State looks to boost technology companies

Innovate Washington will have Vancouver operation

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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The Legislature has created a new program to assist emerging technology and clean energy companies, dubbed Innovate Washington, the result of a merger that will eliminate the long-established Washington Technology Center and the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute, known as SIRTI.

Innovate Washington should be up and running by Aug. 1, said Chris Coleman, Washington Technology Center executive director. State legislation approved in this year’s session requires the new entity to establish a plan by Dec. 1, 2012, for establishing operations in Vancouver, Tri-Cities, and Bellingham. Coleman says there’s no timeline for establishing a base in Vancouver.

The Clark County region already has a solid base of innovation and a supportive research partner in Washington State University Vancouver, Coleman said. But “in recognition of the area’s unemployment levels, it would be a ripe and appropriate area to provide that type of service, ” he said.

The new Innovate Washington, like its predecessors, will facilitate research that supports the state’s technology-based industries and encourage collaborations between those industries and universities. It will also help businesses attract federal and state research dollars for new or expanded products, assist in commercialization of technology, and administer technology and innovation grant and loan programs. The state provided $6 million in funding over two years, Coleman said.

The state also directed Innovate Washington to coordinate clean energy initiatives, and it will work with the two-year-old Clean Energy Leadership Council on targeting that work into industry segments where the state has competitive advantages.

Coleman hopes that the new, sharper focus will elevate Washington to national leadership as it develops a one-stop shopping center for innovation and technology. “It’s been challenging to see other states bring that focus when we have all the tools here,” he said. “Washington should be the model.”

Lisa Nisenfeld, interim director of the Columbia Region Economic Development Council, said Innovate Washington could bring more tools to the local push to build the technology economy. “We’re all waiting to see how (Innovate Washington) will unfold,” she said.

The Legislature established the Washington Technology Center in 1983 to help companies develop and commercialize technology products and services in Washington state. The center has provided assistance to local companies including nLight, GeoMonkey, RS Medical, and Insitu.

Hal Dengerink, chancellor of WSU Vancouver, is vice chairman of its board. Dengerink has resigned as chancellor effective Aug. 15. Other board members from Southwest Washington include Scott Keeney, president of Camas-based nLight, and Jon Clemens, now a consultant to Sharp Laboratories of America Inc. and the lab’s former chief executive officer. A new board will be established for Innovate Washington.

In 2008, the Washington Technology Center tried without success to secure funds for a $16.8 million semiconductor component testing laboratory at WSU Vancouver. Lynn Valenter, WSU Vancouver’s acting chancellor, said the university would be eager for a collaboration with Innovate Washington, no matter what form it might take. “Anything that helps our local mission and economy, and uses our assets, certainly makes sense,” she said. “The need for research is perpetual.”