State business booster lays groundwork

Innovate Washington focusing on structure, funding sources

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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photoBart Phillips Innovate Washington Foundation’s VP of economic development

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The new state-funded business booster Innovate Washington is doing some innovation of its own, having created a public-private partnership while keeping staff dispersed instead of establishing a single central office.

The organization, born last August through a merger of Seattle-based Washington Technology Center and Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute, is charged by the Legislature with building the state’s innovation-based business sectors. So far, its major focus has been on creating a structure and searching for funding sources other than state government to extend its reach.

On the organizational side, Innovate Washington is guided by a 13-member board of directors appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire. That board, which so far has held just one meeting, includes Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, as its only Southwest Washington member. It is responsible for keeping Innovate Washington focused on its mandate from the Legislature, which provides about $2.7 million in annual funding, said Kim Zentz, Innovate Washington’s chief executive officer and former Sirti executive director.

Under the new public-private structure, the program is staffed by the Innovate Washington Foundation, a private nonprofit with its own board of directors. That foundation now has 13 employees, including Bart Phillips, former president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, who in December was named Innovate Washington’s vice president of economic development. Zentz said she anticipates significant growth in the foundation’s staff.

“We are definitely still in the formative stage,” Zentz said. Phillips will remain based in Clark County, she said, and staff who are now divided between Spokane, and Seattle will remain dispersed.

The organization is targeting such business sectors as clean energy, agriculture, aerospace, life sciences, information and communication technology, and advanced materials and manufacturing.

So far, Innovate Washington has focused on securing government grants and private funding to broaden its impact. It recently became managing partner for a two-year initiative called the Washington Green Energy Partnership. The initiative, with 11 partners and $12.25 million in funding from various sources, is heavily focused on testing, development, and commercialization of energy efficiency technologies for buildings. The project “has a lot of partners and a lot of moving parts,” Zentz said.

“Innovate Washington will not set out to recruit businesses to the state, but instead will assist existing

companies in tapping public and private resources and research, making business connections, and commercializing innovative ideas,” Zentz said, “We were set up with a mission of making Washington the best place to launch innovative companies and build innovative companies,” she said.

Rivers said she’s excited about the potential for Innovate Washington to strengthen Southwest Washington’s technology-based businesses.

“I think this will provide a comprehensive approach to economic development that we just haven’t had in the past,” she said. “I think Southwest Washington is going to benefit, because we are going to be involved.”

State legislation directs the new entity to develop a plan for establishing operations in Vancouver, the Tri-Cities area, and Bellingham. Zentz said the issue of opening local offices will be considered as part of a five-year plan next year, but she offered no timeline for branch operations.

Rivers said she believes that taking advantage of Phillips’ contacts and expertise is a higher priority than establishing a physical presence.

“I‘m not so concerned about an office,” she said. “I am in a rush for Bart (Phillips) to be recognized as the face of Innovate Washington.”