Taking the Pulse of Tech Growth in West Virginia
Op-ed in the Charleston Daily Mail
January 31, 2019
by Anne Barth
With the start of a new year, it’s a great time to reflect on past successes and take a look ahead. For TechConnect West Virginia, this means taking the pulse of tech growth over recent years and charting a bold course forward.
In 2006, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation helped to create TechConnect, which started as a collaboration between Marshall University, West Virginia University, the INNOVA Commercialization Group, MATRIC and the Chemical Alliance Zone. The group soon added representatives of investor groups, private sector tech firms and professional services, including legal and accounting.
The mission was to accelerate the launch of startup technology companies to help grow and diversify the state’s economy. To get the organization off the ground, the Benedum Foundation made significant investments to develop the WV Blueprint for Technology-Based Economic Development, which has formed the basis of our work and made it possible.
With support from the State and the U.S. Economic Development Administration beginning in 2012, TechConnect has led programs that have involved thousands of West Virginians, created and retained hundreds of jobs and attracted millions in follow-on investment for startup companies.
Entrepreneurs working with TechConnect are connected to our partners, including centers of excellence and resource providers that offer technical assistance, business planning, prototyping, access to seed and early stage capital and more, depending on the needs of the company.
The expertise needed by these startups is often available in West Virginia—it’s a matter of connecting them to the proper help at the right time in their development. TechConnect’s programs align the entrepreneurial ecosystem and make this type of collaborative development possible.
TechConnect realizes that attracting or encouraging tech companies to form here and grow the digital economy requires tech talent, so we’ve also focused attention on opportunities in fast-growing sectors like cybersecurity. The recently-released WV Cybersecurity Workforce Strategic Initiative Report highlights educational programs offered and recommendations for cultivating talent in this growing sector.
We also know that building a tech culture requires more than attracting talent and launching startups. That’s why we’ve established ongoing programs like the Women & Technology Conference to address the gender gap in tech and the Spirit of Innovation Awards to showcase successful startups and small businesses. We’ve mapped and tracked the opening of new incubators and co-working spaces, and are working to offer them access to valuable training so they can provide even better support to West Virginia’s entrepreneurs.
Looking ahead, there will be opportunities to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in the new Farm Bill for technology infrastructure, like business incubators, wired co-working spaces, digital job training centers and makerspaces.
Opportunity Zones—created in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017–offer a chance to reinvigorate communities that have been left behind for far too long, and we’re hopeful this will include growth in the digital economy.
The U.S. EDA continues to support development efforts in states like West Virginia with various programs aimed at promoting innovation and competitiveness that leads to economic growth and success in the global economy. The Appalachian Regional Commission, with its POWER grant program, is another major player in economic growth in West Virginia.
We’re optimistic about the future of tech in West Virginia. Sure, a lot of work remains to be done—better broadband connectivity across the state, more training and education for our workforce and creating an environment attractive to new tech companies. But we’ve come a long way from our launch in 2006, there’s no doubt about it.
TechConnect stands ready to build on what we’ve learned so far to continue growing tech jobs in West Virginia. Join us!
Anne Barth is Executive Director of TechConnect West Virginia, which is a statewide economic development organization dedicated to the advancement of science, technology, and the innovation economy in West Virginia.