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Builders Conference / DEI / Ecosystem development / Philly Tech Week

To be seen as a ‘cool tech hub,’ regional leaders can lean into strengths, embrace former weaknesses and bring people together

Insights from a lightning talks session at the 2024 Builders Conference.

Deontee Gordon of Tech Birmingham at the 2024 Builders Conference (Holly Quinn/

Following is a recap of one of the sessions at the 2024 Builders Conference, a daylong convening on building better innovation ecosystems. Notes for this piece were documented in real time on our community Slack — join here. Find other takeaways from the conference here.

Economic development organizers from aspiring tech hubs each offered advice for how to grow and strengthen their local economies. 

Small ecosystems need to be honest about what their strengths are, but also about where they may fall short, said Zakiyyah Ali, executive director of the Tech Council of Delaware. As far as being a “cool tech hub,” she said, Delaware’s not there yet, “but we’re working on it.”

She recommended leaning into data and being sure to do a comparative analysis to peer regions.

Coming together and having a variety of approaches is how innovation really happensNick Smith Sailes AI

Tasia Malakasis, who runs The Company Lab (CO.LAB) in Chattanooga, Tennessee, said a key part of how her organization decides what to focus on is figuring out what makes their region different from others. In Chattanooga, she said, they leaned into freight, logistics and energy innovation.

Sometimes, the best differentiator might be the thing you might be running away from, said Deontee Gordon, president of Tech Birmingham, a 150-plus member association that advocates for the tech economy in north central Alabama. What is that for Birmingham? Civil rights, Gordon said.

In Arlington, Virginia, a $1 million grant program approved last year by the county has been a game-changer, said Ryan Touhill, director of Arlington Economic Development.

Called the Arlington Innovation Fund, the program includes $25,000 to $50,000 grants for early-stage startups located in the county, with a special focus on tech companies. Because of that, Touhill said, they’ve been able to find and nurture startups that had been flying under the radar.

Programs that help startups thrive are a huge key to boosting regional ecosystems, said Nick Smith, who founded AI sales prospecting company Sailes. The company recently participated in the Comcast LIFT Labs accelerator in Philadelphia, and he found the opportunity to be around other founders to be a game-changer.

“Ultimately,” Smith said, “coming together and having a variety of approaches to problems is how I think innovation really happens.”

➡️More from the 2024 Builders Conference

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