Spokane Journal of Business

SIRTI to be separate agency

Change slated to take effect on July 1, should boost profile, bring more funds

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The Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute (SIRTI) will embark on a new life starting July 1, when it becomes a separate state agency.

The move is expected to boost the institutes profile, allow it to garner more money from Washington state and the federal government, and position it to be a major player in statewide research.

Our identity becomes more distinct. Theres a lot of value in that for us, says Anthony Lentz, SIRTIs associate director.

The change also is intended to align the institute more closely with the Spokane business community and to increase the number of academic partners the institute has. The University of Washington will be one of those new academic partners.

Dan Kirschner, public affairs manager at the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce, says he believes the new arrangement will ensure and strengthen SIRTIs future, which he contends is important to Spokanes economic health.

SIRTI is really a keystone to our economic-development strategy over the next five yearsbecause the Spokane area will try during that time to expand its base of technology companies, Kirschner asserts. Having SIRTI makes us a little special. It gives us that commercialization aspect. SIRTIs specialty is providing monetary grants and a variety of expertise to projects that will lead to the commercialization of new products, mostly in high-tech areas.

SIRTI Director Lyle Anderson says that for SIRTI to become a separate state agency has been a goal of his for some time, but he always thought it would be years down the road before that occurred. It happened faster than we would have ever dreamed, he says.17-member governing boardSIRTI achieved its new status in a law enacted earlier this year. That law also dissolved the Joint Center for Higher Education (JCHE), a Spokane-based state agency that has overseen SIRTI and the Riverpoint Higher Education Park since their inception. Lentz expects the number of employees at SIRTI to grow to about 20, from 13 now, as the institute picks up some JCHE employees that were handling work for SIRTI.

Under the legislation, the Riverpoint campus will be turned over to Washington State University, and SIRTI was given its building and 2.5 acres of land on Riverpoint Boulevard.

The new law says that the state Department of Community, Trade, and Economic Development will provide guidance to the institute regarding expenditure of state-appropriated funds and development of the institutes strategic plan. The legislation says SIRTI will contract with the department for the expenditure of state money for the institutes operations. The law makes CTED responsible to the Legislature for the contractual performance of the institute.

The institute will be governed by a 17-member board that will be appointed by the governor.

It will include nine members from the general public, with a strong emphasis on business leaders in the technology area. Thats a very strong addition, says Anderson.

The Washington Technology Center, a center similar to SIRTI on the west side of the state, also will have a representative on the board.

The other seven members will come from academia, including representatives from the schools that were involved with the JCHE: WSU, Eastern Washington University, Gonzaga University, Whitworth College, and the Community Colleges of Spokane. In addition, the University of Washington and Central Washington University will have representatives on the board. It will be the first time those schools have been formally linked to SIRTI.

Those new educational links should provide SIRTI with more research opportunities and will help showcase its projects to people in other areas of the state, Anderson says. The chambers Kirschner points out that WSU will be SIRTIs senior research partner, which should help give SIRTI added credibility when it looks for money to fund its projects.

Along with the new structure, SIRTI received its first operating revenues from the state$950,000 for fiscal year 1999, which also begins July 1, Anderson says. Other than some state money that was routed through the JCHE for the institute, SIRTI has never received state dollars for operations, he says.

Anderson believes that the state appropriation paves the way for even more money from the state for fiscal year 2000 and beyond. He hopes SIRTI can bring in between $1.5 million and $2 million a year in state funds.A very critical timeState money for SIRTI couldnt have come at a better time, Anderson says. This was a very critical time for the state to embrace SIRTI, he says.

A $15 million U.S. Department of Defense grant to SIRTI, which has been providing the vast majority of SIRTIs funding since it opened in 1994, was slated to end in June 1999, but the DOD grant now has been extended until April 2000.

The chambers Kirschner says that officials in federal agencies and Washington states congressional representatives repeatedly had told Spokane officials that in order for federal support to continue for SIRTI, the state had to demonstrate its support of the institute.

The message was, the state ought to be weighing in, Kirschner says.

Anderson says SIRTI plans to pursue other federal funds aggressively, and continued federal funding is largely dependent on whether SIRTI receives funds from the state.

As for the projects SIRTI funds, its support of some university programs and students, and its areas of focus, Associate Director Lentz says no changes are in the works. Well maintain our ability to commercialize technologies, specifically in the area of emerging technologies, energy and the environment, and digital technologies, he says.

In addition, he says the legislation that made SIRTI into a separate state agency stresses SIRTIs role in helping promote projects within Eastern Washington. In the future, though, the state may look to institutes such as SIRTI and the Washington Technology Center for more research that could benefit the state as a whole, Lentz adds.

SIRTI has funded 27 projects so far, and its in the process of selecting another batch of grant recipients.

Now, with some projects having been under way for more than two years, SIRTI is starting to see some return on its investments, says Anderson. SIRTI gets a cut from products that result from projects it funds.

The first such check, for $750, arrived on Jan. 22 from Corona Catalysis Corp., a Tri-Cities-based company that has developed three devices to collect microscopic airborne particles, and two other SIRTI grant recipients have sent in checks, too, he says.

Anderson says he believes that SIRTIs coming status as a separate state agency could help it become well-respected in technology developmentwhich would be a plus when its grant recipients look to private-sector lenders and others for capital for their products. SIRTI has to be recognized as validation for new technology.

  • Marlene Mehlhaff

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