Ed Lazowska, the University of Washington computer science professor, stirred the pot a couple months ago when he said Seattle is a “minor league” innovation town, far behind the big league of the San Francisco Bay Area, so people in the Northwest should quit being smug and start doing something to change that.
This week, Janis Machala, the champion of startup creation at UW’s TechTransfer shop, offered up some of her own insights on why it is that Seattle is so far behind, during a public forum on campus. The Northwest lifestyle is so laid-back, Machala said, that it discourages the kind of all-consuming passion and drive found in the leading entrepreneurs of the Bay Area. She used the example of Microsoft to illustrate the point.
“If Microsoft had been in Silicon Valley, it would have been completely different. When people leave Microsoft, they generally retire or take another safe job. They don’t create entrepreneurs,” Machala says. “There’s a lifestyle element here. People want balance. People in Silicon Valley don’t know what balance means.”
She added: “They work harder. They live and breathe the fundamentals of startups. They aren’t worried about their next bike ride.” Then the kicker: “We have a phenomenal place to live here, but we pay a price for it.”
Machala, who lived in both Boston and Silicon Valley before coming to the Northwest, made her comments on Wednesday at an event organized by the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association, held at the UW Law School. She was joined on the panel by moderator Stephen Graham of Fenwick & West, WRF Capital CEO Ron Howell, Insilicos president Erik Nilsson, and UW law professor Sean O’Connor.
The other panelists tended to talk more about symptoms of the problem rather than discuss why the innovation and entrepreneurship gap is so wide between San Francisco and Seattle. Nilsson pointed out that Seattle has a “shallow bench” in terms of executive management talent that can develop promising new ideas. Graham noted that venture capitalists have started to get more interested in less-risky, more-developed companies because they can buy shares so cheaply. Howell added that in other regions, notably San Diego, city leaders formed a coherent strategy years ago to attract businesses to build on their university research, and it worked.
Part of building a culture of innovation means training people to realistically think like innovators and entrepreneurs, Machala said. As one example, she said an aspiring entrepreneur came to her office with an idea for an immunology-based startup. The person had a computer science background, and had intensely studied the key concepts of immunology for the past couple years. It won’t matter, Machala said, because no investor would back a company like this because the founder lacks the needed expertise in immunology, she said.
Machala wasn’t completely bearish about the region’s prospects, though. She’s more optimistic about the region’s strength in medical devices than in biotech, because the Northwest has stable anchor companies. And she said she’s excited about the region’s chances to develop a serious innovation strategy because of the vision of a new crop of leaders in key positions of influence. She mentioned WBBA president Chris Rivera, Washington Technology Industry Association president Ken Myer, and Washington’s Commerce Secretary, Rogers Weed as key players.
Still, the region sounds like it has a long way to go to create a serious culture of innovation. In places like that, Machala said, “invention is just in the water,” and the region values innovation that has the potential to create new industries.
“Science for science’s sake is good at training researchers, and generating papers, but it doesn’t necessarily create an economy or jobs for people who want to stay and live here,” Machala said.
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