Clark County high-tech firms eye growth amid challenges

Transportation, education key for local companies

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Representatives of three Clark County companies that exemplify the region's semiconductor cluster said Friday that cheap power, clean water and a skilled workforce brought them here, and transportation and education are among the keys to keep them growing here.

Scott Keeney, president and CEO of nLight Corp., Jim Short, director of facilities for WaferTech, and Ben Bagherpour, vice president of operations for SEH America, participated in a morning panel discussion in Vancouver aimed at understanding what they're doing to support the region's high-tech sector and how they're preparing to tackle national and global challenges.

Speaking to more than 30 people gathered at the Hilton Vancouver Washington for the breakfast event, Keeney said he sees "great opportunities for growth" for Vancouver-based nLight, a global company that develops and manufactures high-performance lasers for advanced materials processing, defense and medical uses. Operational costs favor bringing more jobs back from China, Keeney said, and the company is enticing talented workers who see the region's strong schools and vibrant quality of life as top attractions.

However, the talented engineers he's looking for also ask about the reliability of the region's transportation system, Keeney said. "No one wants to sit in traffic." And that's what makes the demise of the $3.4 billion Columbia River Crossing project — which would have replaced the Interstate 5 Bridge and extended light rail into Vancouver — such "a disappointment," Keeney said.

Not having new highway and rail links in the region places limits on companies' ability to efficiently visit and do business with their suppliers and service providers in the Portland-Vancouver metro area, Keeney said.

Meanwhile, he added, "you can easily get around" Europe and Asia on high-speed rail systems.

Internal, external competitors

Friday's panel discussion, moderated by Lisa Nisenfeld, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, was part of a larger, two-day study mission led by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Puget Sound Regional Council.

Beginning Thursday, officials from the Seattle and Puget Sound areas toured Lakewood, Longview, Vancouver and Portland to learn about best business practices in Southwest Washington in hopes of taking those methods back to their communities.

Keeney, Short and Bagherpour not only lead individual businesses but they also serve on the Clark County High Tech and Community Council, which represents some of the largest technology employers in Southwest Washington. The council supported the Columbia River Crossing. The group also has lobbied for changes to state energy policy to keep electricity costs low and has led successful efforts to build up education in science and technology.

Although it didn't dominate Friday's discussion, the Columbia River Crossing came up several times. The bridge project collapsed when the Washington state Senate, run by a new conservative majority, refused to take up a transportation gas-tax proposal that would have paid the state's $450 million share.

One attendee of Friday's event asked Keeney, Short and Bagherpour about the business community's involvement in the CRC and what it could have done differently to see the project to fruition.

Keeney was blunt. "We screwed up," he said, "bottom line."

"We didn't get in front of the issue" soon enough, he added, partly because there's an "aversion" to getting too involved in local politics. Keeney said there were "just a few votes that went the wrong way, and we didn't get in front of that."

Bagherpour said other corporations aren't the only challengers to Vancouver-based SEH America, which manufactures silicon wafers. The company, a subsidiary of parent Shin-Etsu Chemical in Japan, also competes for investment and expansion opportunities with its sister facilities across the globe.

That's why it's so important to keep power costs low and to support internships that link high school students with employers to groom the next generation of skilled employees, Bagherpour said. If he's not able to match or exceed competitors -- inside or outside of Shin-Etsu -- on issues such as talent and operational costs, he said, "I may not get the next expansion."

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com