CEO Insights is a new series on the RBTC blog that features technology and business perspectives from the RBTC President and CEO, Jonathan Whitt.


What’s in a name? In years past, particular areas of cities have been labeled “manufacturing district” or “industrial district” or even “garment district.” Now there’s a new designation – “innovation district”. You may have heard the term in reference to the Virginia Tech Carilion expansion in Roanoke. The leaders of these two anchor institutions plan to join forces to create a “medical hub” combining in-demand health science degree programs, students, additional research teams, technological expertise, and regional clinical practices. This unique blend of focused inputs will in turn launch businesses, create high-paying jobs, attract top medical practitioners and faculty, and ultimately improve Southwest Virginia healthcare.

Innovation districts are a growing trend in the U.S., which according to Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of the Brooking Institution, “nurture living, breathing communities rather than sterile compounds of research silos”. Firms and workers want to find compact areas in which to live and work while surrounded by networking opportunities and new idea creation. Unlike the original model in Silicon Valley where firms were isolated on a campus or in an industrial park, innovation districts allow workers, businesses, and research to co-exist in one accessible space surrounded by housing and retail to support them. Innovation breeds in these districts, and so does economic growth.

Brookings defines them as “geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster while connecting with start-ups, business incubators, and accelerators. They’re also physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail.” Innovation districts are found near anchor institutions like in Atlanta, Baltimore, or Cambridge, while some are in re-imagined industrial areas such as those in Boston, Chicago, or Seattle. Katz calls these districts the “ultimate mash-up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments – all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine.”

So, why is this “district” so important to our region? First, the Carilion/Virginia Tech alliance will foster collaboration between institutions, researchers, companies, investors, and entrepreneurs to create sustainable job growth and attract investors. Investment leads to new products and services launching which, according to Brookings, “help a city move up the value chain of global competitiveness”. Concentrating talent in specific areas of research and business creation with the support of the city’s outdoor and mixed-use amenities, will enable both institutions to complete on a global scale and set Roanoke apart among others districts around the country.

According to a recent Kaufmann report, dense environments help support entrepreneurial vibrancy. Entrepreneurs thrive because low-risk workspaces are created and crucial networking is close at hand as are resources, goods, and labor sharing – all helping to enhance innovation. In this “age of convergence”, focusing on applied sciences, biosciences, and digital technologies, definitely opens up new possibilities for commercialization.

What defines success? To reach full potential, a district must have economic, physical, and networking assets. Combined with a supporting, risk-taking culture, they create what Brookings calls an “innovation ecosystem – a synergistic relationship between people, firms, and place that facilitate idea generation and accelerate commercialization.”

Economic drivers, like Carilion and Virginia Tech, as well as firms and entrepreneurs focused on getting products and services to market serve to lay a strong foundation for the innovation district. Along with partners in these efforts such as the City of Roanoke, Virginia Western Community College, the Roanoke – Blacksburg Technology Council, and the new regional business accelerator coming to Jefferson Street, the innovation district is already coming to life. Neighborhood-building amenities – restaurants, recreation, coffee shops, hotels, and retail – all help to support the district’s success. Parks, shared spaces, greenways, shuttle buses, and pedestrian-oriented streets physically support the collaboration. Finally, networking assets strengthen ties and cultivate innovation across all players. All these assets weave the district together and tie it to the broader metro area, which expand the district’s influence well beyond the borders of Roanoke City, something that serves as a catalyst for growth across the entire region.

Successful innovation district practitioners share five strategies for success: build a collaborative leadership network, set a vision for growth, pursue talent and technology, enhance access to capital, and promote inclusive growth. When you overlay these five strategies on the core values and objectives of the Roanoke – Blacksburg Innovation Blueprint (a technology-focused plan for economic growth), the language is similar. The start of this innovation district creates a unique opportunity to transform the Roanoke – Blacksburg region into a nationally recognized hub for innovation.

The rise of innovation districts is a disruptive sign of the times for cities like Roanoke looking for a path forward. Carilion and Virginia Tech are leading the way and it’s the job of city and state government, financial institutions, and the business community to join the team. The result: a step toward building a more sustainable and inclusive economy for this region.

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