RALEIGH — North Carolina ranks No. 20 in the nation on innovation, according to Dr. John Hardin, the executive director for the North Carolina Board of Science, Technology & Innovation.

The ranking is listed in the Board’s Tracking Innovation report, which has measured NC’s innovation ranking for over 20 years.

Hardin says the state’s No. 20 ranking is “impressive” when considering North Carolina’s history.

“When RTP was founded back in the 1950s, there weren’t even 50 states, there were 49 states then, and we were, I think, 49th, we were dead last, when it came to per-capita income,” said Hardin. “So, to put it in perspective, we’ve come a long way.”

Dr. John Hardin is the Executive Director for the North Carolina Board of Science, Technology & Innovation, which is staffed by Office of Science, Technology & Innovation in the North Carolina Department of Commerce | Image from the NC Dept. of Commerce

The report evaluates the state’s standing on 39 measures of innovation capacity, comparing North Carolina to other states and to the national average.

The measures include metrics like per-capita income, the percentage of business establishments classified as SET (high science, engineering and technology), the percentage of the state’s workforce in science and engineering occupations, and venture capital investments.

NC would be ‘bottom of the barrel’ without tech

A lot of the progress in North Carolina’s ranking, Hardin said, is because the state’s economy has become “more high tech” and evolved away from a heavy reliance on agriculture and “low-tech, low-skilled manufacturing.”

“Had we stayed rooted in those, we would be, still, bottom of the barrel,” said Hardin. “And had someone done this report 50 years ago, and I don’t think anyone did, but had they done it, North Carolina would have ranked 45th or 47th.”

While the last version of the report was released in 2021, Hardin says the Board is “working on it right now,” intending to release a new version in the spring.

The new report will also update the state’s ranking.

“The reason the rankings matter is because the rankings are actually a reflection of the health of the economy,” said Hardin. “So it’s not just about having bragging rights.”

Hardin shared that he thinks of the ranking data like health data.

“It’s like when you go to the doctor,” said Hardin. “Now, when I go to a physical, a lot of it is just blood work, and what comes back is almost 40 different indicators based on my blood, and that’s what the doctor uses to determine in many ways the health of my body. And so we’re doing the same thing with this index. We’re measuring 40 different points in the system and tracking those over time and tracking them relative to other states, and tracking ‘within the body,’ regionally, to figure out where we’re strongest and where we’re we have some challenges.”

‘RTP is doing really well’

Hardin spoke with WRAL TechWire about data specific to the Triangle.

“I think what we can say is that RTP is doing really well,” said Hardin, referring to Wake, Orange, and Durham counties. “Whether it’s population, GDP, income, patents, venture capital, it’s highly concentrated in a certain number of areas. And RTP is a leader on virtually everything.”

He also said that if North Carolina wanted to see a higher innovation ranking, the state would have to focus outside of RTP.

“I mean, RTP can keep getting better and better,” said Hardin. “But our overall ranking is not gonna get up to number one based just on RTP. We’ve got to have more regions of the state. We don’t want to bring RTP down by any means, we want it to stay strong, but we want other ones to get even stronger.”

More on the State of the Region from RIoT

On Feb. 6, Tom Snyder, executive director of the IoT-focused economic development nonprofit RIoT, will deliver a State of the Region address focused on the Triangle and on North Carolina as a whole.

Graphic provided by RIoT

Snyder told TechWire over email that he uses data from the Tracking Innovation report and data from other state and city agencies, entrepreneurial support organizations, and nonprofits to build the State of the Region address.

The goal, he said, is to provide “accurate information about our successes, our misses and the opportunities for the future.”

“The purpose of the event is to offer perspective on how North Carolina and the Triangle stack up against other states and tech and entrepreneurship hubs,” Snyder told TechWire. “I try to take a data-driven approach and quantitative analysis, layered with additional qualitative commentary and context.”

The State of the Region event, held from 5 to 7 p.m. on Feb. 6 at Raleigh Founded’s North Street location, is free and open to the public.

“The address covers a range of entrepreneurial support organizations and metrics, investing and grants, company and job formation, the broader business climate and education and research,” said Snyder

Tickets are available on the riot.org website: https://riot.org/event/riot-state-of-the-region-2024.