As Milwaukee’s technology community strives to expand through efforts like accelerator programs, venture capital firms and upskilling initiatives, it’s competing with dozens of other midsize U.S. cities — as well as established coastal tech hubs — for employers, talent and money.

“Many places are in exactly the same boat as Milwaukee — they’re doing interesting things, they’re trying hard, they’ve got programs,” said Robert Atkinson, president and CEO of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “Everybody’s competing for a limited piece of the pie. There’s too much competition, nobody can really break out and you can’t get sustained advantage.”

Robert Atkinson Headshot

Robert Atkinson

Atkinson, who visited Milwaukee last month to speak to students at Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, supports a proposed national program that would designate and fund multiple nascent U.S. technology hubs. It could help cities like Milwaukee accelerate their growth in the tech sector.

The idea is included in the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which passed in the U.S. Senate in June and is being considered by the House.

“The key to success is to get some level of critical mass that separates (regions) out from the rest of the herd, if you will,” Atkinson said. “That’s hard to do on your own.”

The Senate bill calls for a national competition to award grants totaling around $10 billion over five years to at least three up-and-coming tech hubs in each of the Economic Development Administration’s six regions in order to “diffuse innovation around the United States,” according to the bill’s text.

According to Atkinson’s research with the Brookings Institution about potential new U.S. technology growth centers, Madison ranks highest based on its size, innovation capacity and skilled labor force. Milwaukee ranked No. 17 on the list, tied with Boise, Idaho.

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