John Austin

by John Austin

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Brookings and others were warning about the increasing concentration of economic activity—particularly the tech economy—in a small set of coastal “superstar” cities. Cities such as San Francisco and Seattle became the places startups and tech entrepreneurs seemingly had to be, despite rocketing housing costs, congestion, and pollution.

But over the course of the past year, many coastal techies have been fleeing those hubs, tired of being quarantined in tight spaces and able to work remotely. Those who did may now be realizing there could be a different and better way to live and work, and helping to benefit long-neglected, still-emerging tech centers in the process. However, the institutional engines for this surprising growth may be at risk of collapse.

As they disperse to communities like Boulder, Colo., Nashville, Tenn., and other emerging tech centers in the middle of the country, many entrepreneurs may have been surprised to learn that tech, talent, and innovation can thrive in the heartland—not to mention a dynamic culture, more robust quality of life, and a less manic and financially insane existence. As Wisconsin Technology Council President Tom Still noted in his call for techies fleeing California to flock to the Badger State, his region offers what he calls an “I-Q Corridor”: “The ‘I’ standing for interstate, innovation, intellectual property and investment; the ‘Q’ captures quality of life, research, education, workforce and just about anything else worth bragging about.”

What these heartland tech destinations all have in common—and what positions them well to grow a critical mass of innovators, entrepreneurs, tech talent, and financiers—are leading research universities. These are universities that, for years, have been a font of new technologies and the highly educated talent that creates them. These institutions are particularly important to the economic future of the industrial Midwest, where much of the region is undergoing a spotty transition from old economy to new.

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