Tracing the Ancestry of Puget Sound’s Technology Cluster

When people try to get a sense of the vibrancy in a regional high-tech cluster, they usually look up reams of data on technology licenses, patents, jobs, and number of startups. This morning, I got to look at a fresh (and important) perspective that traces out where the founding people cut their teeth and got inspired to start a company, and shows what they went on to create.

The end result of this project, commissioned by the Washington Technology Industry Association, is a poster you can look at here called the “Puget Sound Tech Universe.” It depicts 711 companies and institutions in the region, based on a yearlong research project conducted by Heike Mayer, a professor at Virginia Tech University. This morning, she discussed the findings at a breakfast meeting of the WTIA, along with a quartet of regional tech leaders: Tom Alberg of Madrona Venture Group, Bill McAleer of Voyager Capital, Jeremy Jaech of Verdiem, and Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates chair of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington.

One of the key findings is that Seattle’s technology cluster has been built over the past three decades by six key organizations. They are Microsoft, the University of Washington, Boeing,, McCaw Cellular Communications, and Aldus. They are represented visually on the map as “suns,” with a solar system of “planets” that revolve around them, namely companies that were founded by people who got experience at a bigger “sun” company before trying their hand at something new. The map is also chock-full of “comets,” or startups, that fall outside the orbit of the six big players, as well as signs for key connection-maven organizations, like WTIA or venture capital firms.

“I was amazed at the sheer number of companies that spun out of these big six companies,” says Ken Myer, president and CEO of the WTIA. “A handful of institutions have really made an enormous impact on the growth of our region.”

Gathering all of this data was no small task, because nothing quite like it had been done before, according to Mayer, the Virginia Tech professor. Mayer and her collaborators conducted an online survey to add some explanations to how these companies got going, and they received more than 280 replies she says. The project also relied on source data from the Puget Sound Business Journal’s Book of Lists, Seattle Startup 2.0 list, and Xconomy’s own gaming cluster analysis that we published in September.

Mayer conducted her dissertation with a similar visual analysis of the universe of tech companies in the Portland, OR area, and has done another map of the Boise, ID region. She traced the roots of technology in those areas to just two anchor tenants apiece. In Portland’s case, it was Tektronix and Intel, while Boise had Hewlett-Packard and Micron Technology.

Besides uncovering a more diversified mix of technologies in Seattle—software, aerospace, wireless, Internet—the survey uncovered some interesting insights about how companies get going. The idea of a sole charismatic founder is usually wrong, … Next Page »

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