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A new report found Charleston has one of the fastest-growing innovation industries in the country based on job growth in that sector. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

American innovation jobs are concentrated in just a few wealthy major metros, and as a result, the rest have been left behind. The good news: Charleston may be an exception. 

A new report from the Brookings Institution pegs Charleston as having one of the fastest-growing innovation industries in the U.S., with roughly 7,200 jobs added in the so-called Silicon Harbor between 2005 and 2017. Chemical manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, software and information technology are examples of the fields Brookings includes in its definition of "innovation industries."

Charleston is nowhere near the top in total innovation jobs compared to Boston, New York, Seattle and Silicon Valley. But employment in those key industries is growing quickly in Charleston — ninth-fastest in the country by Brookings' count.

Most of those added positions are in the region's aerospace and tech sectors, according to the Charleston Regional Data Center. The aerospace industry has added about 4,800 jobs in the last decade. anchored by Boeing Co., which began operations locally in 2009. The broader tech industry, meanwhile, added almost 4,500 jobs. 

Health care is quickly growing in Charleston, too. Hospitals created at least 1,150 new positions in the area just this year.

Across all industries, Charleston's labor force increased by 25 percent between 2010 and 2018, according to the Charleston Regional Development Alliance.

Brookings researchers rang alarm bells about "a growing gap between the nation’s dynamic 'superstar' metropolitan areas and most everywhere else." Economists used to believe the prosperity that comes along with innovation would naturally spread across the country, the theory being that businesses would gravitate toward cities where it is cheaper to do business.

Instead, few cities have managed to catch up, and innovation jobs remain stubbornly concentrated in a handful of metro areas, the researchers wrote.

The report advocates for the federal government to pump resources into communities that could be home to the next tech hub. 

The Greenville area was also featured in the Brookings report, having added about 1,300 innovation jobs between 2005 and 2017. Columbia, however, added only 160 in the high-wage industries during the period of more than a decade.

Accelerants

Benefitfocus Inc. has chosen six companies to take under its wing by enrolling in its new accelerator program that begins in early 2020. 

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The Charleston software company solicited applications for the program, which is targeted at the wellness market, through late October. It announced its selections earlier this month.

The startups will come to the Holy City for a 15-week business development program, called InnovationPlace. Their specialties range from maternal health to student debt.

Though Benefitfocus said it would give preference to firms based in the area, none of the companies that won a spot call South Carolina home. Patti Leahy, vice president of transformation for Benefitfocus, said a number of South Carolina-based companies did apply. Firms outside the region won out this time.

"Given the strength of innovation and development in the health and financial wellness industry in the region, we do hope that we will have ... regional companies participate in future cohorts," Leahy said. 

Two participants are from the South, Florida-based Wildflower Health, a platform that helps women navigate pregnancy and motherhood, and My Medical Images, a medical image sharing platform.

The six startups will have a chance to market their products on the Benefitfocus cloud-based platform, where millions of workers go to select their benefits every year. Also, the Daniel Island company will invite prospective investors to meet with the businesses that finish the program.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.