Spokane Journal of Business

Tom Simpson to lead Ignite Northwest

Longtime angel investor takes helm of technology business accelerator

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-LeAnn Bjerken
Tom Simpson assumed the role of president and CEO of Ignite Northwest on July 15.

Spokane entrepreneur, startup mentor, and angel investor Tom Simpson has taken on a new role as president and CEO of Ignite Northwest, a nonprofit life sciences and technology business accelerator that works to help young technology companies overcome early startup challenges.

Simpson started his new role at Ignite July 15, but he says he also plans to continue in his current roles leading the Spokane Angel Alliance, investing in early-stage businesses, and serving on the boards of emerging companies. 

“I have a real passion for entrepreneurs and the Spokane region, and I believe it’s a very attractive place for new companies, so I was intrigued with the idea of helping create a more cohesive and consolidated place where those individuals could come for help and guidance,” Simpson says.

Richard Denneny, an Ignite Northwest board chairman and president of Lee & Hayes PC law firm, says Ignite Northwest chose Simpson to serve as CEO due to his background in helping startups obtain funding and his connection to the entrepreneurial community.

“Tom has really been a flagbearer for early-stage companies here, helping them to gain access to capital and understand the landscape,” he says. “He has a lot of positive energy and connects so many people that I can’t imagine a better person to lead Ignite into our next evolution.”

Jeff White, chief financial officer for Ignite Northwest, says Simpson is expected to be instrumental in helping Ignite Northwest consolidate its resources both in Spokane and the Pacific Northwest region. He describes Simpson has being a “pivotal member” of the startup community and a logical choice to lead the organization.

“This is an exciting time for us, with some great new energy coming into Spokane and this region,” White says. 

In connection with Simpson’s hiring, Ignite Northwest also reorganized its board, which now consists of Denenny; Skye Henderson, corporate controller with Cowles Co.; Tyler Lafferty, co-founder of internet marketing service Seven2; Wayne Williams, former Telect Inc. CEO; and board observer Mark Gustafson, of Avista Corp. 

Denenny says, “I joined Ignite’s board last fall, at a time when we had begun to take a fresh look at the entrepreneurial ecosystem here in Spokane. Part of that included restructuring the board with new members who would help unify and extend our organization’s efforts in the community.”

Ignite Northwest was born out of the former Innovate Washington, which evolved from the former Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute, later just known as SIRTI. Innovate Washington was led by former Avista Labs executive Kim Zentz. When Innovate Washington was defunded by the Washington state Department of Commerce, the organization transitioned to a nonprofit organization and rebranded as Ignite Northwest, and Bill Savitz, former CEO of Garco Building Systems, took on the role of CEO. Jeff White took over the top role last fall, before passing the torch to Simpson this month. 

Simpson says Ignite Northwest’s current function is to provide entrepreneurs and emerging companies with access to capital, mentorship, educational programs and networking events, introductions to key service providers, assistance with recruiting, and co-working space. As CEO, he says he wants to both continue those services and enhance them. 

“I’d also like to create a website that facilitates recruiting, as hiring talent is often a challenge for new companies,” he says. “It’d also be nice to develop a blog or newsletter that regularly provides stories and information on what’s going on with tech and emerging companies in our region.”

Simpson says he wants to do more outbound marketing with recruiting materials that highlight successful Spokane-area startups, such as  Stay Alfred Inc., 2nd Watch Inc., and etailz Inc.

Simpson’s experience includes co-founding, growing, and selling online retailer etailz Inc., leading the Spokane Angel Alliance, starting and managing four angel investment funds, and serving on the boards of several emerging businesses.

In an October 2018 story, Jeff White told the Journal that Ignite’s annual budget for 2019 would likely be about $600,000. He maintains that estimate was correct but adds that figure could change with the organization’s recent restructuring and its plans to consolidate its programs further. 

Simpson says part of his role will be to ensure the organization is deploying its resources in a more optimal fashion.

“The good thing about this kind of work is that it’s easy to measure success, in things like how many companies are started, how many achieve funding, how many companies move to the region, and how many jobs are created,” he says. “Those are the kind of things I’ll be looking for and using to determine our success in the next three to five years, and I believe we will start to see success in those areas.”

The organization is currently leasing three office spaces totaling about 1,000 square feet at 518 W. Riverside, above an Indaba Coffee LLC shop in downtown Spokane, and he hopes to develop a similar, but larger co-working space elsewhere eventually. Ignite Northwest’s offices previously had been located in leased space at 714 N. Iron Bridge Way, in the Iron Bridge Office Campus. The organization also owns a building at 120 N. Pine, which it currently leases to Washington State University for use as an innovation center.  

“The 518 building has become a hub for entrepreneurs, startups and investors, which makes it a logical place to start,” he says. “But long term, we do aspire to secure our own space that would offer some of the same qualities, with administrative offices but also co-working, acceleration, event space, and food/beverage services.”

Going forward, Simpson says Ignite Northwest will be adding additional board members, as well as some new employees.

“Jeff White and I are currently Ignite’s only employees, but we’re currently seeking candidates for two new positions – director of events and marketing, and director of communications,” he says.

Although many of the companies seeking guidance from Ignite Northwest might also be ventures Simpson himself would normally be interested in investing in, he says he doesn’t see his new role as a conflict of interest.

Simpson says his other activities within the entrepreneurial community complement his new position and provide Ignite with more resources to offer start-ups and entrepreneurs. 

“Companies working with Ignite will need a wide variety of resources, and not all of them will be seeking angel capital investments,” he says. “There are many other ways outside of angel investing by which I could assist companies.”

Simpson says Ignite Northwest’s primary offerings consist of an accelerator curriculum and a revolving loan fund. He says the organization also meets regularly with budding entrepreneurs to provide casual guidance and leadership.

“The mission of Ignite has been to provide a portfolio or suite of services and resources to entrepreneurs,” he says. “They also have a revolving loan fund of a few million dollars, which is used to loan capital to emerging businesses, which so far has been very successful.” 

In addition to Ignite Northwest, Simpson says Spokane hosts many other organizations that are designed to help entrepreneurs and startups.

“We’ve got Startup Spokane, the Mind 2 Market fund, the Spokane Angel Alliance, Startup Weekend, as well as initiatives at various universities,” he says. “Ignite’s current objective is to make sure all of those organizations are able to communicate with one another and work together collectively.”

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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