A tech project that has helped train young people and created jobs in southeast Missouri has received funding from a competitive federal grant program to expand its work into the Mississippi Delta.
“Being selected is just validation that our vision to help improve our region and all the hard work of our partners and staff is moving our region in the right direction,” said Chris Carnell, co-founder of Codefi and director of programs of the Marquette Tech District Foundation (MTDF) in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “This program will assist us in making sure the work we’re doing is even more transformative for our communities.”
Codefi and MTDF were selected as one of the first rural recipients of the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Regional Innovation Strategies i6 Challenge. The effort received $750,000 in federal grant funding and is matching the grant with nearly $1.5 million in local contributions to launch their project, which is called the Rural Delta Tech Innovation Network.
“In the 252 counties of the Mississippi River Delta, from St. Louis to New Orleans, we have identified a huge need for tech talent,” said Carnell. “In the rural counties of the Delta, where our project is based, we have found that technology skills and talent are only available at one-seventh of the national average.”
The project addresses rural tech company startup needs by expanding the successes of the team’s work in Cape Girardeau, where Codefi has grown a coworking space to include more than 230 members, occupying nearly 17,000 square feet of space.
“When we started to get together a few years ago, we realized there was really no concerted effort to improve the technology startup landscape in Southeast Missouri,” Carnell said. Like other innovation hubs across the country, they needed to establish three ingredients for a successful rural innovation hub, he said:
1) Creating physical space where people can gather.
2) Identifying and educating tech-worker talent to build a pipeline of human resources.
3) Establishing an “ecosystem of support” for entrepreneurs that includes training, professional resources, advice and capital.
MTDF and Codefi had significant success launching operations in 2016, according to Carnell. They established a fiber internet buildout, along with free Wi-Fi for downtown Cape Girardeau. Startup competitions have leveraged the creation of 30 jobs. Coding education has provided entry-level computer programming skills and training to more than 100 adults.
The project is developing another hub in Paducah, Kentucky, a city of about 25,000 an hour-and-a-half’s drive southeast of Cape Girardeau.
“It makes sense to connect our existing hub with Paducah for lots of reasons,” Carnell said. “The two towns have similar needs of tech talent development, and startup investors can take a look at possible deals from both areas of the region.”
The rural region has the highest volume of needs and potential opportunities in the agriculture, health care and financial sectors, Carnell said.
“Region wide, our most successful and exciting work is the establishment of a youth coding league,” said Carnell. “We’ve laid it out like a seriously competitive youth sports league with the idea of wanting the programmers to be treated like the high school quarterback on the football team.”
There are currently 1,000 kids learning computer programming through the league, and the model is growing by several hundred per year. The league includes rankings and detailed statistics and metrics to measure success.
“Participants in the coding league are learning incredible skills, but also having fun,” Carnell said. “The teams have intricate jerseys, incredible team spirit and can be awarded great prizes like cash, earbuds and other consumer goods. There’s a playoff-Championship atmosphere to the whole thing.”
The tech hub in the Mississippi River Delta is one of several rural projects that received EDA i6 grant funding. Other funded projects serve rural counties in Minnesota, Michigan and Montana. The initial pool of rural applicants was supported by Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc., (RISI) which operates a technical assistance program supporting rural “innovation hubs.”
“The i6 Challenge is a significant opportunity for rural communities, but smaller organizations have struggled to compete with urban or university-based applications,” said Matt Dunne, executive director of RISI. “The Rural Innovation Initiative works to level the playing field and make the i6 more accessible to rural communities that are motivated to create innovation economy opportunities.”
Rural economic development organizations and innovation hubs can learn more about the i6 grant program, and other possible sources funding, at the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration Funding Opportunities page.