spending for broadband, and creative federal programs that support innovation, will only help spread this impact to areas that have yet to tap into their full potential.

And one look at any of this year's successful rural Build to Scale applicants shows that the ways communities have chosen to engage in this work reflect their own unique assets and attributes:

In Aberdeen, South Dakota, the EDA investment is part of a $1.5 million award anchored at the local higher education institution, Northern State University, in partnership with the Aberdeen Development Corporation. Their project — called the Northern Innovation and Startup Center — aims to infuse tech startup expertise into existing resources, creating inclusive on-ramps for entrepreneurs, and offer ideation and incubator programming.

"For many years the ADC has been searching for the best path forward related to the development and establishment of technology-related jobs in our community and region," said Michael Bockorny, CEO of the ADC. "Now with the successful receipt of the grant, we are prepared to make a difference for Aberdeen and all of northeast South Dakota for years to come."

The community's application process was made possible by support from Land O'Lakes through its American Connection Project.

"Aberdeen is already demonstrating for leaders and policymakers how new, effective and transformational models for rural development can be implemented and scaled at the state and national level," said Tina May, vice president of rural services for Land O'Lakes, Inc. "This investment supports our efforts to promote connectivity and digital skills and prepare communities like Aberdeen for the future."

In Portsmouth, Ohio, it's a $1.5 million grant package that will allow Shawnee State University to enhance its Kricker Innovation Hub with new programming that includes an intensive, place-based accelerator and a roadmap for scalable technology development that's intended to eliminate barriers for entrepreneurs and lead to more new businesses in the region.

In Taos, New Mexico, the University of New Mexico-Taos HIVE — the school's Hub of Internet-based Vocation and Education — will use a $1.4 million award to to engage historically underrepresented members of the tech community through the HIVE's "Pollinator" project.

Partnering with other local organizations, the HIVE plans to support at least 20 new startups in the region through narrative building, innovative mentorship programming, and tech entrepreneur incubation and acceleration.

Communities like Taos that have received a "build" grant can, later, apply for the "scale" phase of the program to expand and amplify their initial efforts.

In Red Wing, Minnesota, a prior EDA grant allowed Red Wing Ignite to establish entrepreneurial support services for the surrounding region, and a larger scale award of $4 million this year will allow the organization to expand programming access for rural and diverse founders. The grant will also allow Red Wing Ignite to launch an accelerator focused on tech startups, and build a network of mentors and investors who can help those startups begin to scale.

And in Rutland, Vermont, the Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region (CEDRR) will create Rutland's Tech Startup Incubator (RTSI). The incubator will have trained staff, specialized programming, and a newly renovated space with high-speed broadband that will allow entrepreneurs to maximize business development providers and higher education partners as they navigate a scalable tech support program from ideation to launch.

All of the above examples share the same goal — increasing local tech opportunities to benefit rural communities — but each takes a slightly different spin on the approach. When taken together, they show change is real, and rural America is ready to play a larger role in the tech economy of tomorrow.