Weekly B-MOW: Seattle Chamber Intercity Study Mission

Every year, the Seattle Chamber does an “intercity study mission,” bringing regional business, government and community leaders to a peer city for a three day exploration of similarities, differences and, most importantly, the best practices that we can take back and copy in our own region. This past week, a group of us traveled for this year’s trip to San Jose for an Intercity Study Mission to Silicon Valley.

The reason to do a study mission to Silicon Valley is obvious: as much as we fancy ourselves as a leading region for innovation, we pale in comparison to the sheer breadth and depth and magnitude of what has come out of that region – HP, Google, Adobe, Apple, Yahoo…the list goes on and on. So, what are those things that we can take from them?

Here are my top three takeaways:

1) The Interesting Role of Corporate Philanthropy: As it turns out, Microsoft has a decent sized presence in the Valley…approximately 2,500 employees. It’s because they want to take advantage of the huge talent pool down there, and the dynamic mix of technologists, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. But no one knows that they’re there. I mean, literally, if you ask the average Silicon Valley person, they don’t know about Microsoft’s presence there. And who can blame them, with so many other huge companies in the same space. I mean, Zynga has almost as many employees in the Bay Area as Microsoft, and only FarmVille addicts know who they are.

So, we were at lunch on the first day at Microsoft listening to a welcome address from the Mayor of Palo Alto, who also happens to work at Microsoft as their VP of Community Engagement. And he mentioned that Microsoft is the third largest corporate philanthropy in the Valley, which I found fascinating. Essentially, the company is using philanthropy to raise their brand profile and attract local talent. It’s not the usual reason you think of when you think about why companies donate. But it’s an important one. It’s not the only example of Microsoft using philanthropy as a tool to attract and retain employees, either. The point being that we’re actually very lucky in our region to have such generous corporate philanthropies – in fact, we have many more companies giving in our region than Silicon Valley does – but it’s also something our companies do that gives our region a strategic competitive advantage. So we should both celebrate the ones in our region that give, and help the ones that don’t understand how it can be used as an effective business tool.

2) Bond Measures for Cluster Development: As part of our tour of Stanford University, we visited the Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell Research Building, a state of the art facility that is helping to make California the leader in stem cell research and the life sciences discoveries that come of out that. How, do you suppose, this building is funded? Why, through a voter-approved bond measure, of course. Wha!?!?

That’s right. The Lokey Building is a California Institute for Regenerative Medicine facility. If you remember a few years back, the Bush Administration put restrictions on federal dollars being used for stem cell research, because of religious conservatives’ concerns about the morality of such work. And in that vacuum, California saw an opportunity. If they could raise their own money and do stem cell research anyway, they’d step in as the national – if not international – leader in this field, luring life sciences researchers and companies to the state. Plus they sweetened the pot for local voters, promising that “[t]herapies funded by CIRM will be available in California at discounted pricing.” And, by the way, CIRM not only funds facilities and the work inside them, but also the early stage clinical trials so that California can control the commercialization process more closely and maximize their ROI when they finally contract with Big Pharma on their discoveries.

There are other examples of state funding of economic development through bonds, like Ohio’s Third Frontier, but I love how targeted CIRM is to take advantage of a specific market opportunity created by a federal policy restriction. So, it begs the question: would Washington voters consider such a measure and, if so, what would it be? Certainly, when you think about what federal policy has not invested in, clean tech comes to mind immediately…no carbon pricing, no cap and trade, no comprehensive investment policy. If we passed a major bond measure to fund clean tech R&D and commercialization, would we put ourselves way ahead of the rest of the world? What about something we already have a strong advantage in, like global health vaccines or composite materials? You’d have to run a pretty nuanced campaign and convince voters that there’s a high probability of a near-term ROI, but I think it’s definitely worth considering.

3) If You Build It, They Will…Collaborate: Speaking of Stanford and buildings, that’s most of what we heard about from our tour guides. Which was weird. I don’t care about how energy efficient Standford’s facilities are as much as I care about what happens inside them, i.e.-groundbreaking interdisciplinary research. And I use that word “interdisciplinary” very purposefully. We kept hearing from everyone there that they believed the most important and interesting research was being done at the intersection of disciplines: biology meets engineering to form bioengineering, as an example. Certainly this is the case for a wide variety of clean tech research. So, why am I hearing about the design of this lab and that classroom?

Oh, I get it! They believe that you have to literally and physically put people together to get them to work together. And that actually sounds right to me. The theory of clusters is that there’s an economic advantage to geographic proximity, and there’s also new research that shows how urban density equates to increased productivity. So, building design as interdisciplinary research enabler is just a microcosm of those ideas into practice. It’s easier to walk down the hall and talk to someone doing work in a different but potentially related field, and apparently scientist are very lazy people really benefit from that opportunity. It’s certainly something that we should think about, not only for our research universities, but also our corporations as well.

So, there you have it. Lots of other takeaways, like San Jose’s approach to building permitting, charter schools and quality of life, but the above are the big three for me. Thanks to the Chamber for a great trip, and looking forward to working with everyone to turn these takeaways into practice.

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