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ThriveHI Awarded $300,000 Grant to Foster Hawaii Tech Ecosystem
After a year focused on community building, the federal funds will go toward a baseline study and hiring a full-time executive director.
ThriveHI, an organization positioned as an ecosystem catalyst for Hawaii’s startup and tech sector, has been awarded a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) to take its work and mission into its second phase.
ThriveHI came together in 2022 when four Hawaii residents passionate about growing the local tech scene united their efforts: Trung Lam, Johnny Chankhamanny, Rich Matsui, and Sonia Romero. The group hosted and partnered on events, and grew its community to over 1,000 members.
They envisioned a lot more than hosting pitch contests and networking mixers, but doing that required both resources and full-time attention.
“Everyone kind of agrees that this is what Hawaii needs, but most people don't have the bandwidth because they're so focused on what their company does and what their organization does,” Lam said. “What we're actually doing is kind of outside the scope of any one group, or any one organization.”
Romero said she also saw great demand and untapped potential.
“The energy and the desire around this is very clear,” she said. “Over the past year, we've been hosting these ad hoc events, and we've realized through community outreach that people want more—like a lot more—than what we're already doing, to the point where we're having to turn down opportunities.
“Realizing that there is this huge community in Hawaii that really also believes in this mission and wants to contribute to this mission has been one of the greatest things that I've learned over this past year,” she continued. “Seeing that and recognizing that with a clear strategic direction, it feels like the sky is limitless.”
One of ThriveHI’s supporters, who worked at Kamehameha Schools at the time, called their attention to the EDA grant opportunity.
“Fortunately, there were multiple tiers to this grant, and one of them was for exactly what we were trying to do, which is build a tech ecosystem in smaller nascent communities that don't quite have the foundation just yet,” Lam said. “So instead of going after really, really large dollar amounts, we said, ‘If you look at where we are, we're still early days, so let's let's focus on this foundational work.’”
ThriveHI ended up as one of 60 organizations across 36 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico that received a total of $53 million in “Build to Scale” grants this year, which are designed to “accelerate technology entrepreneurship by increasing inclusive access to entrepreneurial assistance and startup capital,” according to the agency.
“What's great about that is that it actually provides the opportunity to take what we learned during this one- to two-year program, and then develop a longer-term strategic plan, and reapply for future EDA grants—like a phase two, if you will—which can be much larger,” Lam said.
Lam and Romero said the influx of funding will go primarily to two initiatives: commissioning a study to identify the technology sub-sectors where Hawaii has the greatest opportunity based on economic data and community input, and hiring a full-time executive director.
That executive director is Romero.
“I think I'm really excited and really nervous,” she said. “It is exciting because it is the first example of our theory of change, and it's exciting to think how many other people might have the opportunity to move home in the next 10 years because of the work that ThriveHI does.”
From thesis to strategic plan
The fundamental vision for what ThriveHI aims to accomplish comes from Romero’s senior thesis at the University of Southern California. And how she came to that point is a familiar story to many people in the islands.
“I grew up in Hawaii, and I feel like similar to all of us who co-founded ThriveHI sort of heard this narrative of, there's only certain types of jobs in Hawaii, a lot of them centered around either tourism or maybe the military,” she said. “So I ended up going to college on the mainland at USC, I did an international business program, and I got to actually travel quite a bit during my time in college.”
The travel came to an abrupt end, however, when COVID hit, and she ended up back in Hawaii for her senior year. And the whole state, along with the rest of the world, was wondering what would happen next—and what should happen next.
“I feel like this conversation has been bubbling under the surface in Hawaii for decades, people have been talking about diversifying Hawaii's economy for a long time,” she recalled. “It came to the forefront, and suddenly it was the main topic of conversation for most people: that tourism isn't sustainable, that the jobs that it provides don't provide a living wage for most people in Hawaii, and that there needs to be a better more sustainable answer.”
She combined the big questions about the future with her studies, and meanwhile connected with Lam, Matsui, and Chankhamany. Together they asked: how can Hawaii grow into a tech hub?
“I looked at about 40 or 50 other cities around the world that have successfully done so and was asking what key ingredients did those cities need in order to grow a tech hub from nothing?” she said.
Those ingredients included government support, access to venture capital, a strong innovation pipeline—which includes good universities and good investment in research and development—strong access to talent, and a strong community where people were able to create the connections to spur “serendipitous innovation.”
She then took those ingredients and looked at what Hawaii was cooking with.
“What we saw is, Hawaii struggles across all of them,” she said. “And that's when we started developing the strategic plan, saying, ‘These are the areas we need to focus on, how can we start to develop Hawaii across those areas?’”
I was curious what cities around the world felt most comparable to Hawaii.
“There were a couple of cities that particularly stood out, and I ended up doing a slightly longer in-depth case study analysis,” she recalled. “Provo, Utah, Miami, Florida, Tel Aviv, Israel, and Shenzhen, China.
