Seattle is “Minor League” Innovation Town, So We Shouldn’t Be So Smug, Tech Leaders Say

Seattle can be a very politically correct place, and one very un-PC thing to say is that we’re a second-rate burg when it comes to spawning innovative industries of the future. But Ed Lazowska, one of Seattle’s gutsiest public intellectuals, let it rip yesterday in front of a small gathering of about 100 technology elites at the Four Seasons Hotel.

“We’re very smug and self-satisfied,” said Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, during a lunch discussion hosted by OVP Venture Partners. He cited a study that ranked Seattle the nation’s No. 5 hub of high tech, which he dismissed as misleading. “We think of ourselves in the innovation big leagues, and we are, in fact, in the minors compared to the real big leagues of the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston.”

We’ve reported on a lot of data that back up Lazowska’s point. The Pacific Northwest ranks as the nation’s No. 9 biotech cluster, according to this analysis by Ernst & Young. An even more humbling report Lazowska cited by the Kauffman Foundation explained what an amazing driver of economic growth the New England area has with MIT, whose alumni have founded 1,000 companies per year, with about one-third of the companies settling in the Boston area.

This was easy to say in front of an audience of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who travel a lot, and know all these points to be true. One of the things that baffles me about Seattle—after having lived in Boston and San Francisco—is that so few public officials here would ever dare utter such an obvious truth about how far Seattle lags behind the world-leading clusters for biotech and high tech. If they can’t do that, there’s no way they can engage in serious discussion with the general public about systemic ways this region can improve. (Although I’m sure our readers in Boston would acknowledge that Microsoft and Amazon give Seattle a big-company edge in information technology.)

Lazowska’s blistering assessment of our region’s innovation scene was reinforced by fellow panelist Mark Anderson, the influential publisher of Strategic News Service, a technology newsletter in Friday Harbor, WA. “We’re coming out of a period of about a dozen years of dishonesty,” Anderson said, citing Wall Street shenanigans, and so-called technology driven economic productivity gains, which he dismissed as “fluff.” As for Washington state, he sized up the situation pretty succinctly. “We elect people who are really nice people and don’t do anything,” Anderson said. “They do not rock that boat.” He added a provocative observation: “Maybe we don’t want to be led.”

So what to do about this? Lazowska didn’t pull any punches. “At the UW, you could stop tolerating mediocrity.” He elaborated a bit, saying that means getting rid of faculty and administrators who are “non-performers.” In terms of certain fields of study—which he didn’t single out by name—the UW needs to “stop deluding itself about which programs are good.” He balanced this critique out a bit later by giving the UW School of Medicine excellent marks, and pointing out the region’s potential to be the world leader in global health.

Anderson pushed hard for a different way to give the region more of an edge. At the K-12 education level, he proposed investing in pilot projects that would provide a computer with Internet access to every child. It would cost about $1,400 per student each year, compared with about $8,000 to $10,000 per student that is already invested in public education, he says. The technology itself isn’t the answer, but if used properly, it could unleash the creative talents of the brightest young minds in the region, rather than forcing them to plod along in outdated curricula, Anderson said. Maine is one state that has tried this, and seen significant gains in students’ writing ability, he said.

If done right, this investment would pay off, Anderson said. “Smart kids would get to go fast,” Anderson said.

Lazowska pounced on this observation, on how it wouldn’t play politically in this Lake Wobegon-like Northwest culture. “The issue is we are one big happy family in which everybody is doing extremely well,” he said, with a sarcastic edge. “Every company, every VC fund is above average.” Then, ironically, if any company actually has breakout success, the state’s political winds try to blow the company to pieces, bringing it back down a few pegs along with everybody else. “It’s like a game of whack-a-mole,” Lazowska said.

What the state needs is stronger leadership, that will to put a high priority on building up the technology industries. The state’s Department of Community, Trade, and Economic Development “would traditionally move heaven and earth to keep a sheet metal bender from moving out of Tukwila,” yet if Intel wants to set up a research center in the U District, “they’re nowhere to be found,” Lazowska said. He also expressed frustration with how he made a push in recent months to make changes to state policy improving access to broadband Internet—an effort that generated no response from the Governor’s office.

The luncheon had constructive ideas, and wasn’t a complete bitch session. What if university faculty chose graduate students based on their entrepreneurial fire and dreams, rather than overemphasizing test scores, said Susannah Malarkey, executive director of the Technology Alliance. What if undergraduates were exposed to inspiring, hands-on research, rather than getting bogged down in textbook learning, said Stanford University biologist Irving Weissman. (The UW College of Engineering is currently looking to double the number of undergraduates who get involved in research projects over the next four years for that very reason, said UW Engineering Dean Matt O’Donnell.)

Nobody delivered any five-point consensus plan at the end, but Lazowska closed with a hard question that people had to consider on their way out. “This is a region that has done relatively well, but there’s still a significant gap between us and the real leaders. What can we do to close the gaps?”

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3 responses to “Seattle is “Minor League” Innovation Town, So We Shouldn’t Be So Smug, Tech Leaders Say”

  1. pEvans says:

    Seconded. What is missing? Well, ostensibly a number of things, but take a look at the biggest tech hubs–each has a few top shelf universities. Washington’s last university built was Evergreen in the 60’s, quite sad. And unfair as it is, one or two universities would need to be located in the Seattle metro–intellectual cross pollination works best at short distances. Claiming that Microsoft/Amazon/wasImmunex are ‘like having a university research department’ is fatuous in all honesty.
    Duly noted, this is very expensive and with a long payout. But it is long past due, enough of the mantra “if you don’t build it they won’t come”–they have come in their millions, and it we want quality of life, influence on the future, and a vibrant economy it is time to build some infrastructure.