Q&A with Bill Savitz, of Ignite Northwest: Accelerating business
-June 2nd, 2016
Bill Savitz spent most of his 40-year career at Garco Building Systems, working for and eventually co-owning the West Plains pre-engineered building maker. Now, the 59-year-old veteran of industry is building something new: a business accelerator.
As CEO of Ignite Northwest, Savitz is leading an organization that helps young businesses become more sustainable and grow.
Ignite Northwest recently finished its second session with a group of Spokane entrepreneurs, and the Journal sat down with Savitz to talk about the organization’s early days and his career path.
Journal: The best place for me to start would be with your elevator pitch. How do you describe Ignite Northwest to people when you meet them?
Savitz: Well, Ignite Northwest is a business accelerator; that’s our primary function. As a business accelerator, what we try to do is take companies that have achieved the second level of development—meaning they have defensible intellectual property, a working prototype, etc.—and coach them into a position where they can be investor ready. The idea is, at the end of a session, the end product is not only a more knowledgeable client but also one with an effective investor pitch.
Journal: Are those companies that haven’t raised any money yet?
Savitz: Mostly, they’ve raised money through either friends or family, and they may have an investment from the Spokane Angel Alliance, for example. They usually got that money pre-revenue, so they aren’t up and running at that point. That’s in the development phase of their business.
Stage zero is an idea. Stage one is that they’ve shown proof of concept, and they’re developing the company.
We deal mostly with technology companies, and usually, the person who has the idea and develops the concept is the technical person, and they may need help with marketing. They may even need a CEO. They might not be the right person to be a CEO, and they don’t necessarily know that. When they come out of our course, they know pretty well whether they’re CEO material. They learn an awful lot during the course about the rigors of being in business.
Journal: You work with technology companies, but when I look at the list of companies you work with, it seems like it’s a diverse group within that sector. Would you say that’s the case?
Savitz: Right. Yes, there are different sectors within technology. Definitely. And being that we’re just getting started, there’s not really anything that would drive us toward a specific type of technology.
We have had a broad range, but that was on purpose too. When you have a broader portfolio, you have broader experiences from lots of different people. When they come together as a group, that’s probably where some of the best benefit comes from. It’s been interesting. There are a few different companies that have started to try to work together.
Journal: You’ve been through two classes so far. What’s your assessment of how it’s gone so far?
Savitz: My assessment is that it’s gone pretty well. We had a couple of lessons learned from the first class. For example, we didn’t have them rehearse their investor pitch until the week before demo day. That was too compressed. We needed more time.
Journal: How many businesses in each class?
Savitz: The idea is to have 10. We had 10 in the first class. We had 10 signed up for the second class, but two dropped.
At the same time, we were piloting a remote program with the Tri-Cities, with Fuse SBC, so we had 14. They were doing their own coaching, but we were videoconferencing with them on the classes. When it came to rehearsal pitches, we sat in and critiqued them as well.
Journal: When you look at the pipeline of companies that are in this stage of development in Spokane, what does that look like? What’s the inventory of companies, if you will?
Savitz: That’s a great question. Before we had our first session, I was concerned about that a little bit, and I was concerned about how we would go through the selection process. We didn’t know what to expect. But on the first session, we had 32 applicants. We took 10, and we pipelined some of the others. The second time around, we had 24 applicants and ended up with eight.
What the next session is going to look like in terms of applications, I don’t know. On the other side of that, we have done zero with marketing. Just this last week, we created our Facebook page, and I’m going to push that out. As the work gets out a bit and we see better exposure, we’ll see a better pipeline. The biggest thing is getting known.
The second part of the answer is we didn’t have an accelerator in Spokane, and said, “Let’s see what we can do.” We were specifically looking forward to when the (Washington State University) School of Medicine is here. As the medical school starts to develop and researchers are brought in for the medical school, there will be research that spins toward commercialization, and we’re working closely with the WSU Innovation Center. They catch them initially, and take them through the proof of concept and form a team around them. At some point, it has to spin out of the university system, and we can catch them and help them accelerate their businesses.
Journal: It’s interesting you mention that, because we had a meeting with the new dean of the medical school (Dr. John Tomkowiak) recently, and he mentioned his interest in health technology.
Savitz: Dr. Tomkowiak and I have talked a couple of different times about that. He had an affiliation with an accelerator when he was back in Chicago, but that organization was 60 miles away, and the logistics weren’t as good. We’re six blocks away.
We’re actually working with WSU right now on a grant. WSU would be the lead, and it’s a cluster grant for economic development of technology-based businesses. We’re putting the story together, and hopefully, we’ll gain a grant.
Journal: Ignite Northwest evolved out of SIRTI. Is that the right way to say it? How would you describe that relationship?
Savitz: The original organization was SIRTI, which was the Spokane Intercollegiate Research & Technology Institute. It was intended as a business incubator. There was space available. There was one-on-one coaching available. It was working with companies from the idea stage.
