Looking back at the Rural Innovation Initiative
Rural communities may be small in size, but when they work together, connected with the right partners and resources, they have infinite potential to thrive.
Since its creation in 2019, the Rural Innovation Initiative (RII) has forged incredible partnerships with impressive, dedicated rural community leaders across the country.
The Initiative was launched as part of a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Economic Development Administration to help bolster the number of quality rural applicants to their highly competitive Build to Scale — formerly known as the i6 Challenge — grant program, which supports the creation of technology-based entrepreneurial ecosystems. Over time, it has evolved into the flagship service we provide to communities in rural America that are working to build their own tech economy ecosystems.
While the RII process continues to support communities as they prepare and apply for Build to Scale funds, the RII team has grown and developed new iterations of services. This allows communities to think through holistic strategies for building these ecosystems: an inclusive economic development model that works to educate and train local residents in technology skills, employ them in tech jobs, and empower them to launch the startups that will drive their local economies.
Through RII, our team performs tech economy assessments and facilitates strategy development and project design workshops to help communities identify strategic pathways and leverage the resources they’ll need to build and foster tech economy ecosystems. While all of RISI’s tech economy consulting is designed to meet the unique needs of each community, most participate in RII as part of a cohort.
This gives them immediate access to other communities across the country who are embarking on similar journeys, and an early taste of what it’s like to be a part of a community of practice — which many of them get to experience later as members of the Rural Innovation Network, a nationwide community of change agents and local leaders working to advance the economic future of small-town America, created by our collaborating organization, the Center on Rural Innovation.
To date, 50 rural communities across 28 states have taken part in RII, which has helped communities raise over $29.9 million in federal and matching commitments to support the creation of their tech economies via Build to Scale.
And these communities are using an impressive variety of approaches to building tech economies in their regions. Below are examples of what three Network communities are doing with their 2021 Build to Scale awards:
- Southern Utah University’s Small Business Development Center in Cedar City, Utah, has created SUU Startup, an easy-access starting point and cross-sector connection center for boosting and aligning resources, programs, and support for entrepreneurs. The effort already has six startups enrolled by fall 2022, all able to leverage the benefits of SUU Startup’s partnerships with the Cedar City Business and Innovation Center, the SUU Business Development Center, and the SUU Center for Entrepreneurship.
- The Ada Jobs Foundation in Ada, Oklahoma, launched the “Ada Technology Startup Spring of Southern Oklahoma” program. The initiative leverages opportunities to connect siloed technology communities, accelerate support, and increase access to early-stage capital for scalable tech startups. The project is addressing these opportunities through the creation of a scalable technology startup ecosystem, a startup accelerator, investor outreach, and commercialization events. This project is based in the Chickasaw Nation’s territory, and it emphasizes the inclusion of Chickasaw and other Native American startup founders. The Ada Jobs Foundation is leading this effort in partnership with the city of Ada, the Chickasaw Nation, East Central University, Pontotoc Technology Center, and Oklahoma Gas and Electric.
- The Shenandoah Community Capital Fund in Staunton, Virginia, has taken a broad regional approach, leveraging the region’s existing collaborative relationships to launch the REV Initiative. Through this project, SCCF identifies entrepreneurs with scalable tech ideas; provides equitable access to support, resources, dedicated tech incubation and acceleration; and demonstrates that the Shenandoah Valley can create alternative pathways to startup success. The REV Initiative is projected to create at least 15 scalable technology businesses, support 36 new tech entrepreneurs, and generate 50 new high-paying jobs in its first three years. The positive spillover effects of spending by these businesses and employees will have an outsized impact on this rural region.
The amazing work these communities are doing to find innovative and creative solutions that will create a positive for generations to come is a daily source of inspiration. With these projects and others, the months and years ahead will surely be exciting.
In the meantime, RISI is always looking for new communities to work and learn with, so if you think your community might have what it takes to build a tech economy, reach out or attend a webinar to learn more about this important work.