Innovation Corridors Update
From robotics to EVs, from semiconductors to the life sciences, metro and regional hubs of innovation are advancing economic development across the nation.
These hubs of innovation stretch from coast to coast. Following is a look at what a selection of these centers are doing to push their respective technological envelopes.
A Robotics Hub
Pittsburgh has long been a nexus of robotics research. The Wall Street Journal nicknamed the city “Roboburgh” more than 20 years ago. In the ensuing years, robotics has continued to help the city emerge from its Rust Belt reputation of the last century. Robotics R&D has accelerated over the past decade, and the city is now one of the leading U.S. centers of robotics development. From autonomous vehicles to aerospace to warehousing and logistics, established firms and startups are exploring new frontiers in robotics.
The city’s Carnegie Mellon University has a long history as a center of developmental research related to robotics. A report released by the university in late 2021 credits the university’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC), founded 26 years ago, as being the catalyst for a “dramatic transformation of the Pittsburgh economy, the region, and the robotics industry.” The NREC has been a driving force in development of the city’s “Robotics Row,” an area now home to more than 80 of the region’s robotics and artificial intelligence companies.
During the past decade, Pittsburgh’s robotics cluster has evolved from one centered on academic research to become more focused on commercialization, according to Joel Reed, executive director of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network, an organization formed in 2018 to promote the fast-growing sector. The Pittsburgh area now has a critical mass of commercialized robotics companies numbering more than 100. “During the last 10 years, we have really seen the commercial aspects explode in numbers, and with success,” Reed says.
Up until about five years ago, much of the area’s robotics development occurred organically, driven by Carnegie Mellon, as well as the University of Pittsburgh, according to Reed. More recently, there has been an influx of companies drawn to Pittsburgh to be a part of the region’s burgeoning ecosystem, to have access to talent and to share in the overall understanding of the intellectual property surrounding the industry.
The Pittsburgh Robotics Network estimates 7,000 people work directly in Pittsburgh’s robotics industry and more than 45,000 technology workers at large. In the five years prior to 2022, the region saw $4.3 billion in corporate and venture capital investment in Pittsburgh companies, Reed says.
Jared Glover, CEO and co-founder of CapSen Robotics, a developer of software that guides robotics used in warehousing, is a product of Carnegie Mellon. He founded CapSen after finishing his Ph.D. at MIT.
Pittsburgh’s “Robotics Row” is an area now home to more than 80 of the region’s robotics and artificial intelligence companies. “The draw of Pittsburgh was strong enough to bring me back here to start the company,” he recalls. “It took a couple of years to figure out what industry we were going to go into, and to raise some money. We started building our team in 2016, and we are just about to make a large expansion push.”
CapSen creates software that gives robots more spatial intelligence with 3D cameras so that they can understand what they are looking at, in places like inside a cluttered bin, or on shelves inside factories and warehouses. The company also produces motion planning software to be able to perform complicated packaging and assembly tasks.
As CapSen grows, it will draw from what Glover terms a “fantastic talent pool” in Pittsburgh: “There is a never-ending supply of top-trained talent from the local universities,” he says. “Also, with so many robotics companies here, it’s easy for us to retain people, because there are so many options.”
Astrobotic Technology touts its 47,000-square-foot facility in Pittsburgh as the “largest private facility dedicated to lunar logistics.” The expanding company has emerged as a significant participant in space-related robotics.
“The power, or the gears working behind the growth of robotics in Pittsburgh, is the university system,” says John Thornton, Astrobotic’s CEO. “That creates the economic engine and the talent engine that has created new businesses and new opportunities, particularly in robotics, but also a lot of different technological engineering fields. That is the engine that is making Pittsburgh work as a region.”
The company’s growth has been rapid. Employment has risen from 19 people in early 2019 to about 200 currently. Thornton says Astrobotic continually sees opportunities to expand its business in the space industry.
“In general, Pittsburgh has a lot of real estate, but the challenge is finding the flex space that robotics typically requires, which are facilities with both office space and lab space, a place to actually build and produce something,” Thornton says. “We’ve bought our facility and renovated it, and that was a pretty significant investment for us. We wanted to remain in this region and continue to foster robotics talent, and to encourage more robotics companies to come to town.”
Thornton believes Pittsburgh’s robotics cluster will grow much larger over the next five to 10 years. “The opportunities continue to expand,” he says. “I think of it as being a bit like how the computer revolution occurred. There are aspects of the robotics field that could be applied to almost any industry. As more applications are discovered, you will see more businesses sprout up here.”
