How many ‘tech hubs’ can we stand?

by Mark Long, director of incubation services at the University of Florida.

The title really is what I’m asking: “How many ‘tech hubs’ can we stand?”

I read an article today about another mid-sized U.S. city declaring an initiative to become a “super-tech-hub.” Surprise! Well… no, not a surprise. Not at all. This is becoming an increasingly common trend in the United States in particular: Nearly every city of 500,000+ is striving to become a “technology hub.” Not every city should be making that effort; I have some ideas on what direction to take. I’ll explain by discussing history, defining the term “tech hub,” and looking at the future for this trend. You’ll be amazed. (I tend to have that effect on people — just kidding.)

History happens to the best of us

In the early 1900s, the capital of the automotive industry was — Indiana! Seriously. Not Detroit, and not Michigan, and definitely not Japan. Indiana was home to easily more than 100 different auto manufacturers, including some famous, larger ones (Stutz, Studebaker, Cord, Auburn, etc.). Indiana also hosted (and still does host) the famous “Indianapolis 500” auto race, which popularized the automobile even more back then.

The automotive industry has changed “hubs” more than once since the early 1900s.

So, what happened? Well, it depends on whom you ask, but a number of factors changed the automotive world — and these same factors moved the capital of this industry to Detroit. Consider World War I, the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, the Great Depression, and people — namely innovators who chose Michigan over Indiana.

The turmoil of World War I led to massive contracts being awarded to a few select auto manufacturers (Ford, Chrysler, etc.), and shortly after the war the restrictive U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 led to an importation of workers from the Deep South and neighboring North American countries — and that available workforce concentrated in Detroit.

The next major event to affect the auto industry was the Great Depression. During those dark days in the 1930s, smaller companies simply ran out of capital and disappeared, and many mid-sized ones consolidated and/or were bought out.

After the dust settled (obscure reference to the Dust Bowl) the presence of visionaries — Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, and the Dodge brothers, among others — helped focus innovation and creativity in the industry in Detroit, Michigan, (and not in Indiana). As many other future innovators in the automotive industry jumped from company to company, and several founded parts/suppliers companies also co-located in the Detroit Metro area, Detroit became the “automotive capital of the world.”

So what? What does all this mean? Why study history? BECAUSE IT REPEATS ITSELF! Yes, you’ve heard that famous phrase:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

(That’s the actual saying from philosopher and pragmatist George Santayana.)

All of the above factors — and more, most likely — changed the focus of the American auto industry from Indiana to Michigan. Things have changed more since then, and now Japan and China are major automotive centers. Innovation in the automotive industry is now global, more decentralized and increasingly widespread in the information age (although some cars are still assembled/made in Detroit).

What about the “age of technology”? We’ve seen a concentration/focus in Silicon Valley in California for “high-tech companies” — so why the outcry nationally (and internationally) for MORE “tech hubs”? Now getting a “share of the pie” isn’t enough; everyone wants a bigger pie AND wants the biggest piece.

After all, isn’t everything moving to a technological focus? We’ve so conquered reality that now we’re tackling augmented reality and virtual reality, too. The pie should be bigger. We’re embracing mobile access, the Internet of Things, and improvements in healthcare, communication and business as we continue to drive innovation through better access to the Internet. You now can advise a company in California — from Bangalore — through an Internet connection in Canada or elsewhere. You can teleconference or text nearly anywhere in the world. To say we’re becoming more “decentralized” is an understatement.

Defining our terms

So why the desire for more “tech hubs”? And what of the “super hubs” (whatever those are)? First, let’s look at the definition (yes, yes, I know this a long post, but bear with me). What is a “tech hub”? The definition includes several elements. The first is this:

“A physical space — a city, a suburb or just a suite of offices — which has developed to help technology startup companies succeed and, they hope, become the next tech titan like Facebook or Microsoft.”

Next, we have:

“A community — informal or otherwise — that fosters innovation for technology startup companies.”

And what about a “super hub”? The concept of a super hub is a:

“ ‘hub of all hubs,’ a multi-connected, multi-faceted connection point for all things needed for an entrepreneurial system of economic development growth.”

(Whew. That’s a lot to say.)

In short, a “tech hub” is a place developed to help startup companies succeed and grow in a community that fosters innovation. (A “super hub” sounds a lot like the incubators I run. Hmmm.) But I’m guessing it’s the hoped for “titan” part of the “tech hub” definition that people have in mind when they aim to be a “tech hub.” (Titan means “prodigious size, strength or achievement.”) Think back to bigger pie, biggest piece.

The future of this trend

So back to the original question: How many of these hubs/super hubs can we accommodate, and what should be their focus?

It seems nearly every state in the union has some sort of “life sciences initiative,” and every country/state/region in the world has an “entrepreneurial ecosystem dedicated to economic growth.” Can we ALL be life sciences hubs? Can we all be major entrepreneurial growth ecosystems? I’m sure you know by now the answer is “no, we can’t.”

It doesn’t mean we can’t do incubation or do economic development; it just means we need to focus on the resources we have available and do what’s best for our area. We should ALL be striving to be “hubs of entrepreneurial activity and focus in our ecosystems”; we should all NOT be working on “being like someplace else.”

Do what you do best and what’s best for your entrepreneurial community; then you’ll truly BE a “super hub” to those you serve!

The best idea for advancing entrepreneurism in your area is to “use what you have.” Don’t try to be a “biotech hub” when the critical mass in your region is food, manufacturing, logistics, and IT, for example. Use the tools you have, and you will automatically become a “hub” — people will look to you for direction in that area of focus. After all, you would like success to repeat itself. Correct?

Mark Long has long experienced the intricacies of business incubation, acceleration, coworking spaces, makerspaces and other entrepreneurial assistance venues around the world. He shares his experience, outlook, background knowledge, studies, and observations in regular posts at the IncubatorBlogger. Feel free to follow him there — or follow him and UF Innovate right here.

University of Florida Innovate supports an innovation ecosystem that moves research discoveries from the laboratory to the market, fostering a resilient economy and making the world a better place. Based at one of the nation’s leading research institutions, UF Innovate comprises four organizations: Tech Licensing, Ventures, The Hub, and Sid Martin Biotech. Within the UF Office of Research, the four organizations form a comprehensive system to take technologies from the lab to the public, bringing together the five critical elements in the “innovation ecosystem”: facilities, capital, management talent, intellectual property and technology-transfer expertise.

Includes Tech Licensing, Ventures, and two business incubators, The Hub and Sid Martin Biotech. We are an innovation ecosystem.