Building a Local Innovation Ecosystem

Opinion

Co-authored with Rudy Gadre, general partner at Founders’ Co-op.

Western Washington is already home to some of the most innovative people, companies, and academic programs in the world. And yet we should be doing much more to connect and support our local innovators, to attract more agents of change to the region, and to help them develop big new things.

When you talk about innovation, a lot of people think of Silicon Valley, and what it would take to replicate its IT-based economy in the Puget Sound area. But a better strategy would be to examine our local strengths and the unique features—the people, ideas, and resources—that are already here. Yes, that includes an excellent cadre of local IT businesses. But we should also make use of the culture, geography, academia, history, and political institutions that contribute so much to our vibrant local economy.

Today, our region is home to innovators working to solve environmental and energy challenges, improve healthcare and cure diseases, and upgrade living conditions, housing, and transportation. By pulling all of those strengths together, we can build a powerful innovation ecosystem—more sustainable than one built on a single industry like IT. It’s important to attract a diverse array of companies that fit together naturally. And that’s what’s happening in the Seattle area, where hundreds of companies have set up shop in recent years.

On the other side of the state, Eastern Washington provides some good examples of how innovators can use technology in the context of the places they live, and at a scale that fits the local economy. Farmers and wineries are using gene editing and soil science to improve crop quality and yields. On some tribal lands, ranchers carry drones on horseback, using them to look after their livestock over large swaths of rangeland.

Innovation means applying knowledge in ways which are not obvious. This often brings good paying jobs and long-term economic growth. Those are good reasons for Washington and its state university system to get involved. Seeding the first investments can lay the foundation for innovators to take risks based on new ideas, and accept failures on the path to driving something new.

The state should allocate more funds to support startups with no strings attached. And state leaders should play an active role in recruiting companies to the region. The absence of a state income tax is a powerful enticement for entrepreneurs. Innovators also benefit from being close to their partners, as well as their customers.

Support for an innovation ecosystem also fulfills a university’s educational mission to prepare students for their futures and their careers. Training students to become entrepreneurs is a great way to do this.
Universities also drive important academic research programs that can be better tied to useful business outcomes by incorporating a focus on entrepreneurship.

A good example of academic and business support for entrepreneurs in training is the Global Innovation Exchange. GIX is a partnership between Tsinghua University in Beijing and the University of Washington, which offers graduate technology degrees for Chinese and American students. Important financial support comes from Microsoft, which has pledged to provide $40 million.

Support for entrepreneurship should not be confined to startups. The mindset of an entrepreneur can be useful at established companies as well. In fact, more and more companies are setting up in-house innovation incentives and programs which help them anticipate and capitalize on new ideas and markets. These programs also help develop and retain talented employees. In a company with tens of thousands of workers, it’s important to provide innovators with opportunities to grow and thrive.

The good news is that many elements of a local innovation ecosystem are already in place, and plenty of engagement is already happening. The task before us now is to accelerate and strengthen connections between resources and opportunities, between talent and mobility, between providers and customers, between academics and businesses.

Relentless support via training and incubation will help get new ideas out faster and drive both the volume and quality of innovation in the region.

Vikram Jandhyala is vice president for innovation strategy at the University of Washington. He is executive director of CoMotion, UW's collaborative innovation hub, and the UW co-CEO of the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX). Follow @vikramjandhyala

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