Aug 24, 2023 - Business

Charlotte’s biggest fintech and health players want to make the region a federally recognized tech hub

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Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Could Charlotte become a federally recognized tech hub? The epicenter of artificial intelligence innovation?

  • Some of the biggest local players in academia, technology, banking and healthcare think it could.

What’s happening: Earlier this month, the Meta Lab Tech Hub, a recently formed consortium of firms and organizations, submitted a bid to formally recognize the Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia region as a Tech Hub. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration is overseeing the economic development program under the Chips and Science Act.

  • Hundreds of consortiums nationwide are expected to apply. But only 20 regions will receive the title. Of those, five to 10 will be able to apply for “implementation” funding.

Why it matters: Charlotte could receive up to $75 million if selected. The money could go toward research and development, workforce development, infrastructure and other efforts.

  • “The overall notoriety of being just 20 designated as a future regional tech hub is a really big deal,” Tariq Bokhari, founder of Carolina Fintech Hub, tells Axios. “It’s almost like — I don’t want to call it making the Amazon HQ2 to shortlist like back in the day, because it’s better than that, I think.”
  • Carolina Fintech Hub is leading the bid for Meta Lab Tech Hub.

Context: The $280 billion Chips and Science Act aims to boost the domestic chip-making industry and scientific research. It’s intended in part to increase competition with China.

  • Bokhari says the Meta Lab Tech Hub (no relation to Meta/Facebook) will focus on AI. It intends to create the AI equivalent of Zelle, a joint venture between banks to swiftly move money across accounts.
  • The Charlotte applicants also have a goal to infuse ethics into AI and address implicit bias, a problem seen with ChatGPT.

Zoom in: A mix of major financial and healthcare firms form the application group: Ally Financial, Atrium Health, Bank of America, LendingTree, North Tryon Tech Hub, esports platform PlayVS, Stiegler EdTech, the City of Charlotte, UNC Charlotte, U.S. Bank, Varo Bank and Wells Fargo.

  • “You rarely see that all these different organizations are coming to the same table with a common goal,” says Dr. Bojan Cukic, dean of the College of Computing and Informatics at UNC Charlotte.
  • He says the hub would open up economic opportunities to new generations of students and improve socioeconomic mobility.

The big picture: It’s a pivotal time for innovation in Charlotte.

  • Construction of “The Pearl” and the Wake Forest University School of Medicine Charlotte is underway in Midtown.
  • Plus, plans for a technology hub along North Tryon Street near UNC Charlotte are gaining momentum. Retired Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, one of Charlotte’s most powerful men and a UNC Charlotte Board of Trustees member, recently announced he’s on board with making the North Tryon Tech Hub happen.

Yes, but: Some of the tech companies that made the splashiest announcements about expanding into Charlotte have fizzled in recent years.

  • British EV maker Arrival took down its signage and has laid off employees at its North American headquarters in South End. Centene canceled plans for a $1 billion regional headquarters and tech hub in Charlotte last summer. Fintech company Robinhood closed its office in Uptown around the same time.

What’s next: The EDA is expected to announce the winners this fall. Then the designated EDA Tech Hubs will be able to apply for funding.

The bottom line: “AI is something that will come to everyone,” Cukic says, “and those who know how to lead in the development and innovation in AI will essentially get top benefits because they will be early adopters.”

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