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The Myth of SIRTI 

If Olympia votes to eliminate Innovate Washington, perhaps WSU can flourish even more in downtown Spokane

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The vote by the Washington state House of Representatives to cut funding for Innovate Washington signals that reality may finally be catching up to mythology. The reality is that stand-alone business incubators, or any facsimile, like Innovate Washington, almost never produce what they promise. The mythology is the belief that they can.

Frankly, the idea, as reported in the Spokesman-Review, that Innovate Washington viewed the state Department of Commerce as its last best hope wasn't so much a plan as a white flag. Those Momentum business leaders who, in an expression of hope against hope, rallied around the business incubator model of economic development back in 1987 and created SIRTI understood at least one thing: They had to associate their incubator with the state higher education budget and not depend on the Department of Commerce. First, the higher education budget was always bigger. And second, the Department of Commerce, even then, had serious reservations.

That's how we got SIRTI — the "Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute." Now the reality was that SIRTI was never "Spokane," nor was it "Intercollegiate," nor was it even much in the way of "Research and Technology." It was always about a sales pitch. I recall one meeting when a former EWU president announced the latest "innovative" idea: It "promised" to create a new "high-tech" (it always had to be "high-tech") company that in, say, five years would generate (pick a number) in revenue and (pick a number) new jobs. No evidence, just numbers, seemingly pulled out of a hat.

Keep in mind that SIRTI, for the first five to seven years of its existence, couldn't even count on money from higher education. Why? Because both WSU and Eastern knew what the Department of Commerce knew: SIRTI was, at best, an expensive placebo.

To keep the dream alive, the call went out to Tom Foley, the only large political gorilla that Spokane has ever had, and — presto! — he came through. SIRTI would live on, thanks to federal DARPA money. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. I remember pondering this obscure agency at one high level SIRTI meeting, as I sat listening to a guy from California singing the praises of his DARPA-funded "research and technology" project: plastic runners for pallets.

It was about this time in the presentation that the late Terry Novak, at the time the major-domo on the "intercollegiate" campus, got up to leave the meeting. As he passed me by, he muttered: "I can't take this BS any longer."

That would seem to be what the Washington state House, in more polite terms, is saying today about our current incarnation of SIRTI, Innovate Washington.

There was a chance to set things on a realistic path back in 1997, when the late Wendell Satre, then chairman of what is now Avista, sat at a table inside the Spokane Club and, together with Jim West and five or so other local notables (the same bunch who had given us SIRTI a decade earlier), hatched the idea that, they thought, promised to accomplish what Satre had long urged be done: bring a research university to Spokane. The way to do it? Have WSU take over EWU, and give WSU ownership of the nascent campus at Riverpoint.

It turned out that what became known as the "Jim West merger proposal" met with much, much more opposition from EWU supporters than was ever expected, and in the end there would be no merger. However, WSU would be given "ownership" of the campus anyway. Eastern was required to rejustify its Spokane programs (which it easily did), and the much-despised "Joint Center Board" (formed to mediate EWU and WSU conflicts) was abolished.

But instead of being deeded over to WSU with the rest of the campus, SIRTI was left alone on an island. It was an opportunity lost, and we have wasted all this time since — 15 years — watching reality chase the mythology.

Had SIRTI gone to WSU back in 1999, Spokane could be benefiting from an even greater WSU presence today, extending beyond medical training, certainly into the broader "high-tech" world. How? Because WSU has the graduate programs necessary to drive research — programs that could have been integrated into similar programs at Eastern.

Satre was right all along: Research universities are the key to economic development. They bring in the grants and the crucial graduate research students; most important, they can become a major community presence and provide a window onto the larger world.

So yes, Sen. Michael Baumgartner is correct when he says that this long-overdue move will "increase academic vibrancy in the community." I would add, however, a caveat: "Increased vibrancy" will depend on WSU seizing on the opportunity to move a greater array of graduate programs to Spokane — and not just in health sciences. And that's something Pullman has never been all that enthusiastic about doing. ♦

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