Arizona boasts an eager market for electric vehicles, helping to boost progress of an EV manufacturing cluster. The state has the seventh highest number (40,740 as of June) of electric vehicle registrations in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center. That number is projected to increase in the coming years, as the state receives $76.5 million in federal funds through the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program to establish publicly accessible EV charging stations. That project, set to begin in 2023, will initially target interstate highways.
Arizona boasts an eager market for electric vehicles, helping to boost progress of an EV manufacturing cluster. “The future looks very good for Arizona and EVs, says Jim Stack, president of the Phoenix chapter of the Electric Automobile Association. “We have three EV makers in the state, a new battery recycling location, and a large battery-maker now. We will have more in the future.”
“Arizona has become a national hub for electric vehicle manufacturing,” says Sandra Watson, president and CEO of the Arizona Commerce Authority. About two dozen companies with ties to the EV or autonomous vehicle industry are in Arizona, including parts manufacturers, battery makers, and OEMS. These include Tesla, ElectraMeccanica, Lucid Motors, and Nikola. Two of the latest additions are battery-related companies.
Logistics considerations and proximity to customers helped lure KORE Power, a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, developer of battery cell technology to Maricopa County. The company is building the first lithium-ion battery manufacturing facility wholly owned by a U.S. company. Plans call for the plant to open during the second half of 2024. KORE’s two-million-square-foot facility will produce 12 gigawatt hours of batteries per year, with half going into production in 2024 and the other half in 2025.
Lindsay Gorrill, KORE’s founder and CEO, says his company found the “total package” in Arizona. “We are close to the Long Beach port, and we ship to South America and Europe. We can get a shipping container to Long Beach and have it picked up in one day. Arizona has done a good job of luring our customers here, and more are on the way.”
The region’s strong workforce pipeline was also enticing. KORE has been working on cultivating that pipeline for more than 18 months, with Arizona State University and the Maricopa County Community College District. “We are working with them on new curriculum for what we need,” Gorrill says. “We have the education people behind us. That is part of the whole package of why it makes sense for us to be in Arizona.”
Li-Cycle, a recycler of lithium-ion batteries, describes its new location of Gilbert, Arizona, as sitting at the nexus of expected robust growth in the supply chain. “Li-Cycle’s patented technology is proven in the North American market as the leading way to recycle lithium-ion batteries, and we are building a network of spoke facilities, like the one in Arizona, around the world,” says Alan Ferguson, Li-Cycle’s commercial VP. “As the world continues to electrify and the demand for lithium-ion batteries accelerates, it is important for recycling capacity to be established where there is expected to be a significant amount of both end-life batteries and battery manufacturing scrap.” New York State scored two major computer-related coups in October when Micron and IBM announced colossal projects in the Syracuse and Hudson Valley areas, respectively.
Ferguson says, “We believe that Arizona will continue to present a significant opportunity for lithium-ion battery recycling, due to its own emerging supply chain in addition to its proximity to other markets, such as California.”
Chris Camacho, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, notes that “California and historically the Midwest’s Rust Belt have been the juggernaut of OEMs, but we are seeing the new age EV companies evaluate locations differently. We are able to compete in an entirely different way.”
A Nexus of Computers and Semiconductors
New York State scored two major computer-related coups in October when Micron and IBM announced colossal projects in the Syracuse and Hudson Valley areas, respectively.
In October semiconductor heavyweight Micron Technology announced plans to build the largest semiconductor fabrication facility in the history of the U.S. The new mega fab will increase domestic supply of leading-edge memory and create nearly 50,000 New York jobs, including approximately 9,000 high-paying Micron jobs.
Micron plans to invest up to $100 billion over the next 20-plus years to construct its new mega fab in Clay, N.Y., with the first phase investment of $20 billion planned by the end of this decade. This represents the largest private investment in New York State history. The site could eventually include four 600,000-square-foot cleanrooms.
IBM plans to invest $20 billion across the Hudson Valley region over the next 10 years. IBM’s goal is to “expand the vibrant technology ecosystem in New York to unlock new discoveries and opportunities in semiconductors, computers, hybrid cloud, artificial intelligence, and quantum computers.” IBM has long had a huge footprint in New York State and currently employs more than 7,500 in the Hudson Valley.
