KU researchers, entrepreneurs capitalizing on Lawrence’s designation as America’s ‘Fastest Growing’ tech hub

Innovation Park. Credit: Max Jiang, KU Engineering.
Photo: Innovation Park. Credti: Max Jiang, KU Engineering.

LAWRENCE — Lawrence is growing tech jobs faster than any other city in America, according to data from a prominent national think tank.

Researchers at the Brookings Institution published tech sector employment by metro (XLSX) and found that jobs in the city grew by 16% during 2019-20 — a faster rate than in industry hubs like San Francisco (4.3%) and Austin, Texas (3.4%). (A March report from Axios suggested the Lawrence number might be as high as 19%.) Local observers attributed that growth to the COVID-19 pandemic, which required many workers to do their jobs remotely, as well as Lawrence’s amenities — and the ability to draw on talent and research at the University of Kansas.

“Lawrence has a great downtown and a strong university,” said Brian McClendon, a tech pioneer who helped create Google Earth before returning to Lawrence as a research professor in the KU School of Engineering. He is now a senior vice president with Niantic Labs, an “augmented reality” company that has opened an office in Lawrence. The city “has fostered many small startups,” McClendon said, and added: “KU is a big factor as many startups have been ‘KU adjacent.’”

It’s a distinction that KU officials are working to cultivate, particularly through the growth of KU Innovation Park near 23rd and Iowa streets in Lawrence. The park is home to numerous startups that have their roots in the university as well as others that want to locate adjacent to the university to leverage student talent and research expertise.

“Lawrence has a culture that supports tech entrepreneurism and provides options to meet their location needs” said Tricia Bergman, director of strategic partnerships for KU’s Office of Research. “We let people know if they want to be on Massachusetts Street — if they want to get to the coffee shop, to the bar — that’s a great location. Alternatively, if they want to locate directly adjacent to the university, then the KU Innovation Park is a great option.” 

There’s hope that the recent burst of tech jobs is just beginning.

The Brookings researchers noted a 2021 survey of tech firm founders said that if they were starting their business all over again, “their preferred ‘place’ to launch it would be through remote or distributed work.” And indeed, during the early stages of the pandemic, tech employment growth slowed in the industry’s traditional hubs “and increased in numerous other midsized and smaller markets, including smaller quality-of-life meccas and college towns.”

It’s not clear that trend will continue as the pandemic recedes, the researchers said, but “there’s no doubt, at the local level, that the remote work experiment during the pandemic has shown that cloud-based tools for workers, firms and entrepreneurs can open up hopeful prospects for tech activity anywhere.” At the same time, they said, the tech sector is “heavily shaped by clusters” of like-minded companies and their workers who have the opportunity to collaborate and exchange ideas in a shared community.

That’s an opportunity for Lawrence and KU, where there are plans to begin transforming KU Innovation Park with new development that will include housing, child care, coffee shops and even a grocery store to attract more startup companies eager to draw on talent found in the university’s labs and classrooms.

“The companies in the park are here because they want KU talent, or they want access to KU research and expertise,” Bergman said. The university can “help accelerate their growth and solve their challenges.”

“As concern about the pandemic ebbs, I don't think we're going back to the way things were,” McClendon said.

Indeed, Niantic Labs opened its Lawrence office in May, signaling an intent to stick around for the long term.

“It's relatively small, and it'll take a while to build out the team,” McClendon said of the new office. That may portend a bright future, both for KU and Lawrence: “Many people are discovering the benefits of working at home or working in a smaller office and will likely stay there.”

Thu, 07/07/2022


Cody Howard

Media Contacts

Cody Howard

School of Engineering