Tulsa Innovation Labs, a nonprofit, tech-led economic development organization, is working to help grow Tulsa’s economy through data analytics, and data sciences education and training.
“What we’re doing is trying to make a direct intervention in the trajectory Tulsa’s economy is on today, to put us on a path toward jobs that are more sustainable, more protected from automation, and also trying to create new industry to diversify our economy here,” says Jennifer Hankins, TIL’s head of partnerships. “We’re going to do that through a series of programmatic investments.”
TIL programs include the University of Tulsa-Team8 Partnership, a global venture group supporting students of deep tech, cyber artificial intelligence and solutions for enterprise companies, and Holberton School Tulsa, a two-year software engineering program.
When TIL launched in early 2020, it hired global management consulting firm McKinsey and Co. to do what Hankins calls a “deep industry analysis,” which identified five areas where Tulsa can take the lead in the innovation economy. Those are energy tech, virtual health, advanced aerial mobility, cyber and analytics.
“Tulsa is not trying to be Austin; we’re not trying to be the Bay area. We’re trying to be the best version of Tulsa 2.0 that we can,” Hankins says.
TIL is a subsidiary of George Kaiser Family Foundation. In June 2020 GKFF invested an initial $50 million in TIL to catalyze growth. Hankins says multiple initiatives and partnerships will be announced by the end of the summer.
More from the conversation with Hankins about the mission of Tulsa Innovation Labs.
What are these higher tech jobs, because we hear this term thrown around, but there are a lot of people who kind of get lost when you start talking about higher tech and all it entails? There’s automation, there’s coding all that stuff.
We hired McKinsey and Co. to come in and do a deep industry analysis for us. And a lot of that was because of what you just described. We can’t boil the ocean with this approach.
McKinsey identified these five areas where Tulsa is not just going to be able to participate, but actually take a lead in this this innovation economy in these industry areas. So those are energy tech, which is a beautiful nod to of course, our core industry here in Oklahoma, virtual health, and then advanced aerial mobility, which of course is also a strong nod to our strengths here in aviation. Then we kind of view cyber and analytics as these cross industry enablers.
We need the workforce, we need the talent, we need the knowledge here in those areas.
So when somebody asks me, “I’m in the oil and gas industry, what’s a high tech job mean for that?” That means we want to help maybe re-skill or upskill you. Perhaps you’re a roustabout or somebody that that monitors the pipeline? Let’s arm you with skills in data analytics. The oil and gas companies are basically data companies. They’re starting to realize that now and using data to make better business decisions to create sustainability for their bottom line.
It’s actually really interesting. All of the industries we’ve identified, the skill set and the talent is already here. It’s just a matter of we’re on the path, we might have one foot kind of in the grass, like let’s kind of get everybody back on the same path.
So operational technology in the energy industry is going to be huge sensors, pipeline, carbon emission reduction, all of those things that already exists in those industries. How do we just strengthen them?
Virtual health, we know we have a healthcare access issue here in Oklahoma. We have a rural population that’s really struggling, especially post-pandemic. Our medical professionals or universities are already doing great medical research, how do we help them innovate and utilize technologies that can get better health care and increase access in these rural communities? You think of like your Fitbit, and it has an ECG on it, those kinds of things your doctor in Oklahoma City or Tulsa can monitor you wherever you are. You don’t have to make that hour and a half drive to see your doctor.
Advanced aerial mobility includes what most people recognize as drone technology, right? But you still need all of our aerospace engineers that we already have here in Tulsa. You still need all of the technology, researching materials that are going to go on those devices and technologies. And then even better is oil and gas companies need drone technologies. They’re putting sensors on these, flying them over their pipeline and creating safer conditions for their workers.
All of this is a strong nod to what’s already here. It’s not us trying to say, “Hey, Tulsa, what you’re doing? Isn’t working, let’s do something different.” It’s “Hey, Tulsa, you have these really strong assets, and if we can kind of repoint some of those efforts, we already have an innovation economy right here, we just got to pull all the pieces together.” That’s our job.
So if I’m understanding the understanding this correctly, it’s more heavily focused on the innovation of existing companies and bringing them to 2021 or looking toward 2030, instead of not just solely trying to bring in new high tech businesses?
We are 100% industry led. This report I referenced that we did in partnership with McKinsey, all of our local corporations were with us every step of the way and informing that process. Even now as we kind of go out to seek more formal partnerships with these companies, it’s all local.
We understand that there’s two ends of the pipeline, we keep calling it our flywheel effect. You can’t just kick one part of it. Like you said, corporate attraction, you can’t just bring in companies and hope that fixes it. There’s two ends, we have to be better in Tulsa at creating and supporting startups, these high growth companies. Those are companies we know per capita are creating more jobs than even large corporations, but those startups need pilot projects, and proof of concept projects with our large corporations so they can grow, get income, hire people, all those things.
Then we’re also going to need the talent piece, which is something we’re also focused on, and we believe strongly.
Innovation economies are all over the country. The ones that people know about Austin, (California) Bay Area, Boston, large swaths of their population don’t even get to participate in that economy they’ve built.
Especially being pioneered by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, our primary goal is to create opportunities that Tulsans can can take part in. So we really want to focus on upskilling, re-skilling or taking skills that already exist and help point them in these directions.
University of Tulsa is known for its cyber security and cyber school. Tulsa Tech has been growing rapidly and changing the way they do things. Holberton comes to Tulsa and have since announced they’re doubling in size. So part of your work, is it trying to retain these people who are coming to Tulsa to do this get this education and keep them in the bubble here to help drive the economy?
