Skip to main content

Regional Innovation Spotlight: Tampa and Central Florida

Competitiveness has become an area of intense bipartisan interest and concern in Washington. From the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act last year to the creation of a House Select Committee on China earlier this Congress, policymakers are keen to enhance U.S. economic performance relative to other countries. Not incidentally, this also reflects the views of voters, for whom “strengthening the economy” is the top policy priority.

Over the last year, the Bipartisan Policy Center has engaged in several public and private discussions and research to ensure that we understand what “competitiveness” means, how different issues relate to it, and what, specifically, policymakers need to know when it comes to economic and security matters with China.

While policymakers in Washington tend to speak, naturally, in national terms, the work of competitiveness really happens at the local and regional levels. That’s where individuals, companies, universities, and others carry out their activities which ultimately shape overall U.S. economic competitiveness. Congress, to its credit, appears to grasp this, having appropriated or authorized tens of billions of dollars’ worth of investments for “placed-based industrial policy” in the last few years.

To better understand local and regional competitiveness efforts, we’ve embarked on a series of roundtables around the country. At each stop, we speak to as many people and organizations as possible for insight into what American competitiveness looks like on the frontlines. We hope that our findings will be useful to local, state, and national policymakers looking to bolster U.S. competitiveness. The first roundtable was held in Tampa a few weeks ago.

Why Tampa?

Tampa was selected as the inaugural roundtable location partly due to its extraordinary nexus of national security, entrepreneurship, and supply chains. Tampa is home to MacDill Air Force Base, U.S. Central Command, and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). It’s the only location where two geographical combatant commands reside together—their regional economic impact is enormous. Another local Tampa resident is SOFWERX, an organization created in 2015 through a partnership intermediary agreement between USSOCOM and DEFENSEWERX. It was intended to bring innovation to bear on special operations challenges by engaging a broader community of small businesses, academia, and other “nontraditional” partners.

By some measures of economic competitiveness, Tampa excels compared to other cities and regions. On other measures, the need for improvement is apparent. According to the local State of the Region report, while Tampa outperforms the country in “business establishment startup rate,” it lags in innovation indicators such as Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer program (SBIR/STTR) awards per capita, placing 17th out of 19 comparison regions. SBIR and STTR awards are a critical source of federal funding aimed at spurring the development and commercialization of new technologies. Tampa’s startup ecosystem is growing but trails other U.S. regions on key measures.

There is, however, a plethora of organizations devoted to enhancing the region’s economic vitality—and that’s part of what drew us there. Our gracious host, Tampa Bay Wave, leads the effort in cultivating a strong pipeline of diverse entrepreneurs. Other public and private organizations that participated in the roundtable are also dedicated to regional betterment.

So, what did we learn?

Competition is the Mother of Innovation

Roundtable participants were united in commending federal policymakers for talking once again about competitiveness.

  • “Competition drives innovation and performance.”
  • “Competition forces collaboration.”
  • “Competition can be such a motivator.”

Several drew a link to prior periods of anxiety over the country’s competitiveness, whether in the 1980s, concerning Japan, or “the space race back in the 1960s” which accelerated U.S. innovation. At the same time, there was acknowledgement that part of what has always made America exceptional is our desire to “compete against ourselves” and outdo prior generations. “That’s what made America great—the fundamental principle that drives Americans as innovators and creators.”

Clarity Needed over Where Competitiveness Leads

Roundtable participants nevertheless expressed a desire for greater clarity from public and private leaders around the goal of being “more” competitive. “If you don’t have a specific goal, you do things all over the place,” said one participant. “I don’t think we’ve had that articulated in this space.” What is needed, said another, is a “broader mindset and story about national goals and shared priorities.”

There was also caution over equating innovation with shiny new technology. “We need people in the skilled trades, we need to understand and go back to inspiration in the arts, both visual and performing. We have a community there [in Tampa], and it’s really important for our competitiveness.” Likewise, one person pointed out that a good deal of innovation “is about improving processes.”

Attentiveness to Competitiveness is Good—But Barriers Still Exist

There was general hopefulness among roundtable participants that renewed attention to competitiveness in Washington could lead to a cultural shift: “We have a growth mindset here in central Florida and Tampa. The DC mindset, in my experience, can be really anti-growth.”

By far, the biggest barrier to greater competitiveness cited by roundtable participants was inclusion, or the lack thereof. “It’s like leaving half the team in the locker room,” if competition with other nations fails to include as much of the population as possible. U.S. regions “need a diverse group of leaders. Over 60% of our startups [in one program] meet the diversity criteria, and that helps us be intentional in recruiting a diverse group of investors and mentors.”

Where is lack of inclusion felt most acutely? “Equity capital to women and people of color is pathetic at the national level. At the state level, you’re talking about fractions of fractions of capital.”

Regional Context Shapes Competitiveness—And They All Differ

Florida has a robust tourist economy. The state and its regions are not necessarily in the same competitive position as, say, some Rust Belt areas that have long sought to recover from industrial decline. “This region doesn’t have that ‘rebuild’ mindset of some other places, there’s not an antithesis. It’s an interesting challenge.” The region and state are characterized by “a feeling of openness.”

Yet there was no complacency in the room. Participants were aware that while Florida is the fourth largest state economy, it is not in the top 10 for SBIR/STTR awards per capita. Tampa’s relative ranking in that category has improved, and roundtable participants acknowledged a local focus on enhancing innovative capacity. Because of their realism about both Tampa’s competitive promise and its challenges, roundtable participants generally approved of Congress’ focus on place-based policy: “Investing in local and regional innovation ecosystems is a way to stay competitive nationally.”


BPC is enormously grateful to Tampa Bay Wave for hosting this roundtable and to all who participated as individuals or on behalf of organizations for their candor, insight, and good company.

Where should we go next? Contact BPC Communications Associate Hanadi Jordan with your thoughts—and if you’d like to help!

Read Next

Support Research Like This

With your support, BPC can continue to fund important research like this by combining the best ideas from both parties to promote health, security, and opportunity for all Americans.

Give Now