A look back on two years of the Rural Innovation Initiative

This week, we were thrilled to announce that 2 communities in the most recent cohort of the Rural Innovation Initiative (RII) were selected for Build to Scale (B2S) Venture Challenge grants through the US Economic Development Administration (EDA). These B2S grants will provide these communities—Waterville, Maine and Platteville, WI—with funding to spark local entrepreneurship and build thriving digital ecosystems. We’re incredibly excited about the impact these federal resources will have as these communities recover from the pandemic. 

We had the privilege to work with these communities, along with 8 others this year, through the Rural Innovation Initiative, made possible through a cooperative agreement through our sister organization, Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc. (RISI) and the EDA. The initiative has also been supported by Walmart and the Siegel Family Endowment. Through the initiative, RISI provides technical assistance to rural communities working to execute a digital economy ecosystem strategy: an economic development model that works to educate and train local residents in digital skills, employ them in new economy jobs, and empower them to launch the startups that will drive their digital economy. Participants of the initiative receive a range of both in-person and virtual support from the RISI team. They also benefit from opportunities for collaboration with similarly motivated communities, as well as templates and written resources to guide their economic development strategies. 

Launching the Rural Innovation Initiative

Since its launch in 2019, we’ve onboarded 2 cohorts of the Rural Innovation Initiative, with a total of 19 participants. We are deeply proud of the impact it has had on small towns all across the country, and our experience has shown that when rural communities have access to the expertise of an outside organization with national resources like CORI and RISI, they can transform ideas into actionable local benefits.

In our first 2019 cohort, we worked with 9 communities to develop digital ecosystem strategies, each led by dedicated, resourceful local leaders doing what it takes to prepare their towns for the 21st century economy. Three of those initial communities—Red Wing, Minnesota, Traverse City, Michigan, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri—secured the EDA’s then-titled i6 Venture Challenge award, receiving a combined total of $5.3 million in funding. Since then, Cape Girardeau has grown its coworking space to more than 300 members, Traverse City has incubated startups on the front lines against COVID-19, and Red Wing has convened a region-wide entrepreneurial network. Our other 2019 communities have seen powerful success stories, from the launch of GigEast Exchange in Wilson, NC, to the creation of The Generator in Pine Bluff, AR. And this year, our partners in Independence, OR received a Build To Scale Venture Challenge grant to continue expanding their ag innovation efforts in Willamette Valley.

That first year experience reinforced to us just how valuable the kind of work we are doing can be. There’s incredible demand among small towns for help building digital economies—we received 130 applications in 2019 alone. When connected with the right resources and support, which too often small towns face barriers to accessing, communities of all places and sizes can grow inclusive economies. 

Creating Economic Opportunity in 2020

2020 once again proved the urgency of providing technical assistance to small towns. The 10 communities we selected from 140 applicants came from all across the country, at all levels of digital development, with the same eagerness to engage with new economy practices. In addition to the two communities that received the B2S grants, the three others who went through the B2S process have built comprehensive digital strategies and created new partnerships. Additionally, the 5 communities in the developmental cohort have gone through intensive technical assistance led by RISI to identify assets and create concrete strategic action plans for the future. 

Together, we’ve joined the communities in our two cohorts into the Rural Innovation Network, a growing community of practice giving our inspiring small towns the opportunity to connect with each other and share successful approaches. Through this network, we’ve been able to amplify our impact, making a difference through activities as wide-ranging as launching a network-wide digital skilling pilot to supporting a community’s desire to take their events online and go virtual. 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 in this era. 

COVID-19 has only reinforced how important programs like the Rural Innovation Initiative are, with too many small towns facing an economic collapse they simply cannot afford. While the pandemic has brought these activities online, we’ve been so happy to find our communities even more engaged, ready to learn, and prepared to be on the front lines of a geographically inclusive recovery.

And it’s thanks to champions like the EDA, Siegel, and Walmart that we’re able to provide this support in a time of unprecedented need.

To learn more about the work we do to support rural communities across the country, be sure to sign up for our newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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