by Don Lightfoot

Regarding "An Un-SIRTI future" by Robert Herold (3/1/01): Here is the positive side of the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute (SIRTI) story from the biotechnology angle, a perspective I am familiar with.

Beginning in 1987, Spokane's Economic Development Council (EDC) sponsored 12 biotechnology leaders to study possible biotech business development in Spokane. These volunteer professionals met biweekly until 1994, and we reported on our region's top three biotech development areas, on funding and on exactly how a combined business and technical incubator would work for Spokane's biotechnology future. This EDC group also facilitated the placement of about 1,400 square feet of outfitted biotechnology and chemistry labs in the approximately 20,000-square-foot SIRTI facility.

The SIRTI team, funding and building have been used continuously since 1994 to review, fund, house and help develop biotechnology companies. Some have succeeded -- but none of these undertakings were academic tasks. To succeed, they should not be, in contrast to Herold's erroneous thesis. In fact, of the four floors of the SIRTI building, only half of one floor has traditional classrooms.

SIRTI has also been particularly valuable to Spokane's emerging biotechnology community because of the unusual business development model it created. Incoming entrepreneurs must show business, financial and market acumen as well as technical and intellectual property talents in order to win development grants. Most of our biotechnology entrepreneurs lack expertise in one or more areas. SIRTI nurtures, trains and pushes them to fill in the gaps.

In contrast to Herold's opinion, the view of those who have worked at or benefited from SIRTI is pride in this Spokane resource. Let's get off the soapbox of being overly critical of a community resource created by Momentum, community leaders, universities and colleges and our state. Let's get on with the professional challenge of making SIRTI work better for us. It is very short sighted to take our community's very best accomplishment for spurring technical, economic development and consider it only a piece of real estate.

SIRTI has been critical to the development of GenPrime, a successful biotechnology company which I helped found five years ago. SIRTI found our first, best market and provided some of the development funding necessary. SIRTI also taught us how to plan and present finances, which recently paid off when we secured the first professional venture investment from a Spokane firm in a Spokane biotechnology company. SIRTI's Bio-Development Laboratory was used by GenPrime for two years to develop its first product. GenPrime then grew too big and moved to its own facilities, with eight -- soon to be 14 -- employees.

The SIRTI lab is now incubating Biomedex, a pharmaceutical manufacturing company that within one year has grown to a staff of 24 and expects to grow to more than 200 employees.

From its inception, SIRTI's Bio-Development laboratory has been busy. Other organizations benefiting from use of SIRTI's lab and business development help have been BioStar (a petroleum company), Hollister-Stier (then Bayer Pharmaceutical), Advanced Reproduction Technology, Phoenix Water Systems, Test-21, Inc., EWU and WSU-Spokane.

In SIRTI's larger manufacturing prototype labs, companies have been funded, launched, nurtured and then moved out. SIRTI's larger startups include Avista Laboratories (growing from four to more than 75 people), Translation Technology, Inc., Zess Technology, Inc., Terabyte Triangle and others. These represent new companies, many coming with high-paying jobs, new business sectors and intellectual properties -- all assets for Spokane. These successes would not have happened if Momentum had not had the vision, if our leaders had succumbed to the critics, and if the SIRTI community had not solved many problems along the way. This has not been an academic enterprise.

From the inception of SIRTI, I have been proud to work with an active, capable and successful group of volunteers who have helped develop a biotechnology industry for the Spokane region. As an associate professor at EWU and consultant to the Washington Technology Center for many years, I can attest that SIRTI is a unique community-business partnership. It is tiring to have individuals on the periphery attempt to knock the wind out of the sails of hardworking volunteers and SIRTI.

For the future, I suggest that Herold rely on the decisions of those professionals who have created a community solution like SIRTI. Or, he might join those professionals in future efforts needed to build entrepreneurial growth and success. Like all incubators, SIRTI's ability to be effective with startups will benefit from improvement, of course. And most beneficiaries of SIRTI's support have struggled with both SIRTI's and their own shortcomings in building a path to success. But positive, open-minded hard work does pay off at SIRTI. Let's all support SIRTI as the viable state development organization that it is.

Don Lightfoot is cofounder of GenPrime and a professor at Eastern Washington University.

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