Spokane, We Have Liftoff...

by Pia K. Hansen

When the first LaunchPad event was held at the Holley Mason Building back in February 2001, Spokane got quite a wake-up call. Not only was the place decked out with red carpet runners and lights illuminating the fa & ccedil;ade of the newly renovated building, but more than 700 people were milling around inside, checking out displays and exhibits from some of the region's high-tech businesses.

"Whoa! I didn't know we had a company like that here in Spokane," was the phrase heard most often that night.

When LaunchPad 6.0, aka The Ultimate Technology Party, takes off next Thursday, May 20, at the Big Easy, it will focus not just on cutting-edge technology but also on economic development through community building. Make that business-community building.

"Traditionally, LaunchPad serves as a platform for our region's most exciting and innovative technology, entrepreneurial and program announcements," says Lewis Rumpler, CEO of INTEC, a cosponsor of the event. "This year's LaunchPad promises to be a banner year for our region's entrepreneurs with the official launch of the Connect Northwest Program." INTEC was founded by community partners in 2001 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and facilitating collaboration between education, government and business -- and by creating more jobs.

Connect Northwest is modeled after a similar program in San Diego which was established by the help of University of California, San Diego. Incubated at INTEC, Connect Northwest may be just what the doctor ordered for the area's economy.

"The program did wonders for the San Diego area where they had much the same problems as we do here," says Bill Kalivas, one of three founders of LaunchPad and current vice president of business development at INTEC. "We found out about the Connect program two and a half years ago, and we went to our board and said, 'We don't need more training, we need more jobs.' We've now signed a one-year consulting contract with UCSD."

Connect Northwest aims to hook business professionals up with entrepreneurs who need a little more help to get their projects off the ground. An advisory group of lawyers, investors and other business people evaluate upstart business plans for free, and help the new companies grow.

"This part of the Connect program is called Springboard, and we have already helped five or six companies through that process," says Kalivas. "Companies like A Perfect Web, which was acquired within two months of starting to work with us."

How is this different from so many other business incubators?

"What you have is economic development through the private sector," says Kalivas, "and that is what tends to create commerce."

Another project that will be shown on Thursday is the so-called Wi-Fi project for downtown Spokane. Last year at Hoopfest, scores were posted and coordinated via wireless computers, and since that worked out so well, the idea to turn downtown into a wireless hotspot was born.

"It's the city of Spokane and the Downtown Spokane Partnership that is engaged in putting together the Wi-Fi project," says Kalivas. "At LaunchPad, what we have is a teaser, complete with a mock-up of a coffee shop with wireless computers on the tables and someone making coffee and everything, so people can see what it would be like." Wireless companies like Oneeighty Networks and Vivato -- just to mention two -- sponsor this event.

LaunchPad 6.0 is also the place where the Most Innovative Product of the Year Award is given out.

"I can't tell you what that is or who's getting it, but there's a special surprise with it," says Kalivas. "Our keynote speaker is Tom Turner, CEO of Itronix. They are up to 400 employees out there and they have just landed some major orders -- we are looking forward to hearing Tom speak."

Finally, of course, there are fun and games, food and drink, and lots of products and displays to look at.

"That's really all the fun that makes for LaunchPad," says Kalivas. "That's why people come."

LaunchPad 6.0 is at the Big Easy Concert House on Thursday, May 20, from 5-9 pm. Free. Call 444-6832.

Publication date: 05/13/04