The Wisk autonomous air taxi could be carrying passengers around the Los Angeles region within the next 10 years thanks to a partnership with a Long Beach nonprofit. Courtesy of Wisk Aero LLC.

Innovation is the cornerstone to consistent economic growth for businesses and organizations around the world, but not everyone has the ability to innovate on their own, whether it’s due to a lack of knowledge of certain markets or the need for more capital.

That’s where nonprofits with a focus on business and economic development come in, according to local leaders.

In Long Beach, there are a host of resources and assets that help drive innovation, according to Randal Hernandez, board chair of the relatively new nonprofit Long Beach Economic Partnership, which was founded at the end of 2019. But many do not know how to access them, Hernandez said. That is where the partnership steps in.

“[We] strive to bring those resources all to the table to ensure that we’re integrated and coordinated,” Hernandez said, adding it’s important to maximize the impact of those resources. “Whether that be from the private sector, our friends in the public sector, academic institutions … and our nonprofit partners.”

Hernandez said the partnership wants to promote Long Beach as an innovative city, which it can do through various sectors, especially aerospace. Over the last seven years, Long Beach has become a hub of space innovation: Virgin Orbit developed the LauncherOne, a new method of delivering satellites to orbit from an airplane; Relativity Space uses massive 3D printers to build almost every component of its rockets; and SpinLaunch is devising a method of literally throwing satellites into space.

“There is a lot of innovation already happening in the city,” Hernandez said, “and that will attract more private investment, more personal resources and, hopefully, spur more students to want to come to our university and community college to learn more about those rising industries.”

To continue the city’s legacy of aerospace innovation, the LBEP recently announced a partnership with Wisk Aero, developer of the first all-electric, self-flying air taxi in the U.S. The partnership will see the two organizations work with businesses, local government and community leaders to study the feasibility of bringing advanced air mobility to Southern California.

Over the next two years, Wisk and the LBEP will evaluate the opportunity for workforce development in the emerging sector, along with community acceptance, the integration of autonomous aircraft into city transportation plans, and federal and state government funding opportunities. The partnership will also coordinate an economic impact study conducted through the Cal State Long Beach Office of Economic Research that will estimate annual impacts. The study is expected to be completed later this year.

The partnership with Wisk is the perfect example of taking a budding, innovative operation and connecting it with resources within a city to allow for growth, Hernandez said. The initiative will nurture the creation that is Wisk’s autonomous air taxi and make its operation in Southern California a reality.

“We have such a great cadre of smart, innovative people in the city,” Hernandez said. “We just want to make sure they’re all around the table, sharing … information and really helping drive that innovation.”

Innovation and economic growth, however, mean nothing if large segments of the population are left behind, according to Tunua Thrash-Ntuk, managing director of the nonprofit Long Beach Center for Economic Inclusion.

“We believe in putting an equity lens on all resources that come out of the public sector,” Thrash-Ntuk said, meaning placing “an emphasis on making sure that resources are concentrated in places that are hardest hit.”

The center was founded in 2019 after years of empirical data and qualitative input from the community, particularly residents who feel like they are being left behind, Thrash-Ntuk said.

This year, the organization is emphasizing homeownership, Thrash-Ntuk said, noting that for Black and Latino households in California, homeownership rates are at their lowest levels in over four decades. However, the group also focuses on access to affordable housing and quality jobs.

“This organization was really founded … [so] people who typically have not been able to participate in the economy in a full way are able to do so,” Thrash-Ntuk said.

The center does not only serve individuals but underserved communities in general. Throughout the pandemic, the organization has worked to connect businesses in North Long Beach to resources such as grant programs and other support, Thrash-Ntuk said.

Thrash-Ntuk said the organization has worked to bring technologies to businesses as well as bring owners together. Some may say that is not innovative, she said, but it does not happen enough, especially in underserved communities.

“Long Beach has a regional and national reputation: the port, a world-class university,” Thrash-Ntuk said. “In order for us to sustain that, it’s important that we have as many … of our residents and community members as we can participate.”

Nurturing innovation is particularly important in a state like California, where the cost of living and the cost of business are known to be high, according to Bill Allen, president and CEO of the nonprofit Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. Rather than competing as an affordable area, California instead competes with the quality of its workforce, advanced infrastructure and innovative enterprises and institutions, Allen said.

“Innovation really has long been at the center of the California economy and the LA area economy,” Allen said, noting the region’s storied past, particularly in the entertainment and aerospace industries.

Los Angeles County has four major industries, Allen said. In addition to entertainment and aerospace, transportation and health care have been prominent for decades. Despite the long, “mature” histories of these sectors, Allen said they are not immune to the need for innovation—in fact, they each thrive on it.

The LACEDC’s mission is to reinvent the regional economy to advance growth and prosperity for all, Allen said. Innovation in each of the area’s key industry sectors is central to the process of creating a more robust, sustainable, equitable and resilient economy, he said.

Each of the four key sectors is a hotbed for innovation, Allen said. In entertainment, there is digital media, gaming and esports; in transportation, alternative fuels, autonomous vehicles and new forms of transit such as Wisk’s air taxi; in healthcare, biomedicine; and the aerospace sector is looking to the stars more than ever.

Building relational infrastructure within key sectors—connecting companies with one another, to educational institutions, to capital and research universities—is critical, Allen said. To that end, the organization for years has been convening cluster councils within each major sector, Allen said, to accelerate innovation.

Additionally, for the past six years, the corporation has hosted quarterly forums in partnership with Cal State Dominguez Hills meant to provide insight into rapidly evolving industries such as space commercializations—a tradition the Long Beach Economic Partnership has adopted in partnership with Cal State Long Beach. The forthcoming spring forum for the county organization is on the blooming cannabis industry.

Outdated public policy can hinder innovation, Allen and Hernandez agreed. In Long Beach, the Economic Partnership works to identify these barriers and make them known to groups more focused on policy, including the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. The LACEDC has advocated for change at the regional level.

“Fostering innovation is absolutely essential to economic growth and to maintaining our competitive position in the global economy,” Allen said. “It’s what fosters productivity, which helps elevate wages and benefits for workers and profits for entrepreneurs.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.