Innovation a way of life in Northwest Washington

 

In a crisis it’s natural to focus on the immediate, but history shows that crises are also the time to create longer-term opportunities. While the world economy is undergoing a profound structural adjustment, we can and should focus regional efforts on initiatives that help local businesses be competitive in technologies and markets that will grow in the future to create jobs, raise living standards and finance necessary public services. Northwest Washington can emerge from this recession stronger, more agile, and more innovative. A recent study by TAG points out just how well-positioned we are to make this move.

The Port of Bellingham engaged TAG to map research and development activities in sciences and technology in Whatcom County. We developed a comprehensive directory that identifies the expertise and subject areas of researchers, faculty, and associates at local colleges and private industry. In addition to identifying areas of expertise in R&D we also looked to identify interest levels in collaborating on projects with industry.

Ideas are the gateway to prosperity in this new global economy. A good idea successfully developed supports the success of companies and creates jobs, which in turn lead to a dynamic and robust economy. Connecting and supporting researchers and companies in their efforts to rapidly develop and monetize ideas moves the region ahead, and positions us to contribute and benefit from new technologies and emerging trends such as clean energy and sustainable systems.

The study from the directory results, available at www.tagnw.org, shows very strong innovative capacity in Northwest Washington. What did we learn? Whatcom County is home to a wealth of technology and scientific expertise in our four-year university and three independent community and technical colleges. Not surprisingly, Western Washington University has the highest number of faculty in science and technology with 177 staff employed at the College of Sciences and Technology and Huxley College. Bellingham Technical College has 49 faculty in areas of science and technology, followed by Whatcom Community College with 45, of which a majority is involved in mathematics instruction. Northwest Indian College currently employs 12 faculty in areas of environmental sciences, mathematics and computer technology.

The diverse private R&D activities in Whatcom County are equally impressive, with numerous internationally successful companies with very active R&D. Examples include companies such as Absorption Corp, Alpha Technologies, Allsop, Aluminum Chambered Boats, Blue Sea Systems, Cascade Dafo, and Contemporary Design Co. Other local companies involved in research include Homax Products, Samson Rope Technologies and QM Bearings, and others too numerous to list. There was a notably strong interest in renewable energy, clean technology and sustainability as areas of collaboration from both academic researchers and private industry.

In order to leverage our local R&D resources, we need to realize that innovation is more than invention. Innovation is the process by which knowledge is created and transformed to some useful purpose such as a new or improved marketable product. A strong innovation ecosystem relies on efficient mechanisms for technology transfer, through public-private collaboration, across disciplines and industry sectors.

We need an environment where ideas or patents can be more quickly translated into commercially viable projects and ultimately new businesses. We need to proactively link businesses, entrepreneurs, researchers, technical resources and funders.

We have a unique opportunity right now with initiatives that are under way on the waterfront. A section of the former Georgia-Pacific tissue warehouse is being turned into a specialized research, development and training area. The Waterfront Innovation Zone managed by the Port of Bellingham is one of two Innovation Partnership Zones created by Gov. Christine Gregoire to foster partnerships between higher education and industry in the development of emerging technologies. The Waterfront Innovation Zone and Technology Development Center currently under construction, is expected to be completed in July.

There are discussions under way for an Innovation Center which will be over- arching and contain multiple tracks or programs. For example, WWU’s Engineering Technology program is working with Bellingham’s All American Marine to build a lightweight hydrofoil that will be used for future passenger ferries.

BTC, another educational partner of the center, is set to start offering an electro-mechanical lab and technical trades training in September.

As a partner in the innovation center, TAG’s role is as a liaison. The R&D Directory will serve as one tool to link businesses and entrepreneurs with our local researchers and technical resources.

If you are interested in learning more about the plans for an innovation center, we encourage you to attend TAG’s monthly speaker program and luncheon on June 19. For more information about June’s program or TAG’s R&D Survey and Directory, visit www.tagnw.org.

 

Anna Ehnmark is executive director of TAG, the Technology Alliance Group for Northwest Washington.

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