WSU wants to help grow businesses – Wolfgang Tolle hired to help university be an economic driver

Wolfgang Tolle should know something about bridging divides. He’s leaped the Atlantic Ocean, and now he’s crossed the United States.

Bert Caldwell
The Spokesman-Review

Washington State University retained the genial, German-born Tolle in January to assess how to make WSU an economic driver in the state.

Area economic development officials have long been frustrated by either the reluctance or inability of WSU to engage the business community and spin off the technology and enterprise other research institutions have in places like the Silicon Valley of California and Research Triangle in North Carolina.

With the appointment of V. Lane Rawlins as president in 2000, and Robert Bates as provost in 2001, WSU began to mend, or take down, the fence that has divided the university from the business community. It was Bates who brought in Tolle.

Both arrived in Pullman by way of Virginia, which remains Tolle’s base. Tolle, who has a long list of academic and professional credits, built a reputation in Virginia as managing director and acting president and chief executive officer of the state’s Center for Innovative Technology. The nonprofit center was created in 1984 to find ways of realizing the economic potential of technology emerging from schools like the University of Virginia and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

The most obvious need was money, Tolle says. So over the past 19 years, the Center for Innovative Technology has funneled $250 million in state money to universities to support research and other services for private companies. An independent study estimated that for the years 1995, 1996 and 1997, center funds spawned 222 companies and almost 10,000 jobs, with a total economic impact of $278 million.

Tolle left the center to create an Internet company that attracted $40 million in capital, then founded LaunchDreams LLC. Tolle says the company provides legal, financial, and technical services that get clients to market more quickly.

Home-grown companies, not those induced to relocate, drive sustained economic growth, he says.

Tolle has spent the last three months circulating among academic, business and political leaders. But even before he was hired by WSU, he was in the area attending retreats and making presentations.

At one, in September, an audience member said he was impressed by the ideas that were circulating, but wanted to know how all that would create jobs in the midst of high unemployment. Tolle says WSU must show such individuals how the university works for them.

"People intuitively know WSU can help them be successful," he says.

Tolle has come to understand some of the feuds and political tensions that sometimes color his discussions with area leaders, but says he chooses to focus on the future.

"I’m not from here," he says. "I bring a different perspective. I don’t have some of the baggage."

"I don’t want to dwell on what can’t we do."

Chris Marr, chairman of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, says Tolle has a perspective local leaders dealing with short-term concerns do not have.

"He’s someone who looks very much to understand all the pieces before he starts to go forward," says Marr, who has been impressed by how well Tolle has already connected with leaders like Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Tolle says he has been pleased by the passion leaders express for moving the region forward. That energy has to be brought to bear on just one or two initiatives that foster economic growth.

He said he expects to know by June the issues WSU must address to take its proper role in the region’s economy. The remaining time under his one-year contract will be dedicated to developing solutions.

"I want to send a message externally that WSU is changing," he says, while cautioning that the university alone cannot change the region.

But any university that wants to be considered a leader must embrace economic development, Tolle says. The bonds with business must be built at every level; administrative, departmental, and individual.

Virginia proves the university-business partnership can pay off spectacularly. Tolle helped make it happen. With the quality of life, and education and research assets not just in Pullman and Spokane, but the Tri-Cities as well, he says he is optimistic about a repeat here.

"I’m very interested in helping this region, Spokane, be successful."

•Business columnist Bert Caldwell can be reached at (509) 459-5450 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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