I think you’re spot on. Over and over it happens in every community. There’s a brain drain problem. Here in Tulsa it’s particularly stark. Thanks to programs like TU, OSU, OU-Tulsa, we actually train a ton of STEM talent relative to our peers here in Tulsa. The problem is that we lose more of that talent compared to our peers. So it’s just a zero. It’s been a zero sum game to this point.
We hear all the time, our local corporation saying “I can’t find talent, it’s too expensive. I need three to four years of experience.” That’s where programs like the Holberton School come in and you meet students where they are. That goes back to our thesis around getting Tulsans involved. Not all Tulsans have the option to go get a four year degree. Meanwhile, corporations don’t have time to wait for those Tulsans to go get a four-year degree.
It’s really been an interesting challenge working, like I said, on both ends of that pipeline, understanding that we don’t have the talent, we need to create it, and then corporations need the talent today.
How can we create programs that meet both participants kind of in the middle like, “Hey, corporations, Holberton School is world renowned for software engineering. We have this great income share agreement to retain these people. They’re coming from all over the country. Predominantly Tulsan, predominantly female, and a large population are students of color, which never happens in tech. We’re going to create this platform. Would you be interested in partnering with us to hire these students afterwards?”
“Oh, yeah, I guess, you know, we can see how it works.”
You know, but it’s important for them to have a de-risked opportunity to accept, like I said, not a four-year degree, not five years of experience, those kinds of things.
TU is just a diamond in the rough. We were really excited, especially doing our study with McKinsey to kind of identify, yes, we’ve heard in Tulsa over time the cyber program is great, but to have that validated by data and say “absolutely Tulsa, so we need to double down on this and here’s not just the feel good stories that we think, but here’s the data and the information. Let’s get creative about what kind of programs we can invent to support this at our local university.”
That’s been huge. And then more than that, we have nearly 650 open cyber jobs in Tulsa today. Can you imagine if we just got 650 jobs filled by Tulsans in that career? Rhat would be in and of itself huge. And again, it’s not something we’re building from scratch. This is something that already exists in Tulsa, in our job here at Tulsa Innovation Labs is to devise the strategy that pulls people together, and kind of go after it.
You mentioned we’re not retaining anyone in these fields. Does your data show where these people are going? Do you have any idea what markets they are moving to? Or is it just everywhere but here?
In cyber in particular, they’re going to the large markets like New York City and the Denvers of the world. These larger kind of tech hubs because the opportunities are more readily in their face.
I think this is kind of going a little bit back to the marketing challenge. Tulsa historically has not marketed itself well. Thanks to investments like the Gathering Place, Tulsa Remote and Holberton we’re getting better at it.
I think more and more Tulsans are going to stop and think like, “Hey, there actually is stuff here.” I think that’s a big thing.
But no, we don’t have granular data on where people go. You can get it from universities and see that, of course, lots of OSU students and OU students go to Texas. That’s too easy.
We know what we’re up against when we’re thinking about how do we elevate this industry? Get salaries comparable. Get a sense of place, is a huge part of that, too.
How involved is TIL with the government, local and state? Are they buying in on your approach? How much is how much is the mayor’s office in the city backing or supporting your efforts?
They’re insanely supportive. They’ve been with us from from day one, and really support and share our vision, quite frankly, especially because we’re not creating anything new here. This is stuff that already exists here, and to date, there just hasn’t been a strong enough focus on the resources to really get it done.
The State has also been wildly supportive. Governor (Kevin) Stitt communicates regularly, former Secretary of Commerce Sean Kouplen also supported us.
They’ve bought in and I think largely because it’s not a pipe dream. I think that’s the strength of our strategy is this is not like, “Hey Tulsa, you need to be more like Austin. Here’s how you copy them.” It’s “Hey Tulsa, so you’ve got awesome things going on, here’s the strategy to make it even stronger.
What about the tribes? Are you working partnering with them?
Cherokee Nation in particular, has been very supportive of our virtual health initiatives and initiatives around that, of course, and that naturally makes sense for them.
Osage Nation is one of our key partners in Skyway 36, which is one of the only urban drone ports in the world. That’s going to be huge for advanced aerial mobility play. So they’ve been very supportive. We worked together on on grant opportunities, and really trying to, again, provide some focus to some of these initiatives that are happening across the region.
I think everybody has has always wanted to get into the space, but it’s so big, right? So it’s been really nice and helpful to say, we have this very narrow, very focused thing, let’s focus on this for three, five, maybe seven years, and then from there, we can kind of branch out and see how the industries change and evolve and what corrections we would need to make from there.
What drives you? You said this is a labor of love. So what is it about this job that has you so involved and excited about what you’re doing?
I love Tulsa. I’m not a native Tulsan, but it’s really hard to come to this place and not immediately fall in love with it and see the potential the city has. I am an economic developer by trade. I love seeing cities reinvent themselves isn’t the right word, but it’s just so fascinating. You hear stories about Detroit and Kansas City, even. How do you strategically remake the foundation of an economy and how does that better the population for it?
I kind of have this altruism hat of, I’m deeply invested in seeing more Tulsans being able to participate in this side of the economy. I get very frustrated reading about the haves and have nots, and certainly Tulsa has its fair share of challenges.
How can we more strategically and authentically get people who haven’t had the chance to participate in on the game and how can they benefit? That’s kind of my my big passion is being able to do that through this program, and rallying people around it is has been a lot of fun. Don’t get me wrong, I lose a lot of sleep. I got this nice gray streak going on in my hair. It’s very stressful. But it’s exciting. And Tulsa is supportive of it, which I’m not surprised by, but I’m definitely surprised at how quickly things have even moved in the pandemic era with all this going on.