Tech Hub Hopes: Two Spokane groups compete on national scale for federal funds
Gonzaga consortium looks to bolster aerospace manufacturing; WSU group pitches biotechSeptember 14th, 2023
Two Spokane-area consortia are competing against more than 370 other groups nationwide to land federal funding for regional Tech Hubs.
Ultimately, upward of $75 million could be at stake, and the first round of decisions is expected this fall.
“If we can land one of these for Spokane, that is going to be just such a huge win for this area,” says Craig Parks, associate vice president for health sciences at WSU and principal investigator for one of the consortia.
The two consortia applied separately for funding through the Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs program, a key piece of President Biden’s Investing in America agenda.
A Washington State University Health Sciences Spokane-led consortium has applied to make the Spokane area a Tech Hub for sterile therapeutics manufacturing and research.
“We already have here some companies that are doing sterile therapeutics, for example Jubilant HollisterStier, and so it’s an industry that already has a foothold here,” says Parks.
Sterile therapeutics refers to a wide variety of injectable therapies, with the most prominent example being vaccines, says Parks.
The other consortium, led by Gonzaga University, has applied to make the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area a Tech Hub for advanced composite aerospace manufacturing. As previously reported by the Journal, the former 386,000-square-foot Triumph Composite Systems Inc. building would be turned into the American Aerospace Materials Manufacturing Center, if funding is secured.
“There is no better location for this Tech Hub than right here in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area,” says John Hemmingson, CEO of Lakeside Cos., which owns the former Triumph building. “We are at the center of the Interstate 90 aerospace corridor, and we have so many great resources, including a concentration of existing composites suppliers and leading research universities.”
The two groups are aiming to be among the 20-plus applicants designated as Tech Hubs by the U.S. Economic Development Association in the first phase of the program. Consortia selected in the first phase would receive strategy development grants of about $500,000.
The EDA is expected to announce phase one selections this fall.
The 20-plus applicants selected in the first phase will then be eligible to apply for the second phase of funding, in which five to 10 consortia will be selected to receive strategy implementation grants of about $50 million to $75 million.
If designated as a Tech Hub in the first phase of funding, the WSU-led consortium would use a portion of the $500,000 to recruit new and existing sterile therapeutic companies to the area, says Parks.
“Some of the money in there (would be) to facilitate and encourage startups, budding entrepreneurs, who are working in the sterile therapeutics area,” Parks says. “You’ve got the real estate here. You’ve got a ready supply of workers, and you’ve got all the institutions of higher education in the area.”
Andy Johnston, principal engineer for Spokane-based Johnston Engineering and board member for Evergreen Bioscience Innovation Cluster, says Spokane is already a hub for sterile therapeutics because of companies in the region like Jubilant HollisterStier, Selkirk Pharma, ALK Source Materials, and Silgan Unicep.
“There’s already a tremendous amount of growth,” Johnston says. “They’re already making … millions of doses of therapeutics per year, so we’re already doing it.”
Evergreen Bioscience Innovation Cluster is an organization that was formed in 2022 to make Spokane a magnet for life science research and manufacturing companies. Evergreen Bioscience’s board wanted to pursue the Tech Hub funding and hired a grant writer to develop the application before bringing WSU on as the lead of the consortium, Johnston says.
If the sterile therapeutics application is selected to receive funding in the second phase, the $50 million to $75 million would primarily be used to “make serious progress” on the proposed four-story, 77,000-square-foot Evergreen Bioscience Innovation Building in Spokane’s University District, Johnston says.
“It’s mostly lab and medical device manufacturing space,” Johnston says of the proposed building that could offer leasable space to sterile therapeutics companies.
Johnston notes that the Innovation Building plans will move forward regardless of the outcome of the Tech Hub program, but if the WSU-led application is selected, the plans would be accelerated and the focus would shift from biosciences in general, to sterile therapeutics.
The same could be said of the proposed aerospace manufacturing center. According to Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh, that project will be pursued even if the federal funding doesn’t come through.
The Gonzaga-led consortium is focused on creating an innovative center designed to meet next-generation development and production of advanced aerospace materials and reduce American reliance on foreign-produced composites, according to a press release.
“This represents a dynamic partnership of leaders in industry, research, education, government, and workforce, all collaborating to achieve high-rate production goals for the next-generation of aerospace manufacturing,” says McCulloh.
The proposed manufacturing center would combine applied education research, workforce training, and advanced production with industry experts. The former Triumph building, which is located near the Spokane International Airport, sits on over 50 acres of land, allowing for future growth should this Tech Hub application be selected.
The application’s “framework is designed to expedite the evolution and commercialization of the domestic aerospace supply chain, foster education, attract robust entrepreneurial interest, and drive private sector investments into new companies,” the release says.
The Tech Hubs program was enacted as part of the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which is intended to strengthen American manufacturing, supply chains, and national security by investing in research and development, science and technology, and the workforce.
The sterile therapeutics Tech Hub would help address challenges and failures that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic, Parks says.
“During the pandemic, getting a vaccine made, getting it shipped, getting it distributed, those were major challenges,” Parks says.
Johnston says there were disruptive supply chain issues during the pandemic for not just vaccines, but other key sterile therapeutics needed to keep people alive.
“We saw a huge problem with supply chain issues during COVID, and a lot of them were because we were competing internationally for those same supplies,” Johnston says. “If we have another pandemic like this, we should be a lot more prepared for it.”
A sterile therapeutics Tech Hub would also help with military preparedness, in the event of a chemical or biological attack, Johnston says. He says the military aspect led to Fairchild Air Force Base joining the consortium.
The aerospace composite Tech Hub would reduce America’s reliance on foreign companies making parts for advanced composite aerospace parts that are said to make aircrafts lighter and more fuel efficient. Lusardi says the advanced composite industry is more prominent in Europe than the U.S. currently.
According to a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology article, “composite materials are lighter-weight, less corrosive, and less susceptible to fatigue failure than the more traditionally-used aluminum.” They also have positive environmental impacts because of their longevity and fuel savings.
While the two consortia are technically competing for the same funding, both Parks and Johnston say they are unsure of whether having two applications from the same region helps or hurts the chances of being selected.
“There’s no reason in the world that Spokane could not have both a sterile manufacturing hub and an aerospace manufacturing hub,” Parks says. “I’ve got to believe that EDA will look and they’ll see two very impressive groups of collaborators telling the same story about why Spokane is such a good place to incubate and develop new areas of industry.”
Parks says that although he hopes both are selected, he would be happy to see at least one of them designated as a Tech Hub.
“From the standpoint of the region, getting one of these would be tremendous,” Parks says. “If the Gonzaga proposal were selected and ours was not, we’ll applaud Gonzaga.”
Penny Thomas, media relations manager for the Washington state Department of Commerce, says that Commerce is aware of four other consortia in the state, but notes that there may be additional applicants.
The Gonzaga-led consortium consists of about 50 members, including The Boeing Co., Avista Corp.; Spokane International Airport; the cities of Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, and Post Falls; Eastern Washington University; Community Colleges of Spokane; Washington state Department of Commerce; Lakewood Cos.; and several Inland Northwest chambers of commerce.
The WSU-led consortium has over 20 members, including Fairchild Air Force Base, the city of Spokane, EWU, Evergreen Bioscience Innovation Cluster, Spokane Regional Health District, Greater Spokane Incorporated, Spokane Workforce Council, Jubilant HollisterStier, Northwest I-90 Manufacturing Alliance, and Spokane University District.