Recommendations 2: Part 4 – Plans – Let’s Aim High

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Plans, plans and more plans.

Spokane has no shortage of economic plans going back decades. Please see the links in the right most column of this web page to read about past plans and summaries of what they proposed.

All of them had mostly the same findings and same recommendations.

Poverty and low wages are mentioned in all of them.

The lack of a research university is also prominent. Let’s look at that.

Former Representative Tom Foley said the lack of a research university with graduate research programs hindered Spokane’s forward progress. This idea, going back to the 1980s, led to the opening of SIRTI in the early 1990s.

The Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute (SIRTI) was created by former Speaker of the House Tom Foley, the area’s longtime congressional representative, who was convinced that the lack of a top-notch research facility was a factor holding back Spokane’s economic progress. Initial funding came through a federal grant, and it is now supported by state funds and fees paid by participating companies.

Source: 2003 Brookings Institution study and Ten Years of Innovation (SIRTI publication).

And also:

“Spokane is not at the forefront of higher education. Lack of a major research institution has consistently been called a weakness as community officials assemble a 21st-century information-based economic curriculum.”- Bert Caldwell, Spokesman-Review newspaper.

And:

Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, there was a growing hope that high technology industries could add markedly to the Spokane metro area. Some challenged the feasibility of this goal without a research university saying that Spokane could not hope to compete in the newly emerging world of high technology or biotechnology without this vital asset. Although Spokane has four 4-year universities and a thriving community college system, Spokane has been bereft of a technology transfer, research university

Source

Foley and others helped the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute – which was supposed to create spin offs from local university and government lab research into start ups and industry, and assist other start ups in creating a thriving community of science and technology start ups (some historical background).

To answer the challenge, the Washington State Legislature, with local guidance, created the Spokane Riverpoint Higher Education Park and created the Joint Center for Higher Education JCHE. The JCHE mandate was to catalyze a high tech sector, begin the effort to provide high tech worker education programs, and to be the administrative agent for the newly created Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute SIRTI. The JCHE was to spur university collaboration in teaching of computer science, biotechnology, and other technology classes; collaboration in research projects especially with industry partners; and foster high-tech worker education and training programs. SIRTI was to be operated as a research and technology-facilitating institute that would provide grants, independent research laboratory space, project management help, infrastructure, and the capability of scientists from all local colleges and universities to collaborate.

Source

SIRTI was structured with a Board dominated by academic and government labs due to the thinking that its mission was to move academic and government lab research into the private sector. Over the years, its role has morphed. Today SIRTI is an economic development agency working to help science and tech start ups state wide.

On their website intro they no longer mention the university and government lab connection:

Sirti accelerates Inland Northwest technology-based companies toward success and positive regional economic impact. We deliver entrepreneurial coaching, a mix of no- or low-cost business services, access to capital, and the legal services needed for successful formation, IP protection and long-term growth.

Yet the majority of their Board are still members of the academic and government lab communities, followed by roughly financial services … it seems its original organization structure has not kept up with its contemporary mission. Unfortunately, its Board is specified by State law – as if they poured concrete into the org chart …

Update: There is a bill pending before the legislature that would merge SIRTI and the Seattle-based Washington Technology Center and …. reconstitute the Board so that it was no longer dominated by academic and government agencies. The bill is here.

In addition to assisting start ups, which SIRTI certainly does, SIRTI has, over the years, been seen as a substitute for the lack of local network clusters in science and technology. This is plagiarized from my previous post on this topic:

The Ecosystem Problem

With the loss of the regions early tech and tech manufacturing sector, the area lost its ecosystem and peer networks that in other high innovation locales help to create a culture of risk taking and rule breaking:

“To be blunt, the startup networks that exist in the Inland Northwest are a far cry from the ‘dense network of relationships’ that exist in places like Silicon Valley.”

The Innovation Economy author saw incubators, like SIRTI,  trying to substitute for the “dense networks” that exist in innovation ecosystems by providing “access to mentors, peers, enablers, resources, education and information”. But … there is always a but … at the cost of requiring “exclusivity, requiring an extremely high level of success prior to providing assistance, and requiring the use of in-house services”.

SIRTI was going to help move academic research into the private sector, substitute for the lack of graduate research programs in the area and substitute for the lack of network clusters. But this missed a real world path from lab to industry – the path runs through the students, not a state agency incubator:

The best technology transfer program comes from the students themselves, not from government agencies set up to create university technology transfer (SIRTI).  We need undergraduates and graduate students who pursue their own entrepreneurial instincts to turn great ideas into even better ideas. The real world path from lab to start up goes through  undergraduate and especially graduate research students working in research labs, who license or take ideas from the labs in to their own start ups.

This may explain why we do not have the rich ecosystem of science and technology start ups that were originally envisioned. We’ve got SIRTI. But we do not have the graduate research students who are a critical path to migrate great ideas into profit making ventures. We also lack the graduate education opportunities that attract ambitious students to the area – most all of these students must go elsewhere to get the education they seek and then probably go to work some place else too.

