In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about!

Innovation Campuses: Graduate Education Spurring Talent and the Tech Economy

Monday, February 8, 2021

Author: Lance R. Collins

In fall 2017 ecommerce and cloud computing giant Amazon announced that it was going to build a second US headquarters and cities could compete for the 50,000 jobs that would accompany “HQ2.” The company received nearly 240 proposals.

While most leaned heavily on tax incentives, Virginia’s proposal, led by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP), aimed to create an enabling environment for Amazon, along with other private and public sector organizations, to grow and succeed. The partnership’s pioneering approach to economic development focused on investing in the state through transportation, affordable housing, and higher education. The higher education component recognized that a strong talent base would both help attract Amazon and enhance the commonwealth’s already vibrant economy. Northern Virginia offers one of the strongest and most diverse talent bases in the nation, but persistent gaps and unfilled jobs remain (GWP 2020).

In developing the proposal, VEDP called on Virginia’s universities for ideas on partnering to grow talent and advance technology companies in the Washington metropolitan area. Virginia Tech’s bold ideas, land-grant mission to serve the commonwealth, and ability to scale priority programs made it a compelling feature of the state’s proposal.

The goal to “double the tech talent pipeline” was supported with a historic $1 billion commitment from Virginia to expand higher education to produce 31,000 new technology graduates over 20 years. The Tech Talent Investment Program included investments in other leading universities as well as plans for a Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in the DC metro area and expansion of undergraduate programs on the main campus in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech and the common-wealth are each investing $250 million to launch the Innovation Campus and support its development.

Anatomy of the Innovation Campus

The new Innovation Campus will foster a purpose--driven, action-oriented culture that distinguishes it from a traditional academic campus. It is located in the heart of the booming tech industry that includes giants like Amazon, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing, alongside a rich ecosystem of mid-size and smaller companies that provide the sharp tip to the innovation spear.

The campus affords the opportunity to reinvent graduate education and research in a way that is tightly linked to the economies of the private sector and the federal government’s drive and spending. It will provide a platform for innovative research that both feeds and is inspired by advancing technology in the region. Faculty, selected based on their research and teaching, will be expected to engage deeply outside traditional academic circles, collaborating with industry and translating their work into commercial applications.

The Innovation Campus will focus on graduate degrees in computer science and computer engineering, with highly differentiated concentrations, studio classes, and experiential learning as well as opportunities to participate in programs and internships. By the time they graduate, students will have worked in teams alongside premier faculty and engineers from the companies that sponsor their projects.

This campus will eschew the traditional academic paradigm of theory first, then application. Students will acquire deep fundamental knowledge while learning how to use it to solve real-world problems. They will never wonder about the relevance of what they learn, as it will be revealed and reinforced through the project.

Students also will be exposed to subjects that broaden their knowledge beyond the technical so that they appreciate the context in which technology is deployed. Depending on their interests, they may study technology from a humanistic perspective, the potential business and market contexts of technologies, and policy and regulatory frameworks needed to ensure ethical development and use. The goal is to produce graduates who not only are technically skilled but also have the breadth, depth, and context to become pioneers and leaders in the rapidly evolving digital economy.

Students may study the business and market
contexts of technologies,
and policy and regulatory frameworks to ensure
ethical development and use.

Recent events have renewed concerns about race and disparity. While minorities and women are notoriously underrepresented in the technology sector (GWP 2020), demographic diversity in the Washington metro area offers an opportunity to make a positive difference. The Innovation Campus will build on this comparatively strong base to augment racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic diversity among its students. This is not just the right thing to do on a moral level; diversity brings a dividend: Studies show the positive impact of diverse teams on performance (Hunt et al. 2018; Page 2007). The prosperity associated with the tech fields must be open to all who are willing to put in the work to master the subjects.

Shifting Trends of Technology

The granddaddy of all tech ecosystems in the United States and the world is Silicon Valley. Born in the 1950s with the emergence of silicon wafer technology, its dominance remains the envy of the world. Successful startups grow quickly, and the best generate manyfold returns on investment in a few years. Silicon Valley’s underlying mission is to invent new technologies that supplant the old. The operating word is disruption.

The urban tech scene is qualitatively different from Silicon Valley’s. In urban centers, tech industries work in partnership with corporate giants that are driven by advanced technology. Consider the advertising, financial services, and retail industries headquartered in New York City,[1] or the intelligence and defense industries in the greater DC area. The lifeblood of these industries is state-of-the-art technology, but development relies on collaboration rather than disruption. Proximity to the major players is vital—a concept at the heart of tech campuses like Innovation Campus. The tech campus is a gathering place for faculty, students, corporations, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists—the full ecosystem.

Innovation districts are on the rise in major cities such as Atlanta, Brooklyn, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Seattle, where underutilized industrial areas are being reinvented (Katz and Wagner 2014). Situated on a former railyard in the backyard of the nation’s capital, the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus is a model for municipalities to jumpstart their own tech ambitions.


In the new technology era, universities will continue their traditional role of nurturing brilliant minds to advance frontiers in research and knowledge. Tech innovation campuses can do even more, by working together with private sector companies, nonprofit organizations, the federal government and its agencies, even K–12 schools, and other partners, to drive technology forward while promoting both economic development and greater opportunity and inclusion of more diverse contributors.


GWP [Greater Washington Partnership]. 2020. The Capital Region Faces a Huge Tech Talent Shortage. Washington.

Hunt V, Yee L, Prince S, Dixon-Fyle S. 2018. Delivering through diversity. McKinsey Report, Jan 18.

Katz B, Wagner J. 2014. The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America. Washington: Brookings Institute.

Page SE. 2007. The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton University Press.

Reindl JC, Jesse D. 2019. University of Michigan plans $300M-plus “innovation center” at failed jail site. Detroit Free Press, Oct 29.


[1]  Cornell Tech ( in New York City, the original “tech campus” sponsored by the city’s Economic Development Corporation, graduates several hundred master’s and doctoral students each year, and has started over 65 companies that employ more than 350 people and have raised $118 million since 2014. Inspired by their success, the University of Michigan is starting an Innovation Center in Detroit (Reindl and Jesse 2019), and the University of Illinois, in partnership with other universities, is spearheading the Discovery Partners Institute in Chicago (


About the Author:Lance Collins is vice president and executive director of the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in Alexandria, VA.