Adam Vasquez

The Capital of Market Invention?

Washington D.C. and the greater metropolitan region are situated between the past and the future: people come from around the world to see the history, classic monuments, and storied institutions. But the city is also where people go when they want change or debate. It’s an environment that blends all sorts of ideas, people, and capital from around the world.

The D.C. area economy has been experiencing rapid growth since World War II, and the pace of growth is accelerating. The area already has one of the highest concentrations of Fortune 500 companies in the world, and last year Mayor Muriel E. Bowser released a five-year economic development plan to grow the city’s private sector by 20 percent. Here are our top nine picks for growth industries in D.C. and the metro region:

Environmental science

Our nation’s capital is positioned between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay, two focal points of environmental effort. It’s also home to our Environmental Protection organization, so it makes sense that environmental science is an expanding industry. Lynker Technologies, one of the region’s fastest growing companies, offers scientific and technical services for environmental research projects. They’ve planned reservoirs, protected marine mammals, developed NOAA apps, and charted aquifer systems.

Another interesting innovator is CleanChoice Energy, a company that allows customers to instantly switch over to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. And the Clean Energy Leadership Institute, CELI for short, is an internationally-recognized nonprofit that works to educate and train the next generation of innovators and leaders in the clean energy industry.

Defense and Aerospace

The D.C. area is an obvious hotbed for fast-growing defense and aerospace companies like General Dynamics, Northrop Grumann, and Leidos. In an in-depth analysis of rising trends in the defense and aerospace field, Deloitte covered the collaboration between universities and manufacturing companies. Top schools like Virginia Tech are partnering with companies like Airbus and Aerojet Rocketdyne, as well as government agencies, to fill the growing void in aerospace R&D. Airbus, the company which is arguably dethroning Boeing, has its US headquarters in Herndon, VA. And OneWeb, a D.C. startup, is building what they claim will be the world’s fastest satellite production facility, which will be able to build enough satellites (900, to be exact) to provide fast, cheap internet service to the entire planet.


Although recreational cannabis use has been legal in the district for a few years now, buying and selling cannabis is not. This has led to creative workarounds, like organizations that accept donations and offer free cannabis, and bazaars where vendors sell quite expensive baseball hats—with the totally free bonus gift of weed.

It’s a goofy system, and it probably won’t last too long. The same activists and lobby groups who worked to achieve legalization are now working to legalize the sale of cannabis. If they are successful, D.C. will become a powerhouse cannabis economy. For most of the densely-populated Northeast, it will be the closest place to legally purchase cannabis and the most convenient spot for a quick weekend getaway. Virginia has become a major laggard, taking an antiquated position with the affirmative defense rule. Affirmative defense doesn’t make it legal to possess medical marijuana, it just gives you a fighting chance to defend it if you are busted. Maryland is much further along than its Virginia neighbor. Although Maryland tried to legalize recreational and medical cannabis in 2017, only provisions for medical marijuana were actually passed.

Data Analytics

We all know that the amount of data being generated and harvested is enormous and ever expanding. Data analytics takes that data and turns it into useful information, like predictive patterns or demographic information, for organizations and governments. It’s an industry that is projected to grow by 50%—to $203 billion—by 2020, according to the Washington DC Economic Partnership. D.C. is particularly well-suited to data science thanks to the high number of qualified students graduating from the area’s prestigious universities and the exploding local demand for data analysis.

There are far too many data analytics companies to possibly list, but a few of the fastest growing include SeKON, Creative Systems and Consulting, and TrackMaven. Also interesting to note is the fact that Washington D.C. is the country’s number one city for women in tech: SeKON and Creative Systems and Consulting are both owned by women.


Although many still have questions about it, bioengineering is almost certainly a huge part of our survival as a species going forward. And D.C. area organizations are on the cutting edge. Intrexon is working to make food that has less environmental impact and more disease resistance to meet the growing world demand. They’re also using bioengineering to combat infertility, eye diseases, tumors, and infections. The American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) is a non-profit advocate for bioengineering in the D.C. area. Their mission is to promote bioengineering to government officials, medical professionals, and educators. Their educational campaign, as well as the proximity of elite colleges, could very well position D.C. as the innovator in the bioengineering field over the next decade.

Service Drones

If data science and bioengineering weren’t futuristic enough for you, consider service drones. This budding industry allows entities from energy companies to real estate agents to take advantage of commercial-grade drones to survey and document from above. Measure is one leader in the field, offering thermal imaging to search-and-rescue workers, trained drone pilots for the government, aerial mapping for construction companies, and a lot more. Another company, Aerial Drone Video, focuses less on data and more on beautiful aerial footage for the real estate, tourism, hospitality, and film industries.


Because of its proximity to policymakers, the D.C. metro area is a magnet for pharmaceutical companies . As you would expect, many of the biggest pharmaceutical lobbies, like PhRMA, are located downtown. And a significant number of D.C.’s fastest-growing businesses over the past few years have been pharmaceutical developers like Supernus and Vanda.

Besides the obvious Market Invention of coming out with a game-changing drug, there seems to be potential room for market inventors to change the way we think about medication and healthcare. There is a growing shift towards functional and preventive medicine, but we have yet to see big pharmaceutical companies embrace this movement. Is it possible? What would it look like? Biomarker monitoring, machine learning, personalized medicine, and more mainstream study of therapeutic plant and mycological compounds could all be part of the future for D.C. pharmaceutical companies looking to lead their industry.


You’ve probably heard that the Washington D.C. metro area is on the short-list of locations (3 of the 20 locations) for Amazon’s next headquarters. Creating an estimated 50,000 jobs, and with a cost of $5 billion, it would be quite the infusion into the area’s economy. There are a number of reasons for Amazon to choose the area, like its infrastructure and livability, and D.C. is courting Bezos with campaigns like this one. While there are potential problems, like increased strain on transportation systems and higher housing prices, many are hopeful that Amazon HQ2 will come to D.C. And if it does, expect to see the same sort of Amazon specialization we covered in our Portland article.

Smart City

Our last spot on the list is also one of the most exciting. Forbes recently named D.C. as the sixth smartest city on the planet. Being a “smart” city means integrating technology, data, and forward-thinking into many aspects of city life and infrastructure, with the end goal of making a more efficient, safer, happier, more sustainable city. Major Bowser has made smart city technology one of her top priorities, and it’s starting to pay dividends. Last year, D.C. was named the first city in the world to meet LEED Platinum levels of sustainability. The city has improved water quality and wastewater management, installed free wifi across much of the city, moved closer towards zero waste, and enhanced public transportation. The Lab is a government effort to create evidence-driven policy around issues from homelessness to government forms.

While the smart city initiative is the brainchild of government and nonprofits, it will have to draw from the private sector. In fact, smart city technology involves and drives many of the previously listed markets, like environmental science, data analytics, and service drones. If Washington D.C. is to continue their pursuit of a smarter city, it will also involve transportation, manufacturing, energy, construction, technology, utilities: just about every industry will be involved in some way. It will take a lot of adaptation, a lot of Market Invention, but the winners will be a part of a model city for the world to imitate. A truly smart city takes innovation in across all industries, and D.C. looks ready.


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