Richmond could become AI and machine learning tech hub

Can Richmond be the capital of artificial intelligence?  

A local group is pushing to turn the region into an innovation hub for artificial intelligence and machine learning in the coming years. Many of the companies and experts pushing the limits of these technologies could be based in the Richmond area should a grant be awarded to the group.

The recent emergence of AI tools like ChatGPT and Bard AI have been touted as a revolutionary leap in human technology, with the ability to impact nearly every field and the need for all companies to become fluent in AI.

The Richmond Technology Council – branded as rvatech – is a member-driven association of companies actively trying to grow Richmond’s tech-based economy. The group is applying for a federal grant that worth between $50 to $70 million that would establish Richmond as one of about 20 tech hubs around the country.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Technology Hub Grant Program is targeting 10 areas of technology. Some are in fields like robotics, advanced computing and semiconductors, advanced communications, biotechnology and advanced energy, like nuclear. rvatech submitted an application specifically for AI and machine learning.

“We’re trying to position Richmond as the leading edge of artificial intelligence and machine learning so that if you’re a company that is in that space, this is a good place to find talent and to headquarter here,” said Nick Serfass, CEO of rvatech. “If you want to enter the space, it’s a good place to come and learn and be exposed to thought leaders and other practitioners who are in the space.”

The application process for these grants is expected to be competitive with regions across the country keen on raising their profile in tech, and AI. By this fall, applicants will be narrowed to 20 regions.

“It’s transformative in terms of what it could do for a metropolitan area,” Serfass said. “We don’t know of any other artificial intelligence and machine learning applications going out as of now.”

Richmond positioned to be hub

The terms AI and machine learning are often used interchangeably, though machine learning is really a subcategory of AI. The field of AI essentially creates computers and robots that can both mimic and exceed human capabilities. It can be used to automate tasks without the need for human input or intake massive amounts of information and make decisions.

Machine learning is a pathway to artificial intelligence. It uses algorithms to recognize patterns in data that can make increasingly better decisions.

These tools are can be applied to fields like manufacturing, banking, health care and customer service. AI can recognize errors and malfunctions in equipment before they happen, or detect and prevent cybersecurity attacks. Everyday people are also using AI to do household tasks like planning workouts or meals, sending emails and making music playlists.

The bulk of the funding from the federal grant would go towards workforce and talent development through higher education, workforce programs at mid-career leadership levels or talent attraction, bringing in top professionals from other areas.


Nick Serfass is the executive director of the Richmond Technology Council, or RVATech.

More companies and workers in the space could later lend itself to more physical changes like lab and research facilities.

Serfass says the Richmond tech scene is well-positioned to be transformed into a hub. A report from commercial real estate and investment firm CBRE listed Richmond in the top 50 tech talent markets nationwide.

A high density of Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in the city and its surrounding counties. Many of those rely either entirely on tech, or have tech-focused sides of their businesses that would benefit from AI and machine learning.

Serfass also cited Richmond’s status as the seat of state government as an asset, and Dominion’s presence in the area as an entity that could revolutionize infrastructure through the use of AI. There is also a major presence of data centers from Meta and QTS in Henrico’s White Oak Technology Park, which are a critical asset to digital businesses.

“Several different elements highlight the merit of the city and why it could be a great tech hub. It’s really the fact that we have such a 360 degree set of resources and assets here in town that could help us thrive.”

A record of fueling growth

Richmond has also grown a startup fostering and acceleration scene, largely though Capital One’s Michael Wassmer Innovation Center in Shockoe Bottom. Programs like Startup Virginia and accelerator Lighthouse Labs have helped countless young companies grow, many with focuses in tech.

“Richmond has a history of providing focused tech solutions, including data analysis, AI and machine learning in niche markets. As a tech-focused acceleration program, we are always on the lookout for startups utilizing these new technologies, and we’ve seen more and more apply each cycle,” said Art Espy, managing director for Lighthouse Labs. “We love it when a local or regional company is a fit for our program; building a hub here would give us even more homegrown tech startups to accelerate, while adding even more vibrancy to our thriving startup ecosystem.”

rvatech is currently writing the mission statement for its grant application which could also include the need to bring underserved populations into the industry. Serfass said tech lends itself well to certifications in lieu of college degrees, which offers accessible entry into the field.

A second group in Richmond is pursuing a grant from the Tech Hubs Program. The Alliance for Building Better Medicine, which has an application in the area of advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing, has been a national leader in pharma development, seeking to onshore medicine making from overseas and create a more robust U.S. supply chain for medications.

“The tech hubs initiative is an exciting opportunity for Greater Richmond and we are supporting not one, but two applications from our region this year,” said Jennifer Wakefield, president and CEO of the Greater Richmond Partnership. “Both community partners, rvatech and the Alliance to Build Better Medicine, see the promise of elevating Greater Richmond and its assets – which greatly benefits economic development and business attraction to the area.”

Sean Jones (804) 649-6911

Twitter: @SeanJones_RTD

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