IBM builds mainframe computers in Poughkeepsie. The site also is home to IBM’s first Quantum Computation Center — where a large number of real quantum computers run in the cloud. IBM’s vision is for Poughkeepsie to become a global hub of the company’s quantum computing development, just as it is today for mainframes.
Ron Hicks, assistant county executive for Dutchess County, says President Biden’s visit in October for IBM’s announcement confirms that Poughkeepsie’s center of computer development is vital to the country’s national interests. He expects IBM’s announcement to attract further investment from startups and small businesses that support the quantum computing industry.
Chip R&D cluster
Further chip development is taking place across the country in a cluster in California. The Sacramento area continues to grow its semiconductor R&D cluster. The latest company to choose the area is Solidigm, a U.S.-based subsidiary of SK hynix, which announced plans in September to invest more than $100 million to build its global R&D campus in Rancho Cordova. The company expects to create more than 1,900 high-paying jobs over the next five years. Area economic developers tout it as the largest such project the region has seen over the last decade.
Much of the Sacramento region’s R&D cluster is sprinkled along the Highway 50 corridor, a route running east to west and connecting Sacramento to the area just outside of Reno, Nevada. Solidigm, a developer of NAND flash memory products, is working on tenant improvements to the 230,000-square-foot R&D campus and is targeting a move-in date in the first quarter of 2023. The site was chosen for its ample office and lab space, proximity to where Solidigm’s workforce lives, availability of public transportation, nearby amenities, and the ability to expand to accommodate a growing workforce.
Much of the region’s R&D cluster is sprinkled along the Highway 50 corridor, a route running east to west and connecting Sacramento to the San Francisco Bay Area. Intel has a large campus in the area, which has grown to nearly 6,000 employees since the late 1980s.
“The region is home to global leaders conducting R&D in the memory space,” says Jasmine Ward with the Greater Sacramento Economic Council. “We are at a turning point, where we are starting to see an acceleration of interest in the area.”
Folsom, Calif., a town about 25 miles northeast of Sacramento, has been a primary location of Micron since it acquired Numonyx from Intel in 2010. The acquisition gave rise to what Micron now calls its Embedded Business Unit, which is essentially headquartered in Folsom, according to Chris Jacobs, vice president and general manager of embedded market segments in Micron’s Embedded Business Unit, “which is one of the fastest-growing units at Micron,” Jacobs says. “We focus on delivering innovative memory and storage semiconductor solutions in automotive, industrial, and certain consumer applications.”
Micron recently refurbished its Folsom facilities, which Jacobs says is a testament to the ongoing investment the company has in the area. “This is a great place to live and work,” he says. “It is a bit more affordable than other areas of California. The area is perfectly located, close to both urban centers and easy access to outdoor activities. We have had a great experience attracting talent, and currently have 350 employees, and growing. We have the space to support the growth that we see over the next few years.”
Tri-State Region Life Sciences Cluster
The tri-state region of Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey continues to attract investment from innovative life sciences firms.
Connecticut’s thriving life sciences cluster boasts more than 1,000 companies. One of the state’s fast-growing hubs in this sector is in New Haven, home of Yale University. An example of the city’s robust biotech growth is Arvinas, a company developing therapies for a variety of diseases. Arvinas is developing 160,000 square feet of lab and office space on three floors of a 10-story tower at 101 College St.
“New Haven has been an exciting place in the last few years,” says John Houston, Arvinas’ president and CEO. “Clearly, the number of companies that have been spun out of Yale, as well as those that have come to New Haven, has been quite significant. There are probably hundreds of small companies. The idea that there will be even more of a busy downtown cluster is very exciting.”
Houston says when he moved to Connecticut 25 years ago, he didn’t see New Haven as being anything like a biotech cluster. That changed over the last 10 years.
“I think the growth of our company is acting as a catalyst to attract other companies here. It is already happening. Other companies are looking at New Haven, looking at the new buildings going up. One of the things that may have caused hesitation in the past about locating here was the available space for labs, and also the concern about having enough of a talent pool to recruit from. I think both of those questions have now been answered fairly strongly.”
In other tri-state developments, New York City is developing the Science Park and Research Campus Kips Bay, a job and education innovation hub that will be the first of its kind in the state. Officials say the project will help New York City become a global leader in creating and attracting accessible jobs in life sciences, healthcare, and public health by creating a pipeline from local public schools.
And Rocket Pharmaceuticals, a clinical-stage company developing genetic therapies for rare childhood disorders, is developing an R&D, manufacturing, and headquarters facility in Cranbury, N.J.
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