Bringing Skagit Ideas and Inventions to Life: An Interview with the NW Innovation Resource Center

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

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Skagit County has long been fertile ground for innovators, inventors, and entrepreneurs.  Homegrown companies such as Janicki Industries, Rothenbuhler Engineering, Eddyline, and Skagit Valley Malting—just to name a few—are today internationally-renowned in their fields.    Fostering and supporting new entrepreneurs that will create Skagit County’s future business success stories, and ensuring that they can maintain and grow these businesses here, is an important priority for EDASC in its economic development strategy. 

To accomplish this, Skagit County, the Port of Skagit, and EDASC partner with the NW Innovation Resource Center (NWIRC), which assists entrepreneurs and inventors from throughout Skagit County create the strategies they need to evaluate their ideas and obtain the resources they need to bring the ideas to life.  NWIRC works with EDASC to identify resources in the business community that will aid the entrepreneur along the path from idea to reality.  Their Enterprise Program assists the entrepreneur from innovative idea to startup business.  The Build It Program helps inventors develop their product and get it to the market.  Support is provided at no cost, but upon success, entrepreneurs may make a pay-it-forward donation.  

Ahead of Global Entrepreneurship Week (November 12-18, 2018), EDASC caught up with Diane Kamionka, Interim Executive Director of NWIRC, and Lara Merriam-Smith, NWIRC Program Manager, to discuss NWIRC’s activities to support Skagit County businesses and entrepreneurs in bringing their business ideas to commercialization.     

What are the mission and goals of NWIRC?

To see entrepreneurial activity as a driver of economic development in the 5 counties of NW Washington

How did NWIRC get started?

Several entrepreneurs and business leaders in the region were concerned that entrepreneurs were going to other areas to get support for their innovations.   We believed that the level of innovation in our region merited support to grow as a stronger impact on the economy and communities.

Where does NWIRC fit in to the regional ecosystem of business offerings and economic development?

Our focus is to work with innovative new startup businesses, those where a traditional business model doesn't meet the needs of the organization to get established, grow and scale effectively.  

What makes NWIRC distinct from other organizations in Skagit County and Washington State working to foster and promote entrepreneurship?

The unique structure of our programs are designed to foster innovation in the entrepreneurs and startups we work with, in part by providing them with subject matter expertise support (our Just-In-Time Mentorship) and one-on-one coaching.  

Who are NWIRC’s ideal customers and stakeholders?

Any startup or business with an innovative and scalable idea, as well as inventors with products they are seeking to license and existing small businesses that are looking to bring new products to market that require innovative problem solving to get there.  

What kind of network is NWIRC building?

Entrepreneurs typically have a very deep knowledge of the subject of their product or service.   They often do not have expertise in all aspects required to commercialize their innovation – engineering, marketing, financial, legal.  The network we are building provides means to supplement these areas as needed for the specific individual.   We place special emphasis on helping the entrepreneur determine that the product or service is viable, feasible and desirable before they move forward.

In the five counties NWIRC serves, what needle does the organization seek to move in terms of the perceived evolution in capability through innovation and entrepreneurship in these communities?

That startups and businesses do not feel like they have to move out of the region to find the support networks they need.  

What is the right kind of growth, and what needs to happen in this ecosystem to stimulate this?

Innovation that complements the existing business environment is most positive.   The support of existing businesses and business experts to encourage and advise those innovators is the most important element.

How does NWIRC view the entrepreneurial environment in Skagit County?  Where is the greatest potential, and what is needed to advance this?

Skagit County has a solid basis for support of entrepreneurs.   There is genuine caring for the County’s health and growth.  There is a wealth of entrepreneurial potential, but two areas of entrepreneurial opportunities that we have seen are food & agriculture and environmental innovations.   The use of new technologies in both of these areas provides ways to pursue innovation.  The areas are also very complementary to each other with the requirement that innovation in one cannot be at the negative impact of the other.

How is NWIRC working with Skagit County entrepreneurs and communities?  Are there particular success stories in Skagit County that NWIRC would like to highlight? 

Entrepreneurs in Skagit County are focused on a variety of innovations and passionate about the potential of their innovation to generate positive impact.   NWIRC works with each in a way that fits their situation.   Most are not able to focus exclusively on their innovation, so we work at their pace.  Businesses and knowledgeable individuals have been open to providing support and advice to the entrepreneurs.   As entrepreneurs are ready to share their story, we will be adding them to our website at www.nwirc.com.

NWIRC recently opened the NW Innovation Lab to foster and support entrepreneurs and innovators, starting with a facility in Everett and with future plans for a facility in Skagit County at the SWIFT Center.  What opportunities does The Lab offer Skagit County entrepreneurs?  What outcomes does NWIRC hope to realize through The Lab?

TheLab@everett is open to any entrepreneur or innovator looking to start, build or grow their business.  In addition to the physical space to do co-working or a private incubator space, there is a design thinking workshop that allows new and existing businesses to do projects using design thinking principles.  The educational programs are also available to lab members to gain access to lectures and events needed to help build their entrepreneurial skill set.  We are working with the Port of Skagit and the County to establish the focus for TheLab@swiftcenter that will have the best impact for the County.   To keep up with the status of that, we will have information to be found at www.nwinnovationlab.com.   

NWIRC has been working to develop a regional investment fund.  What is the current status of that? 

During the time we were focused on establishing TheLab@everett, we suspended that activity.   We will be focused on it again in the near future as TheLab is opened.

How can Skagit County communities and organization best collaborate with NWIRC to achieve meaningful capacity building and meaningful growth?

NWIRC is always interested in finding subject matter experts and community partners to provide mentorship for entrepreneurs as well as support for our educational programs and helping us spread the word about the NWIRC and its resources.

Category: Innovation, entrepreneurship, Small Business, Economic Development