“All four of these cities were similar to Hawaii in some sort of way, and they had to use really unique strategies that I felt were significantly different from how places like Silicon Valley or Boston, Massachusetts, have developed their tech hubs.”
Tel Aviv was the one Romero kept coming back to.
“They're quite physically isolated. Their primary markets are located in the U.S. and Europe. They also have a pretty significant brain drain issue where a lot of people from Israel typically study either in the U.S. or Europe. So it felt like they were dealing with a lot of the same problems that Hawaii has.”
Romero also looked at other cities that were further along in establishing a tech hub, and they provided the operational model for ThriveHI.
“There are so many other cities that are far along in this journey… you can look at Tulsa with Tulsa Innovation Labs, Refresh Miami in Miami, Florida, and Silicon Slopes in Utah, and they all already sort of have this model,” she explained. “They have the same nonprofit organization that serves as sort of the central hub of the startup and tech ecosystem.
“For most of these organizations, what we've seen is a combination of government grants, private sponsorships, and then eventually they also have some sort of paid membership model for individuals once the value add that they can provide is significant enough,” she continued.
What would that value look like?
“For a lot of these more developed organizations, it can look like a full-on job board that's frequently updated and refreshed for the local economy, it can look like a pretty large newsletter database—I think some of these organizations have 15,000 to 20,000 subscribers—and it can also look like a sort of mini LinkedIn but just for this community, so that everyone there is able to stay constantly connected, collaborate, and innovate together."
Where are we now?
The primarily deliverable of the grant will be an independent, robust, quantitative and qualitative study of Hawaii’s current tech sector.
“What we know so far is what things Hawaii needs to build a tech ecosystem, but what we don't know is what sub-industries within tech is Hawaii actually poised to succeed?” Romero said. “Answering that question is incredibly important is because Hawaii is isolated and we do have a lot of hurdles that other places on the mainland might not have.
“We should be able to say Hawaii is more likely than anyone else to succeed in cybersecurity or in agriculture or aquaculture, and then say, everyone in the ecosystem should drive towards those specific industries—our policy should be centered around those specific sub-industries,” she added.
And Romero said there are more than numbers to consider.
“Yes, it can be data driven, based on key economic indicators, what Hawaii is likely to succeed in, but it should also be based on community input,” she explained. “What is the community most excited about, what have we actually worked towards so far, what do people in the ecosystem think is most likely to succeed?”
“We could find that defense technology is where Hawaii has the most potential to succeed, but if we get overwhelming feedback from the community that they have no desire to pursue that, then like, I think there needs to be a calibration,” Romero said. “That's also input that we would want to put into that study.”
The Hawaii paradox
Romero pointed out a familiar Catch-22 in Hawaii's tech industry. Local companies say they cannot find enough qualified local talent and hire people from the continent, yet many local tech workers also leave Hawaii because of limited opportunities here.
"How do people feel like there are no jobs here, but the companies here also feel like there's no talent? That doesn't make sense,” she said. “There must be communication barriers, and I think part of the solution is communication—we need to better connect these local companies with local workers, and local workers with remote jobs.”
Indeed, post-pandemic remote work is a core tenet of ThriveHI.
“The idea and potential of remote work was a big factor for the genesis and creation of ThriveHI,” Romero said. “It feels like for the first time ever, Hawaii actually has an opportunity to compete on a national and global landscape with cities that—up until this point—have basically hoarded all of the talent capital of the world in maybe three or five cities across the U.S.”
She pointed out that many tech companies have been returning to in-person employment, and felt that Hawaii could be one of the voices advocating for retaining a remote workforce.
“Hawaii needs to be a spokesperson for remote work, and recognize that remote work is equitable work,” Romero said. “States like Hawaii cannot have fully fledged economies without a remote work economy."
“I truly think that remote work is the future for Hawaii,” she continued. “It's how hopefully we'll be able to attract capital back to the state.”
Of course, if Hawaii plays in a global marketplace, it stands to lose as much as it could gain. And Hawaii has seen a massive influx of outside tech workers moving here but keeping their jobs with outside companies, impacting everything from the housing market to state tax revenues. Lam understands that concern.
“I'm a local entrepreneur and my family has been in business for 30-plus years, so of course I support Hawaii small business,” he said. “But I'm also very pragmatic about what it takes to build a tech ecosystem, and unfortunately, local companies alone won't be enough to put Hawaii on the map for global talent.”
So Hawaii has to adapt.
“Yes, ideally, in the future, a lot of our work will support local tech companies,” he said. “Pragmatically, between now and then, we have to allow local people to access jobs that allow them to live in Hawaii, and so they can afford it. We also have to attract talent so that local companies can find higher-quality candidates for the positions they do have.
“That does mean bringing both talent and jobs from outside of Hawaii,” he continued. “It's not a chicken or egg problem. It's more of an ecosystem problem. We need to bring all the pieces together.”