This piece was originally published in American Affairs.
The engine of innovation exists in space and quiet. The North Carolina Biotech Center is nestled behind layers of birch trees, on a spacious modernist campus where rustling leaves and birds pierce through the silence. The noisy city-goer wouldn’t realize this is one of the leading hubs of American innovation, with semiconductor fab plants and biotech laboratories hidden behind layers of forest.
The idea of the “tech hub” calls to mind Silicon Valley, Austin, and Miami. But the North Carolina Research Triangle predates all these as the original tech hub, and continues to grow despite being lower-key. In 2022, Research Triangle start-ups raised $22.2 billion in venture capital—a record high in the face of a national slowdown. In October 2022, the American Growth Project ranked the Triangle the fourth-fastest-growing extended city out of fifty, with more than $1 billion in construction and Apple and IBM hiring more than four thousand people, while the rest of the industry was hit with layoffs. From 2015 to 2019, North Carolina created more than 170 start-ups.
The North Carolina Research Triangle got its name due to its “triangle” of three cities—Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—in an area anchored by three research universities: Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University. Often overlooked in discussions of industrial policy, the region is among America’s most prosperous areas, despite being among the nation’s poorest only two generations ago.