It was funded through taxpayers’ dollars, and as a result of that, there was no fee to participate. You had to pay rent if you took space in the incubator, but if you were coached, there was no fee. And nobody could be turned away. So, it was not the most efficient use of resources, because it could be anybody walking in with an idea, however wild it may be.
In 2011, under Gov. (Christine) Gregoire, SIRTI was merged with the Washington Technology Center in Seattle, which had a similar function. They were merged, and that created Innovate Washington. Innovate Washington had four locations in the state. It had 30-plus employees.
In 2014, the Legislature decided to defund Innovate Washington, so that was the end of it. As of June 2014, there was no more state funding coming in. There was a foundation that existed that owned the building where the WSU Innovation Center is located. The foundation had that building. It had some reserves left over and thought maybe we can continue this forward but as a business accelerator, because that’s more effective. And if it’s a private foundation, we can be more selective about who we worked with.
That was when I got recruited. Jeff Severs, who was chair of the board, called me and asked me what I knew about Innovate Washington, and I said, “State agency. Defunded. Shut down.” He then told me about the foundation.
My first comment to him was, “Well, you need to rebrand it.” Two years ago, if you Googled “Innovate Washington,” all you would find was bloody stories about fighting in the Legislature over funding. It needed to be rebranded. It was being repurposed anyway as an accelerator, so it was a good time to do that anyway.
Our next order of business was to create a curriculum, which was based on some of the successful business accelerators from around the country. We decided to run two sessions a year with 10 companies in each—20 companies a year. We were able to retain some of the 30-plus employees. There were six when I came through the door, so it had been diminished quite a bit. We had to build that back up.
We ran our first accelerator in the fall of 2015, so it was about nine months after I started.
Journal: Some of the functions are similar, but it’s later in the business cycle.
Savitz: Yes, the SIRTI and the Innovate Washington model, it was anybody that was in the spectrum. Somebody could come in, and they could be in business. They may be making a profit, but they were just trying to figure out how to do it a little bit better. Maybe they’re interested in lean manufacturing or financial opportunities. You name it. But it could be some guy coming out of his garage, too, saying, “I just invented a better mousetrap. Where is the world marching a path to my door?” Just because you invent a better mousetrap, it doesn’t mean the world is going to beat a path to your door. There’s a lot more to it than that.
By the time they get to us now, a lot of stuff has been accounted for.
Journal: When Jeff Severs called you, what were you doing?
Savitz: I had been at Garco Construction for four years. I was doing business development and government affairs.
After we sold Garco Building Systems, I stayed on with the parent company for a little over two years. That was 2009, and the recession was in full swing at that time. The parent company, who had 6,000 employees, had laid off 2,500 people at that time and had shut down nine plants.
At that point, I was executive director of the green building initiative and did not want to move to Houston, so I had an office downtown on the 17th floor of the Bank of America building. It was a great office, but when the recession hit, I got a call to revise my budget to budget plan C, which meant I really had no money. And I thought, “This is crazy.” I was getting paid a good salary to sit here and basically not do anything. They didn’t have anything else for me to do, so I thought it would be better if I retire.
I retired at that time, in May of 2009, and I spent a lot of time playing golf and working out. In July, I started doing some volunteer work for GSI (Greater Spokane Incorporated) in public policy. I did that for about a year.
Then, I was talking to Tim Welsh at Garco Construction. He was asking me if I intended to stay retired.
Journal: How old were you at that point?
Savitz: I was 52 when I retired, so I was 53 when I was talking to Tim. So, yeah, I was a little young. The joke was that I would go out to golf in the middle of the week, and the guys I’d be golfing with, all they wanted to talk about was there grandkids and their prostate, and I wasn’t there yet.
So, Tim asked if I wanted to come to work for him in business development and government affairs. Garco Construction had been our best customer at Garco Building Systems for forever, and I said yes. Garco Construction has always been in the community, and they wanted to stay involved in the community. Tim thought that might be a good role for me. I did it for four years, and Tim was supportive when I wanted to make this change.
Journal: Why did you decide to take the Ignite Northwest position?
Savitz: I wanted to do this, because it was different from anything I’d ever done. But also, it was an opportunity to be a CEO again. Once you’ve been one, it’s hard to go back. When I was at Garco Construction, I would think back to my experiences at Garco Building Systems. I would think in the back of my mind, “I wouldn’t do it that way.” But it wasn’t my decision to make. If you’re a guy who’s used to always making decisions, that’s kind of tough.
Journal: How will gauge your success at Ignite Northwest?
Savitz: I don’t know that we fully know that. The easy answer is to say jobs created, but that’s not a very good answer. A lot of these might not generate jobs, but they may import a lot of money.
I guess the best way to gauge it over time—and it will take time—is to look at the overall impact those companies we work with have in the community. When it comes to economic development and economic impact, it’s how much money can you import, as opposed to export or recirculate.