High-tech research lab may be in Vancouver’s future

Possible Clark County partners look to successful in-state examples

Business start-ups that rely on expensive, high-powered equipment to manufacture their products, such as semiconductors, might find it hard to get started in a garage, which is why some say Clark County’s lack of resources to help technology companies grow makes it challenging to attract high-tech employers.

According to Washington Technology Center’s 2005 Index of Innovation and Technology, Vancouver scored high in patent generation, company creation and research funding compared with other regions in the state. However, Seattle-based WTC, a high-tech economic development agency, indicated the area lacked in resources to support early-stage companies and human capital. Vancouver falls to the bottom in terms of high school graduation and baccalaureate attainment rates.

The presence of Washington State Vancouver and its move to a four-year institution next year may help things. But those involved in economic development and the technology sector would like to see more.

The idea of establishing a research and technology park in Vancouver has been floated around for several months.

"We need a location for technology firms to incubate and to grow and that is a combination of flexible research space and some proximity and intellectual connection to WSU Vancouver," said Columbia River Economic Development Council Executive Director Bart Phillips. "It allows companies to have access to research and space that may be cost effective and flexible."

Aside from an intellectual contribution, WSU Vancouver may be relied upon to provide land and infrastructure investment. But investment from the private sector is likely needed, said Phillips.

"Considering the constraints we have in Washington, the private sector is going to have to be actively involved as an investor," he said.

The CREDC is talking with organizations such as WTC, WSU Vancouver, and the Clark County High Tech Council, which includes executive-level representatives from local high-tech companies, to better understand how to move from concept to creation.

"That is work that needs to be done over the next year to identify the partners," he said.

The CREDC has looked at various models that have worked elsewhere, including labs already established by Washington State University in Pullman and the WTC in Seattle.

The Pullman Model

The WSU Research and Technology Park in Pullman was first created in 1985 with the completion of its first facility. The 50,000-square-foot building was funded by the university, and the second 25,000-square-foot facility was completed in 1999 and was funded by a loan, economic development grant and proceeds from the existing building. The park is now self sustaining and is owned by the WSU Research Foundation. Thirteen companies with about 140 employees occupy the park, which has 5,000 square feet dedicated to small, start-up companies as an incubator space.

The hope is for tenants to outgrow the park and relocate to their own facilities, but there is no "graduation" requirement.

"In the business incubator, we like to grow them and move them out, make them successful," said Pullman Research and Technology Park Manager Mary Edwards.

The Research and Technology Park looks to develop high-tech businesses, some of which are businesses that come out of the university or are created as they arrive.

"It’s a place to start a business and a place where new jobs are created in space that is rented easily, quickly and on pretty good terms," said Research Foundation Executive Director Keith Jones.

Pullman-based Amplicon Express experienced significant growth after locating in the WSU Research and Technology Park. Company President Robert Bogden moved his two-year-old start-up molecular biology service company to the park from France in 1998. The company initially occupied 1,500 square feet, which gradually grew to 6,500 square feet in 2003. With nearly 40 employees, Amplicon Express now owns its own 7,000 square-foot building in Pullman, as well as 42,000 square feet of land for future expansion.

Amplicon has grown without the help of venture capital funding, something Bogden said would not have been possible outside the Research and Technology Park.

Aside from reasonable lease rates, Bogden said the park provided free fiber-optic internet and help with financing tenant improvements. And collaboration with the university gave the company access to new technologies from WSU researchers, one of which Amplicon licensed. It also assisted in networking with researchers and administrators at WSU and provided access to WSU surplus equipment and furniture, saving the company thousands of dollars.

Bogden said the Research and Technology Park perfectly fit Amplicon’s needs, but he would like to see a partnership between the park and local governments.

"I think there could be special advantages passed along that would really strengthen the benefits provided by (the WSU Research and Technology Park) to up-and-coming businesses," he said.

Research and technology parks such as WSU’s coupled with tax incentives offered by local jurisdictions could serve as a high-tech economic engine.

"Clean, high-tech businesses bring in money from out of the area, provide high paying jobs with great benefits and enhance the community as a whole," said Bogden. "The key is to protect these businesses while they are young and vulnerable to failure and to attract related businesses to the area."

County plays a role

Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart said the county has identified a research park on the WSU Vancouver campus as a focused public investment area and that the county can do a few things to help out. The county has already been involved in coordinating the possible partners by organizing meetings with the university, high-tech council, CREDC, county staff and private business.

More importantly, said Stuart, the county can work with the project’s partners through the zoning and permitting process.

"In those areas of job creation that we can focus our infrastructure development, we can lay the foundation for job creation," he said.

Developments bringing significant job creation can work through permitting in one to two months as opposed to one to two years, said Stewart, minimizing costs and losses.

And infrastructure enhancements at the Salmon Creek campus could be especially important if the current moratorium remains in place.

Clean industries supplying high-paying jobs are especially attractive, say both Stewart and Phillips.

"Typically those are the businesses that become your fast growing firms that grow in terms of revenue, profits and high-paying jobs, Phillips said. "To continue to build the high tech industry is something we need to do in Vancouver."

Research Park Models
The CREDC has looked at various models that have worked elsewhere, including labs already established by Washington State University in Pullman and the WTC in Seattle.

Washington Technology Center’s Microfabrication Laboratory, Seattle
The 15,000- square-foot microfabrication laboratory on the University of Washington campus in Seattle was launched in 1995 with a $6.5 million private-public investment that included $1 million in state funding. The lab is now self sustaining and serves more than 75 clients each month, generating over $850,000 in revenue annually. Millions of dollars in facilities and equipment are available to companies and researchers for hourly or monthly fees. The lab is a critical research and development facility for primary-stage product development and product manufacturing.

Washington State University Research and Technology Park, Pullman
The two-building, 75,000-square-foot Research and Technology Park was initially funded by Washington State University. Later phases were financed through loans grants and proceeds from the park. The park is now self-sustaining and currently houses 13 companies. Five-thousand square feet is used exclusively by small, start-up companies.

North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus, Raleigh, N.C.
The 1,334-acre Centennial Campus at North Carolina State University is a mix of university, corporate and government research and development facilities and business incubators, which includes a town center, housing and recreational amenities. As much as $620 million has been invested in facilities and infrastructure, including 2.7 million square feet of space in 25 major buildings.