Spokane Journal of Business

New SIRTI plan shows striking shifts in strategy

It will focus further down the R&D trail, on taking near-ready goods to market

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The Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute has unveiled a new strategic plan that includes marked changes in focus and strategy.

While before the Spokane-based state agency concentrated on helping to develop new technologies, it now plans to focus more heavily on helping companies take near-ready products to market by assisting with such tasks as analyzing markets and securing venture capital.

While before it was funded primarily by federal grants, SIRTI now has the operational backing of the state coffers and will seek investments directly from companies that need its help, want access to a product or technology its helping to commercialize, or simply want to contribute to the communitys high-tech infrastructure through SIRTI.

While before SIRTI concentrated on developing environmental and digital technologies, it now has added biotechnology as a key focus area. It also is formally establishing a technology incubator that already houses five companies and is expected to house as many as 11.

We believe these strategies will increase SIRTIs impact on the economic development of this region, says board Chairman Michael Nowling, who also is president of the Heart Institute of Spokane. They move us from a grant-driven organization to an investment-driven one.

SIRTIs board approved the four-year strategic plan late last month. The 10-year-old organization became an independent state agency a year ago.

To date, SIRTI says it has helped establish six companies, launch six new products, and create 88 new jobs.

Since 1994, SIRTI has been funded primarily with grant money from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Those grants will expire next year, requiring SIRTI to wean itself from that funding source. SIRTI has secured funding from the state for the biennium that began this month, and will continue to seek federal grants outside the DARPA program, as well as partner with universities that also have secured research funding.

SIRTI currently is working on an advanced acoustics research project with the University of Washington, which secured $1.1 million in funding from the Department of Navy early this week, and is close to establishing a partnership with Eastern Washington University that also will involve acoustics research, says Lyle Anderson, SIRTIs executive director. Anderson says the agency is in the early stages of establishing a partnership with the U.S. Army, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in Richland, and a Tri-Cities company that will involve $6 million in research concerning hydrogen fuel technologies. He declines to provide further details about that possible project.

SIRTIs new strategy to concentrate on taking already developing products to market simply moves its focus further down the trail in the research-and-development process, says Anderson. The agencys role in commercialization might include such tasks as market analysis, customer identification, pricing and distribution planning, financial analysis, and seeking investment capital. As in the past, SIRTI also will try to match private companies with university researchers.

Anderson says SIRTI also will begin to market itself as a fee consultant to private companies that would pay SIRTI to do specific tasks, such as analyzing possible technology acquisitions.

Technology incubator

Though SIRTI has been working on the development of a technology incubator for some time, it now is formally launching that effort and is dedicating to it additional space in its building at 665 N. Riverpoint Blvd., just east of downtown.

Currently, five companies occupy a total of about 2,000 square feet of space in the incubator. They include Avista Labs, an R&D subsidiary of Avista Corp.; Lumify Inc., a software development firm; Capillary Networks Inc., an Internet research firm; GenPrime Inc., a biotechnology startup, and Zess Technologies Inc., a company thats developing a heat exchanger. The incubator also is home to the Environmental Forum for Business, an organization that puts on an annual conference here.

Anderson says SIRTI is reconfiguring space in its building to more than double the size of the incubator to 4,500 square feet, and expects to house as many as six more companies, depending on their space needs. Incubator companies are provided commercialization services, conference and training facilities, and access to such things as phone and fax systems and a high-speed Internet link.

We prototyped (the incubator) for a couple of years, says Anderson. Now were ready to market ourselves as an incubator.

Under the new strategic plan, SIRTI plans to take more of a leadership role in terms of advancing Spokane and Eastern Washingtons high-technology infrastructure and in pursuing joint ventures with private companies and universities, says Anderson. It plans to hire a development officer who will hit the streets to talk with companies about how SIRTI can help them bring products to market, and in the process seek to secure investments from such companies. Its goal in the current fiscal year is to bring $250,000 worth of private research money into SIRTI, and to double that amount by two years from now.

Anderson says SIRTIs move to add biotechnology as a key focus is the result of its boards belief that biotech will be a huge growth industry. SIRTI specifically will target medical, veterinary, and agricultural initiatives in that role, and expects to be able to attract federal funding and take advantage of Washington State Universitys strengths in ag and veterinary science.

SIRTI currently employs 19 people full time and has another four full-time equivalent positions. Its annual budget is about $3 million.

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