Tom Ranken’s Mission: Knit Together Northwest’s First Real Cleantech Trade Association

7/19/10Follow @xconomy

Tom Ranken has been feeling a bit of déjà vu lately.

The feeling has washed over Ranken in the past month, since he was hired to be the first full-time CEO of the Washington Clean Technology Alliance. His job is essentially to turn a fledgling, hyped-up, loosely-defined industry into a more clearly defined, potent force for Washington state’s economic future—like software or aerospace.

Or biotech, the industry that Ranken helped coalesce for the first time in Washington in the 1990s.

“The parallels here to biotech from 20 years ago are almost eerie,” Ranken says.

Back when Ranken became the president of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association in January 1995, the organization only had one part-time employee. People still asked “what is biotech?” in conversation, like they ask “what is cleantech?” today. Nobody really knew what a cancer drug developer had in common with a medical device company, or a developer of genetically engineered crops—just like it’s hard to say what a biofuels company today has in common with a smart grid startup or a solar power developer. When Ranken started at the WBBA, nothing had really happened to bring the industry together around a common purpose or theme—just like today in cleantech.

How loosely defined is cleantech today in the Northwest? One of the group’s board members, whom Ranken didn’t name, told him that he really likes the association but still doesn’t know its purpose.

“We haven’t yet had a catalyzing event,” Ranken says.

Tom Ranken

Tom Ranken

It’s a lot to ask someone to pull together an industry, especially one so amorphous that it doesn’t really even have a national governing trade association. But that’s what Ranken is seeking to do, and he’s drawing from the playbook he followed back in the 1990s at the WBBA. Back then, the organization found its rallying cry around a political effort to push for tax credits for R&D-based companies, like those in biotech. The same thing needs to happen to unify the cleantech industry in the Northwest, Ranken told me last week when we met for coffee in South Lake Union.

“We have a gung ho board, and they want to make a go of it, but this really needs to find its sea legs,” Ranken says.

There are essentially five key functions that the Clean Technology Alliance needs to perform if it wants to be relevant, Ranken says: political advocacy; membership services, like bulk-purchasing discounts; communications, to keep members informed about who’s up and who’s down; networking events; and organizational development (essentially getting bigger and more useful).

The Washington Clean Technology Alliance was founded in 2007. The board of directors, as always, offers up a pretty good indication of the group’s interest. The board president is … Next Page »

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