Exploring Innovation Hubs in Coastal Virginia

A Focus on Norfolk's Innovation Corridor

by Barrett Baker

Innovation districts and corridors are altering the way we think about urban development and economic growth. Innovation corridors and districts are geographic regions in urban areas expressly designed to stimulate innovation, economic growth and collaboration between various stakeholders such as businesses, research institutions, universities and governments all within close proximity to one another.

They’re seen as a way to drive economic growth, attract talent and create a fertile ground for innovation and entrepreneurship. These hubs often receive support and investment from governments, private companies, and academic institutions enabling them to build infrastructure, provide funding for startups and promote collaboration between stakeholders.


And they’re not just physical spaces—they’re urban ecosystems carefully designed to foster collaboration, entrepreneurship, and growth. An upsurge in the creation of innovation hubs is slowly shifting how we live, work and interact with our urban environments and with each other.

But there are different kinds of innovation hubs, each tailored to meet the needs of a specific area and demographic. In a series of articles, Barrett Baker and I will explore the state of innovation hubs in Coastal Virginia.

We’re kicking things off with Baker’s look at Norfolk’s Innovation Corridor. Thanks for reading and being a part of the CoVaBIZ Community!

– Beth Hester, managing editor, CoVaBIZ


Norfolk’s Innovation Corridor: A Brief History

Back in 2013, the Greater Norfolk Corporation (GNC), a nonprofit group of C-suite executives made up of business, academic, and municipal leaders began to examine ways to retain workforce talent and enhance the entrepreneurial ecosystem as Hampton Roads had been lagging behind other regions when it came to business startups and job creation. By 2015, the GNC began to explore innovation zones and ecosystems as a way to encourage startups and support entrepreneurial growth.

Then, in 2017, ReInvent HR (now part of the the Hampton Roads Executive Roundtable), HR Community Foundation, 757 Angels and 757 Accelerate, published a study showing that Hampton Roads had a slower rate of startups and job creation than the cities of Richmond, Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte and Austin. Norfolk was performing poorly in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, scoring only two points out of the ten available. "Part of the issue was brain drain," explains Linda Peck, Executive Director of Norfolk Innovation Corridor (NIC).

“As an example, if we graduate 6,000-7,000 students from STEM-related course studies, only half of them were staying local after graduation,” says Peck. “So, we’re trying to combat that in greater Norfolk by focusing on attracting and retaining talent.”

Norfolk already possessed many of the characteristics of an innovation district. Academic, medical and research institutions were established in the area, poised to provide skilled talent through their graduates, which in turn, could create an environment for research and development spinoffs. There were big companies that could be test pilots and early adopters of new company products and services, and there were great support services for entrepreneurs in the area. The question became one of how to capitalize on these assets and catalyze business innovation. The only thing missing was a plan.

Later in 2017, to help get things rolling, Norfolk City Council approved a Technology Zone to provide economic incentives for qualified startup tech companies. By September 2018, GNC creates a proposal along with a memorandum titled "Getting Hampton Roads Into the Game: An Innovation Headquarters for the Region."

The GNC used what was learned from the ReInvent study to dedicate efforts toward improving the economic health of Norfolk. They re-established the zone as the Norfolk Innovation Corridor (NIC)—which runs along the Elizabeth River from Old Dominion University to Norfolk State University—in the fall of 2020. The goal was to encourage the growth of entrepreneurship and innovation, attract and grow technology startups, and retain a qualified workforce.

“Two areas of an innovation district are academic/medical research, and supportive services,” says Peck. “We have the 757 Collab, we have ODU’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, right around the corner is NSU’s Innovation Center. We have the Hampton Roads Biomedical Consortium, RISE Resilience Innovations, OpenSeas Technology Innovation Hub, MakerSpace…we have everything we need. So, the NIC is the assembly of all those parts.”


Image of Norfolk Innovation Corridor Stakeholders with Mayor Alexander

NIC leadership meets with mayor Kenneth Alexander


Job Creation and Inclusive Growth

The progress is apparent. In 2021, the NIC and the City of Norfolk received a Gold Award for Public/Private Partnership from the International Economic Development Council. Earlier this year, the NIC was invited to join the prestigious Global Institute for Innovation Districts, which represents the top innovation districts around the world.

Realizing that approximately 50 percent of jobs in STEM and Tech do not require a college degree, the NIC is also focused on tapping into underserved communities within Norfolk to provide inclusive growth.

“Priming the workforce, finding the talent, I personally think you can never start too early,” says Peck. “One of my Board members introduced me to something called Invention Convention which is a free program for K-12 students offered by the Henry Ford Foundation. Last year, we brought the first Invention Convention to Norfolk, and we specifically went to underserved schools. It was amazing!”

The NIC received a grant from the COVA STEM Hub to expand the program in Norfolk, and because of their success, Virginia has become an official affiliate, under Virginia Tech, to expand the program. In 2023, capital investments in the NIC grew by $9 million and created 200 jobs. Since 2021, the impact has included $39 million in capital investment and the creation of nearly 400 high-tech jobs.

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