Glenn Youngkin at a rally in Roanoke County before the election. Photo by Dwayne Yancey

When Glenn Youngkin was running for governor, his stump speech included three very important words.

No, not critical race theory.

That was in there, but I have a hard time getting worked up over something that apparently isn’t being taught anyway.

No, the three most important words Youngkin said went right past a lot of people, and definitely made no headlines (until now). They were these:

Incubators and accelerators.

As in, “We have to start incubators and accelerators.”

I never heard anyone applaud this line – to be fair, not every line in a campaign speech is supposed to generate applause – although perhaps some of us should, whether we backed Youngkin or not. (You can find it at the 32:57 mark here.)

Since this phrase wasn’t an applause line, I assume it served some other purpose. Maybe it was just filler. Or maybe Youngkin actually believes this. We’ll have four years to find out but, for now, this is the interpretation I prefer because it makes the most sense. Youngkin is a business guy. A business guy who has operated at a very high level in the business world – co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, at the time the world’s second-largest private equity firm. A business guy who spent much of the fall saying that Virginia needs to do a better job creating jobs. It makes sense that Youngkin would believe in incubators and accelerators as a way to jump-start more small businesses into bigger ones. The question now is what he intends to do about that – and what opportunities that affords those of us in the western third of Virginia, which all too often gets bypassed by economic innovations.

For any of you picturing incubators as places to raise chicks (I’m channeling my farming background here) and accelerators as something for particles and nuclear physics, let’s pause and acquaint you with a different set of incubators and accelerators. These are places and programs intended to help nurture entrepreneurs as they get started. (Let’s not get hung up on the formal definitions or the technical distinctions between the two.) We already have some incubators and accelerators across Southwest and Southside, but we could sure use more, and maybe now is the time for the business community to be pushing for more. Youngkin clearly believes in them, he’s politically indebted to this part of the state, and there’s plenty of money sloshing around Richmond right now.

Funding more incubators and accelerators isn’t the only thing Youngkin can do to repay that political debt – endorsing the calls by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, for more state funding for school construction, or addressing the disparities in school funding between the state’s most affluent communities and its least, would be a legacy-defining move. But state funding for incubators and accelerators would be pretty cheap, in the great scheme of things, and give Youngkin a chance to do what all governors love to do – cut ribbons.

Will he do so? We’ll see. A transition aide sends this statement: “Governor-elect Youngkin’s Day One Plan sets out to add 400,000 jobs & 10,000 startups, and incubators and accelerators can help play a role in reinvigorating job growth in the Commonwealth. Governor-elect Youngkin supports collaborative public-private partnerships that help job creators connect with the resources they need to start or expand a business. The Governor-Elect will be looking at the programs Virginia has underway now, evaluating ways to strengthen and improve our efforts, and working with the General Assembly to ensure those opportunities are available throughout the Commonwealth, including in Southwest and Southside.”

That sounds encouraging although I’ve been around enough politicians to know it might also not mean anything.

In a perfect world, here is where I would list all the incubators and accelerators in Southwest and Southside and then point out the localities that don’t have any but should.

News flash: We don’t live in a perfect world. (Sorry to break it to you.)

That’s a long way of saying it’s unclear just how many incubators and accelerators we already have. The list I found mentioned VT KnowledgeWorks in Blacksburg, the Business Development Centre in Lynchburg, the West Piedmont Business Development Center in Martinsville and the Virginia Highlands Small Business Center in Abingdon – but didn’t mention RAMP (the Regional Accelerator and Mentoring Program) in Roanoke or The Launch Place in Danville. That means it’s clearly possible there are others out there I haven’t heard about that fill in some of those geographical blanks.

Here’s what is clear: The state’s incubator and accelerator ecosystem is weighted toward the urban crescent, not Southwest and Southside. (Yes, I know, big surprise, right?)

The Commonwealth Cyber Initiative is a state-funded program which is intended to help establish Virginia as a tech capital (the formal language says its goal is “to elevate the state-wide ecosystem of innovation and excellence in cyberphysical systems with an emphasis on trust and security and to further secure Virginia’s role as a global leader in secure cyberphysical systems.”) Its website lists seven incubators and accelerators that it’s presumably working with. Of those, only one is on this side of the state – VT KnowledgeWorks. The VentureLab Incubator, an initiative of the University of Virginia’s Darden School, does say it “welcomes applications from any team with at least one founder who is a current student, faculty, or staff at UVa, including College at Wise.”

Still, here’s a part of the state that desperately needs economic growth, and here’s one vehicle for economic growth. We need more of these, and the ones we have could surely use more funding to expand their programs. So how ’bout it?

Why am I so focused on some minutiae that’s not likely to create many jobs, at least at the outset? Here’s why: This is how you build a new economy – piece by piece, block by block.

Every year I read the annual report from Startup Genome, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit that studies business ecosystems around the world. Although these are cities far bigger than ours, there are always lessons to be gleaned that can be applied on a smaller scale. One of the big lessons this year is the importance of incubators and accelerators. When cities get ranked on how startup-friendly they are, the number of incubators and accelerators is one of the metrics used. But this is about more than just a ranking. Heck, even football teams get ranked. This is about what the competition is doing.

Singapore isn’t quite as big as Virginia – 5.9 million people to our 8.6 million – but it’s now home to 190 incubators and accelerators. Whatever Virginia’s number really is, it’s certainly not that. To borrow from Virginia Tech’s former logo, why should we let the future be invented in Singapore and not, say, Smyth County? Melbourne, Australia – population 5 million – is now home to 50 accelerators. By Melbourne standards, Virginia ought to have close to 90. That would work out to almost one in each county or city. Melbourne also saw $1 billion in investment in 2019-20, with start-ups alone creating more than 5,900 jobs.

Closer to home, Austin, Texas, alone has 15 incubators. One is the University of Texas Clean Energy Incubators, which focuses on what is now called “cleantech.” To the extent that clean energy such as renewables is putting fossil fuels out of business, why don’t we have a cleantech incubator in Southwest Virginia? Why not create those jobs where the old ones are going away?

Edmonton, Alberta, might be an even better example. Here’s a city of just under 1.5 million – about the size of our own Richmond, just a whole lot colder. If you want to find a city built on fossil fuels, look to Edmonton. This is an oil and gas city – there’s a reason the hockey team there is called the Oilers. It’s also a city that’s becoming a technopolis, with emphasis on artificial intelligence and the data analytics field known as “machine learning.” Edmonton now has “more than 20 startup support organizations and incubators.” What if we had 20 in Southwest and Southside Virginia? Oil and gas will someday go away – even the province’s conservative pro-fossil fuel premier acknowledges that. But when they do, Edmonton will not have to fret over what will power its economy then; it’s already working on that now.

I could list more cities and more examples but you get the idea: These other places aren’t necessarily better than we are. They just seem to be trying harder.

I hope this column gets wide readership but in the end, there’s one potential reader who probably matters more than others. His initials are Glenn Youngkin.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.