While 2021 felt in many ways like a continuation of the uncertainty that came to dominate 2020, the past 12 months did offer new sources of hope, optimism, and progress — the Rural Innovation Network included.
For one, the Network itself grew from 18 to 25 member communities during 2021, many of whom notched significant milestones in their work to establish digital economic ecosystems in rural America. From funding victories and critical infrastructure upgrades to new programmatic offerings and workforce development opportunities, exciting things were happening every week that set the stage for even more success in the future.
Here’s a look at some of the newsworthy events from the past year in each of the Network’s communities:
The Ada Jobs Foundation‘s application for a Build to Scale Venture Challenge grant was one of two successful bids from the state of Oklahoma. The effort secured more than $1.15 million that can help assist scalable technology startups in Ada, emphasizing inclusion of founders from the Chickasaw Nation and other Native American communities.
Codefi, the area’s first coworking space and tech incubator, brought its digital ecosystem approach to western Kentucky in 2021: Expanding its 1st50K startup competition to include a cohort of founders from Paducah, where it also opened a coworking space, Sprocket; running CodeLabs, its adult coding course; and launching its Youth Coding League in seven Paducah-area schools.
Ada wasn’t the only Network community to secure Venture Challenge funding this year — Southern Utah University’s Business and Innovation Center‘s bid was also successful. The community partners in Cedar City were awarded $1.5 million to fill gaps in the current entrepreneurial support system and ensures new startups get the support they need to adopt new technologies and develop new strategies.
SCAPE, the Southwest Colorado Accelerator Program for Entrepreneurs, expanded its programming to include startups from neighboring areas of northern New Mexico. The initiative emerged from a partnership with San Juan College, the City of Farmington, San Juan County, and Four Corners Economic Development that hopes to create and strengthen New Mexico-owned businesses that offer employment opportunities for in the area.
In October, Emporia State University held the ribbon-cutting for the Bobbi and Steve Sauder Center for Entrepreneurial Development, which followed the recent addition of a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Entrepreneurship within the School of Business. The new resource is another way to connect the Kansas Small Business Development Center, which serves the community at large, and the college’s student-led advertising collective.
The Oregon Way highlighted Independence as exactly the type of small town poised to enjoy new growth and prosperity in the years to come. Why? It’s a model for the benefits of rural places investing in high-speed broadband, which allows it to offer more for its businesses and its population, which is both younger and more diverse than the state as a whole.
John Pappajohn, whose philanthropy has helped fund five entrepreneurial centers across Iowa, including North Iowa Area Community College, announced in September that he would be donating another $10 million to the centers,. These new funds will help launch the centers’ Venture Mentoring Service in 2022, which aims to connect early-stage companies with some of the state’s serial entrepreneurs, experts and investors.
The U.S. Economic Development Administration spotlighted how Do North Coworking has helped change the landscape for startups and other small businesses in the area since its launch in 2018. Do North’s combination of a physical space, equipment, and connectivity resources — made possible in part by a grant from the EDA — have helped it become home to 26 entrepreneurs and companies, including a pair of anchor tenants.
A new initiative, “Make it Marquette,” showcased to the world what makes Marquette — and the Upper Peninsula — an attractive place to live, work, and play. Outdoor riches, business opportunities that range from remote work to venture capital networks, and a laid-back, balanced lifestyle are part of why their pitch that smaller is smarter.
Shaping Our Appalachian Region’s 2021 summit was able to return to an in-person format and broke new ground for the organization, drawing more than 1,500 attendees, 100 exhibitors, and two dozen speakers. The multi-day event featured a startup competition in which eight finalists pitched for cash prizes.
After completing a $400,000 renovation, Go Forward Pine Bluff could finally open The Generator in full in 2021. The facility’s multi-pronged approach includes offering entrepreneurial support for individuals looking to start a business as well as coordinating digital skills training programs for workers looking to change careers.
Following its 2020 Build to Scale Venture Challenge grant success, Platteville hired a director, Maia Patrick Donohue, to lead and launch its new accelerator program, the IDEA Hub, this year. The hub hosted its first cohort of founders in the summer before opening officially in October.
In February, the Kricker Innovation Hub at Shawnee State University hosted a unique virtual panel — “Entrepreneurship in Recovery” — as a venue for sharing stories and discussion about entrepreneurs in recovery from substance use disorder who are taking the reins of social enterprise to spur economic revitalization around the country.
MidAmerica Industrial Park has partnered with Pryor-area schools to start an esports program affiliated with the North American Scholastic Esports Federation. After-school practices are held during the evening each week, with different sports meeting on different nights. Nearly four dozen students showed up for the first session and 20-25 attend practices on a regular basis.
This year marked the final stages of an eight-year project bringing fiber broadband to Randolph and several neighboring towns. The effort by the local provider EC Fiber required about 1,500 miles of fiber-optic cables, and placed priority on the least-served areas and connecting those who had few or no options available.
A virtual event in 2021, this year’s Ignite Cup — the annual, “Shark Tank” style pitch competition hosted by Red Wing Ignite — featured an exciting array of startup concepts, including a sports-tech outfit, JockLab, with a robotic training device for to simulate a defender in basketball, a runner-up focused on reducing nitrate pollution in waterways, and the winner, SoleView, using photo-based technology to monitor diabetes.
Coworking opportunities are on the rise in southern Vermont’s largest city! A local developer shared plans to open his fourth such space in Rutland, with supply of space and amenities still working to meet demand in the community as it focuses on developing its digital economy ecosystem.
The Black River Innovation Campus launched its Actuator by BRIC program in 2021, offering a slate of accelerator programming that included a pitch night in May and multiple cohorts of tech startups. The free digital entrepreneurship program is intended to empower early-stage tech startups in the Springfield area.
The University of New Mexico-Taos Hub of Internet-based Vocation and Education — a.k.a. the UNM-Taos HIVE — officially opened to the public this summer at its new physical space in Taos. The facility will offer coworking space, education programs, and entrepreneurial support.
This fall marked the opening of Columbia Gorge Community College’s new workforce development center, the Columbia Gorge Regional Skills Center. The new facility will allow the school to offer programming it couldn’t have done before because it lacked the necessary space.
Our community partner, 20Fathoms, launched a cybersecurity certification program in Traverse City in partnership with the Cisco Networking Academy. The new CyberOps Associate Program, with sessions spread across 14 weeks, follows what 20Fathoms has started with its tccodes and tccyber iniatives in recent years.
Following its success in the 2020 Build to Scale Venture Challenge, the Central Maine Growth Council scored a $25,000 grant in February from the U.S. Small Business Association as part of the National Science and Technology Council’s Lab-to-Market competition. The funds will be used to support the Dirigo Labs accelerator program made possible by the Build to Scale bid.
The Gig East Exchange, Wilson’s innovation hub and coworking space, debuted a virtual tour of its newly renovated location in June. After a delay due to COVID-19, Gig East officially opened its coworking membership program in the spring
The Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation secured $250,000 in federal funds via the Build to Scale Capital Challenge. The grant will join local matching dollars to accelerate tech entrepreneurship by increasing access to capital and other supports via the Windham Seed Fund.
At the Center on Rural Innovation, we are working with rural communities across the country to help position them to thrive in the 21st-century digital economy. To learn more about our work in this space, be sure to check out our blog and sign up for our newsletter.