Almost two-thirds of North Carolina’s high-tech jobs are located in Wake, Durham and Mecklenburg counties. That means a lot of NC communities are left out of the state’s existing innovation economy—many of those have lost manufacturing jobs and would like a chance at a new start. 

To expand the innovative activity in new places around the state, The Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI) at NC State University launches a new program this fall—InnovateNC. It’s designed to do just what the name implies. 

Over the years, the non-partisan public policy organization has worked to integrate with the state’s entrepreneurial world, recognizing entrepreneurship is an opportunity to make North Carolina prosper long term, aligning with its mission. 

This past February, 1,000 people came together over two days at the Raleigh Convention Center for the 30th annual Emerging Issues Forum, where they focused on ways businesses and communities can innovate and compete in an era of global connections, transformative technology and constant change. 

According to Sarah Langer Hall, IEI’s policy manager, this year’s forum sparked a realization within the organization—that North Carolina is “mired mid-pack among the nation’s states when it comes to innovation,” she says. 

In fact, a recent IEI study found that the state sits well below the top of states and even trails the nation’s average on key innovation indicators. 

Current trend lines offer no sign that North Carolina will become one of the top innovative states unless more cities are involved in a turn-around effort to rebuild the state’s innovation model. 

Enter—InnovateNC, a two-year cross-city learning collaborative made possible by a generous Kenan Funds grant and support from various organizations such as RTI International, the Research Triangle Foundation and the NC Board of Science, Technology & Innovation

IEI is seeking up to five highly-committed cities or towns—those outside the Triangle and Charlotte—that want to build more innovative business communities. 

Ideal candidates will desire to create new jobs and improve health and well-being, while leaning in to innovative thinking. 

Throughout the program, what are called local Innovation Councils, or ICs will meet monthly. They’ll be coached by Forward Impacta Durham-based organization created to cultivate the next generation of entrepreneurs. The councils will then guide and support their communities through cross-city convenings to build networks, map local assets, collect data, share knowledge, analyze policy and take site tours. 

Hall says that the program has already gained confidence. Innovators from more than 80 communities have requested to see the request for proposal before it was released last week. 

Submissions to the program will be evaluated on the strength of current efforts, organizational capacity, existing partners and the ability to financially invest in future efforts. Cities in Wake, Durham and Mecklenburg counties are not eligible to apply. 

However, there is a great deal that InnovateNC communities can learn from the Triangle startup community. 

Hall says that the Triangle’s tools will be available to the participating communities, since organizations within the Triangle are partnering in the initiative. The UNC System and Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy are two of those. 

Hall adds that the bottom line for the program’s participants is that size is less important than the community’s assets, like its culture and leadership. What’s important is a commitment to having collective impact and readiness to fully engage in the collaborative. 

Cities and towns can apply here by August 17. Participating communities will be announced on September 4.