Tech vision will make Spokane area an industry leader

It is now nearly three months since I joined the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute, or SIRTI .

The past 11 weeks have been a whirlwind. I’ve traveled throughout Eastern Washington, shaken hundreds of hands, listened, and sketched out my vision for SIRTI assisting our region’s technology-led development.

Patrick Tam
Special to The Spokesman-Review

It’s been a rewarding set of meetings. I’ve been impressed both by the technologies I have encountered and by the sincere desire of so many to help us build businesses upon these technologies.

One of my first activities was to inform myself of SIRTI’s past. I was pleasantly surprised by what I learned. Did you know that SIRTI has worked with more than 60 companies since its existence? And that more than $40 million in private and public funds have reached Eastern Washington businesses through SIRTI? I also learned that for the first time in SIRTI’s history, our incubator is full.

The message I’ve brought to these initial meetings is that, going forward, SIRTI will have three thrusts. The first is to continue and to improve upon our ability to nurture technology startups. These startups largely come from two sources: universities and entrepreneurs in the community and region.

To identify the commercial potential within the universities, I advocate the "pull" model. SIRTI needs to reach university researchers at an early stage, discuss the commercialization potential based on our knowledge markets, and help pull the technology and company together. To wait until the technology is more fully developed and "pushed" out the university may mean a significant market opportunity has already passed our region by.

To help in this effort, SIRTI and the Washington State University Research Foundation will soon exchange offices. I am working on a similar initiative with Eastern Washington University and Battelle/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

To help identify local entrepreneurs, we are also working closely with other groups such as Technet, the Entrepreneurs Forum of the Great Northwest (EFGN), Inland Northwest Technology Education Center (INTEC) and the Biotechnology Association of the Spokane Region (BASR) to enlarge the funnel where entrepreneurs who may benefit from SIRTI’s services first appear.

A common theme from both university and community technology startups is the difficulty in finding early, or seed, financing. We think SIRTI can help, especially in accessing federal programs. Our efforts via the WaFAST consortium (Washington State Federal and State Technology Partnership Program) to help Eastern Washington technology companies win Small Business Innovative Research grants is one example.

In general, SIRTI’s efforts to provide financial assistance will take us down many avenues of funding sources — from the federal government to private firms and individuals. I anticipate that the results will significantly leverage our annual investment from the state of Washington. At this moment, we are pursuing several federal grants.

It is also our intent to put this region on the national map. When people think of technology centers in this country, they typically think of Boston, Silicon Valley, Seattle and Austin, Texas. I would like them instinctively to think of this region as a technology center as well.

In September, SIRTI initiated a series of Technology Showcase events, in which we feature breakthrough or disruptive technologies coming out of our distinguished research institutions, such as WSU, Battelle/PNNL, EWU and University of Idaho.

The first showcase revealed to our community some of these exciting technologies, underlining the depth and breadth of our regional intellectual capacity.

The next Showcase will take place in early December at The Davenport Hotel.

Our second thrust is to assist existing small, high-growth technology companies. Some of these are SIRTI alumni. Others are suppliers to our region’s more successful tech companies. These leading technology firms often depend on many local, small companies to provide them with a stable and efficient supplier base. SIRTI can help strengthen the business acumen of these critical players in our regional technology ecosystem.

To that end, I have started to organize a short-term financing mechanism that should greatly assist our region’s small high-growth technology companies. It will focus on short-term bridge loans that finance purchase orders small companies receive from creditworthy companies.

For many of these small high-growth companies, a big order is welcome, but difficult to digest financially. This new SIRTI finance facility should go a long way to answer that concern.

Our third thrust is to find opportunities to participate in or lead coalitions that take commercial advantage of our region’s core technology competencies. I see these as: biomedical, energy, animal sciences and agricultural biotechnology. What I’ve observed so far makes me very confident that not only can SIRTI help put our region’s outstanding technologies on the map statewide, but on the national one as well.

In closing, SIRTI will conduct its business in a way that is accountable, agile and entrepreneurial. To do less would dishonor the technological promise of our region.

Patrick Tam is executive director of the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute.

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