Seattle is “Minor League” Innovation Town, So We Shouldn’t Be So Smug, Tech Leaders Say

5/13/09Follow @xconomy

Seattle can be a very politically correct place, and one very un-PC thing to say is that we’re a second-rate burg when it comes to spawning innovative industries of the future. But Ed Lazowska, one of Seattle’s gutsiest public intellectuals, let it rip yesterday in front of a small gathering of about 100 technology elites at the Four Seasons Hotel.

“We’re very smug and self-satisfied,” said Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, during a lunch discussion hosted by OVP Venture Partners. He cited a study that ranked Seattle the nation’s No. 5 hub of high tech, which he dismissed as misleading. “We think of ourselves in the innovation big leagues, and we are, in fact, in the minors compared to the real big leagues of the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston.”

We’ve reported on a lot of data that back up Lazowska’s point. The Pacific Northwest ranks as the nation’s No. 9 biotech cluster, according to this analysis by Ernst & Young. An even more humbling report Lazowska cited by the Kauffman Foundation explained what an amazing driver of economic growth the New England area has with MIT, whose alumni have founded 1,000 companies per year, with about one-third of the companies settling in the Boston area.

This was easy to say in front of an audience of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who travel a lot, and know all these points to be true. One of the things that baffles me about Seattle—after having lived in Boston and San Francisco—is that so few public officials here would ever dare utter such an obvious truth about how far Seattle lags behind the world-leading clusters for biotech and high tech. If they can’t do that, there’s no way they can engage in serious discussion with the general public about systemic ways this region can improve. (Although I’m sure our readers in Boston would acknowledge that Microsoft and Amazon give Seattle a big-company edge in information technology.)

Lazowska’s blistering assessment of our region’s innovation scene was reinforced by fellow panelist Mark Anderson, the influential publisher of Strategic News Service, a technology newsletter in Friday Harbor, WA. “We’re coming out of a period of about a dozen years of dishonesty,” Anderson said, citing Wall Street shenanigans, and so-called technology driven economic productivity gains, which he dismissed as “fluff.” As for Washington state, he sized up the situation pretty succinctly. “We elect people who are really nice people and don’t do anything,” Anderson said. “They do not rock that boat.” He added a provocative observation: “Maybe we don’t want to be led.”

So what to do about this? Lazowska didn’t pull any punches. “At the UW, you could stop tolerating mediocrity.” He elaborated a bit, … Next Page »

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  • pEvans

    Seconded. What is missing? Well, ostensibly a number of things, but take a look at the biggest tech hubs–each has a few top shelf universities. Washington’s last university built was Evergreen in the 60′s, quite sad. And unfair as it is, one or two universities would need to be located in the Seattle metro–intellectual cross pollination works best at short distances. Claiming that Microsoft/Amazon/wasImmunex are ‘like having a university research department’ is fatuous in all honesty.
    Duly noted, this is very expensive and with a long payout. But it is long past due, enough of the mantra “if you don’t build it they won’t come”–they have come in their millions, and it we want quality of life, influence on the future, and a vibrant economy it is time to build some infrastructure.

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