State accelerator program opens exciting possibilities for economic future

Washington state is dedicated to building an economic future that is as inclusive, diverse and resilient as the people who live here.

We are looking beyond our borders for economic models that will strengthen our legacy industries, help communities create new sectors, fuel innovation and entrepreneurship, and ensure meaningful job opportunities for generations to come.

One of the most promising models is the innovation cluster accelerator. This industry-led strategy has evolved over the last 20 years, spurring more than 7,000 innovation clusters in places such as Norway, Denmark, Costa Rica and Canada.

This model is a shift from most traditional economic development efforts. It brings key players together – business, entrepreneurs, academia, investors and government – to solve industry challenges that may be limiting growth and innovation.

Over time, these member-based organizations become self-sustaining, supported by a combination of public and private funding. They evolve into magnets that attract capital, talent, companies and market opportunities for the entire industry. They also help leaders align efforts in workforce development and STEM education.

We piloted this approach in 2017 with an initiative called Washington Maritime Blue.

In its first four years, Maritime Blue is already driving investments in de-carbonization and other maritime initiatives, jumpstarting new companies and developing a maritime workforce that is more diverse and inclusive.

To date, 21 startups have participated in their accelerator, raising more than $80 million in funding and creating more than 300 good paying jobs. Their Youth Maritime Collaborative focuses on introducing youth from communities of color to maritime career paths.

We’ve seen innovation clusters succeed abroad, and now we’re seeing them succeed here at home. We’re ready to embrace this strategy and ensure the benefits of our economic growth are experienced in all regions and by people who have historically been left out.

Our newly-launched Innovation Cluster Accelerator is among the first in the nation. These clusters don’t just create new businesses, they can spur solutions to social problems and climate challenges.

Our first accelerator cohort includes five innovation clusters around the state. We will add four more in 2022.

  • Port of Benton’s Washington VERTical Cluster – accelerating the transition to clean, renewable and non-emitting energy production sources by 2024 through advanced nuclear power technologies.
  • 5G Open Innovation Lab’s Enterprise Digital Growth Ecosystem (EDGE) – using edge computing and 5G to digitally transform and modernize industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, health care, energy and utilities, and transportation and logistics.
  • Consortium for Hydrogen and Renewable Generated E-Fuels, led by Washington State University’s JCDREAM  – exploring the use of hydrogen to decarbonize heavy-duty transport, aviation and shipping and reduce reliance on non-renewable fuel sources.
  • Clean Tech Alliance’s Built Environment Cluster – advancing development and adoption of clean technologies in residential buildings, non-residential buildings and engineering construction.
  • Washington Technology Industry Association’s Advanced Technology Cluster – using quantum computing and blockchain to grow advanced technologies and maintain Washington’s technology leadership.

Similar to Maritime Blue, the Department of Commerce is supporting the development and growth of these clusters through seed funding, strategic guidance, leadership development, connections with state and global cluster leaders and partners, and international marketing support.

The Innovation Cluster Accelerator leverages mutually beneficial partnerships with Finland and Norway, focusing on maritime, clean tech and 5G. It builds on our state’s history of partnerships with France, the United Kingdom, Asia, India, Japan and Spain on industries such as aerospace, information and communication technology, and clean tech.

Innovation cluster accelerators have the potential to bring transformative economic opportunities to communities across Washington, and we’re committed to doing it in a way that promotes equity and inclusion. We want to help smaller businesses access capital, find new markets and customers, and develop a skilled workforce.

Washington’s legendary businesses have redefined how we travel, dine, shop, relax and communicate. The Innovation Cluster Accelerator builds on this legacy. Our economic future is well-served by this long-term strategy to harness the power of collaboration and reinforce Washington’s leadership in the global economy. 

Lisa Brown is director of the Washington State Department of Commerce.

Christian Rangen is a Norwegian expert on innovation clusters.  

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