Research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Courtesy of the institute.

Thomas Jefferson was obsessed with mammoths and instructed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to keep their eyes peeled for one on their trip west (as if they might otherwise miss a gigantic beast).

King James was obsessed with witches and had as many of them burned as possible, inspiring William Shakespeare (who knew how to kowtow to those in power) to include some witches in “Macbeth.”

Pythagoras of mathematical theorem fame was obsessed with fava beans, which he was convinced would somehow eat his soul if he consumed them. By some accounts he was killed by political enemies who were pursuing him because he refused to escape by running through a field full of the accursed beans.

I have what I hope is a more practical obsession, although one that’s not nearly so colorful as mammoths, witches or soul-eating beans. I am obsessed with the federal government’s intention to designate 20 or more “regional technology hubs” and shower them with research and development money.

The goal behind this is to broaden the nation’s technology sector, which otherwise is concentrated in a relative handful of cities, mostly on the coasts (with Austin, Texas, being the exception). There are different ways to measure this concentration.

One way is by the number of tech jobs. For that, the Census Bureau tells us the five largest concentrations in the country are:

San Jose (aka Silicon Valley) 28%

Washington, D.C. 15%

San Francisco 14%

Boston 11%

New York City 5%

That’s 73% of the nation’s tech jobs in just five places (or four if you consider San Jose and San Francisco part of the same big megalopolis).

By another measure, one favored by the Brookings Institution, some 90% of the growth in the “innovation sector” between 2005 and 2017 went to just five “superstar” metros: Boston, San Francisco-San Jose combined, Seattle and San Diego. By that list, New York is out, Seattle and San Diego are in.

Yet another way is to measure where the nation’s venture capital goes:

San Francisco 28.2%

New York City 15.9%

Boston 10.6%

San Jose 8.0%

Los Angeles 7.2%

That’s a somewhat different list — Los Angeles is in, the Washington metro is out — but the point is still the same. That’s 69.9% of the nation’s venture capital being invested in just five places.

There’s an old saying to describe this: The rich get richer.

That’s great if you’re one of those places; not so much if you’re not. It’s also not so great for the civic health of the country to have some places prospering so wildly and others not. That’s given rise to multiple projects to spread that digital wealth around. One of those is the “Rise of the Rest” project led by former America Online chairman Steve Case, intended to foster investment in midsized cities in the American heartland. Another is the regional tech hub concept, which bubbled up out of the Brookings Institution and into the platforms of many Democratic presidential contenders in 2020, including that of the eventual winner, Joe Biden.

More importantly, the concept made its way into law, through the CHIPS-Plus bill last year intended to boost domestic technology in the face of Chinese competition, and the funding for it got included in the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed in December.

My interest has been the prospect that the fairy godmother of the federal government might reach out and tap somewhere in this part of Virginia with its magic wand except, instead of fairy dust, we’d get millions of research dollars that could transform a community.

That’s not an unreasonable expectation. The bill calls for “at least 20” such hubs, with at least three in each of the Economic Development Administration’s six regions, which means two of the regions might get four.

Virginia is in an EDA region that runs north to Maine, so we’re competing against communities in 12 other states.

That may seem a tall order, but the odds seem to me pretty good.

First of all, politics probably demands that these three (or maybe four?) sites be geographically dispersed, so we’re probably not going to see all of them in, say, New England. The logical way to award them would be one in the northern part of that zone, one in the middle and one in the southern part. (Yes, I realize that government doesn’t always operate logically.) If I’m right, then communities in Virginia aren’t really competing with New York, we’re competing with West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware for a single site (or maybe two).

Within that region, we can rule out the Washington area, because it’s already one of the “haves” and the purpose of this legislation is to benefit the “have nots.” Well, maybe not all the “have nots.” The legislation does express a preference for communities with a research university, which gives a built-in advantage to Blacksburg with Virginia Tech, but also Charlottesville with the University of Virginia (or potentially Morgantown, West Virginia, with West Virginia University).

Further, the act goes on to say that “no fewer than one-third” of these hubs should “significantly benefit a small or rural community.” The definition of “small or rural community” is “a noncore area, a micropolitan area, or a small metropolitan statistical area with a population of not more than 250,000.” That rules out the Roanoke (314,496) and Lynchburg (262,258) metro areas but rules in the New River Valley (165,293) and virtually all of Southwest and Southside. (Bristol’s in a tricky situation; it’s counted as part of the larger Bristol-Kingsport-Johnson City MSA, which has a population of 308,661.)

Finally, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, has been pushing hard for Buffalo, so that probably diminishes the chances that one of those “small or rural community” awards goes to New York. That’s why I’m liking our odds. (See my prior analysis on this.)

Two separate number-crunching exercises — one by the Center for American Progress, the other by the Economic Innovation Group — also concluded that some sites in Virginia would be good candidates. The Center for American Progress singled out Blacksburg and Charlottesville as the best sites in Virginia. The Economic Innovation Group said the best site in Virginia would be Lynchburg.

In a recent column, I pointed out that Blacksburg and Lynchburg are part of the same GO Virginia economic development region; perhaps they should join together for a joint bid?

It’s not time for putting in a bid yet. However, the EDA has opened public comment on the “design, structure, and evaluation” of the tech hub program.

Among the comment that’s being solicited is information on:

  • identifying metrics for assessment of successful Tech Hubs;
  • designing a competitive, inclusive and accessible selection process for Tech Hub designations that would both support critical technology and innovation sectors, as well as geographic diversity; and
  • identifying how federal designations and federal grants can be structured to maximize the desired impacts of the Tech Hubs program.

The deadline for submitting comments is 5 p.m. March 16 to, with “Tech Hubs RFI” in the subject line. The full details are published in The Federal Register.

So here’s the challenge for our communities: How do we think the rules for selecting these tech hubs should be structured? Here’s our chance to help write them. This won’t guarantee a win later on but it might help set the table for one.

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