In other words, perhaps the model is broken. It sort of worked but looking at the local economic numbers and the local ecosystem, it did not achieve the orbit that was originally planned. Total jobs here are now down by 10% over the past decade.

Please do not conclude that SIRTI is not working. That is not the message. The message is that a lot more might have happened if we had the rest of the ecosystem.

I previously documented on this web site, that we have close to zero graduate degrees in science, technology and engineering available in this area. Follow the links to learn more.  More information here.  And enrollment in undergraduate technology fields has fallen by 2/3ds.

(GSI says “With its strong base of research and academic resources, Spokane is concentrated on becoming a burgeoning center for information technology and telecommunications.” …. really?)

WSU-Spokane has big plans to greatly expand its health science programs in Spokane in coming years, including moving its College of Pharmacy from Pullman to Spokane.

As many observed since the 1980s, without graduate programs in multiple disciplines, Spokane’s innovation economy is ham strung.

Do we have what is needed for a 21st century innovation-based economy?

Are we Aiming High Enough?

Spokane is the 2nd largest city in the State and the County is the 4th largest by population.

In terms of the much desired research university, Spokane has the smallest branch campus of any research university, as shown in the following chart of WSU branch campuses. Tacoma, with UW-Tacoma branch campus has 3,155 students enrolled today, Bothell has 3,227 students while Spokane has 1,267, even though its been here since 1989. (Crossed out “branch”. Since 2004, WSU-Spokane is not a branch campus but an actual campus.)

While WSU-Spokane will grow larger, so will the others. Spokane’s campus is the smallest and now its the slowest growing. Why?

Local promoters have asked the State to open a 2nd medical school in Spokane. That would be a great asset but due to funding, the Governor says not until sometime after 2021.

This doesn’t feel right – Is Spokane being short changed?  Have we aimed high enough?

Aiming High or Low

Way back in the 1980s, local leaders identified the lack of a research campus as a weakness.  We settled for SIRTI and the smallest of all research branch campuses in the State, plus a fine non-research university (EWU, and also GU and the smaller Whitworth).

Some one suggested to me that this is due to the area’s culture-“we settle for good enough” rather than consistently aiming high, seeking excellence and really doing what it takes to compete on a world class level. To clarify that comment, there are people here who seek and deliver excellence, but I understand what is being said and hopefully you understand too.

Doing “good enough” shows up in the data (e.g. low participation rates on high school SAT exams). Anecdotally, I’ve run into this “good enough” attitude many times myself.

We settle for good enough. It’s a nice place to raise a family. There’s lots of golf courses. It’s a nice place to retire. It’s near nature, near good enough. But good enough will not be a winning strategy in a globalized economy (unless we settle for regional services where we have some regional market power).  Someone else hints a good enough mind set could have been a factor in why Agilent left town (see the next couple of comments there).. I have no idea, those assertions could be right or wrong.

Why not think big, on the order of another World’s Fair Expo? How about an all out effort to put together all the pieces for a comprehensive innovation based ecosystem? Not just bits and pieces but the whole deal?

Ecosystems

Related Past Posts on this web site that will help in understanding the problems, the issues and possible solutions:

Unfortunately, local leadership (and state law) has us headed down a path through an incoherent industrial cluster strategy.  We need to build the whole ecosystem and stop drawing ever expanding geometric shapes on a map to proclaim we have clusters that we do not actually have.

Recommendation

Keeping in mind that I am probably off the wall, possibly clueless and perhaps just wrong – with that in mind, here goes:

  1. Let’s invest in people and ideas, not concrete.

  2. Aim high. Really high.

  3. Do not settle for anything less than excellence.

Will that happen?  It will if we can break out of the good enough mindset. Kinda hard to break but like concrete, when hit with a big enough sledge hammer cracks can develop …

But it might not happen without financial incentives to well connected landowners in town: Benefiting from poured concrete paid for by someone else has been a pretty good gig! (Of course, the med school will be built right where you can guess and benefit … oh, you get the idea …)

Odds favor that we continue to pour concrete to eternity, wages will be unacceptable, ambitious people seeking excellence and and young people with skills and seeking opportunity will head for the coastal cities. Like they’ve been doing for some time. Read what Timothy Egan wrote about Spokane in the NY Times.

“Good enough” and “pouring concrete” are possibly the root cause issues to address. That would make for an interesting discussion topic.  For those that asked for recommendations, there you go!

I could be completely wrong, but at least its different than 30 years of existing plans and strategies.

Alternatives?

The alternative is to settle into a collection of regional service industries which is what we have today. Government is a service, health care is a service, and most of the next largest sectors (retail, hotels and restaurants, business and professional services) are services meeting the needs of the two big kids on the block (government and health care and their work force).

Those that prefer to compete at a world-class, globalized economy level in fields other than government and health care, local service and niche market industries, will find better opportunities somewhere else. Fair enough.

But we will need to re-align our local promotional efforts with this goal (they are not now aligned). And we will still be stuck with our stubborn wage problem: except for the big government and health care sectors, most of our remaining services sectors do not pay well.

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