In the late 1990s, when community leaders talked about ways to invigorate Spokane’s economy, the name Bernard Daines often dominated the discussion.
Daines, who moved back to the Spokane area in 1994 after a successful stint as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, represented the power of innovation and the promise of a tech-driven community.
He grew up in Spokane Valley, went on to earn a computer science degree at Brigham Young University, then moved to Silicon Valley and started multiple companies. He’s regarded as a pioneer in the development of Ethernet technology.
In 1992 Daines co-founded Grand Junction Networks – the industry’s first Fast Ethernet switch manufacturer. That company was later acquired by a larger Silicon Valley company, providing Daines and his partners with enough money to start other businesses and continue developing new products.
Daines said he grew tired of living in California and in 1994 moved back to Spokane. He quickly started another tech company, Packet Engines, which also developed network connection equipment.
After French telecom giant Alcatel purchased that company, Daines kept going, launching World Wide Packets. That business is still operating, but under the name Ciena Corp., which bought it from Daines in 2008.
Daines, now 68, tends to stay out of the limelight. Being treated for diabetes has left him mostly confined to his home, he said. When he does go out, he may only spend a few hours at an appointment. That confinement is “largely self-imposed” because Daines said he’s reluctant to burden others with getting him around. “There are ways to deal with my issues, but they involve other people helping me,” he said.
While not as visible as before, he’s still seen by many community leaders as the Tech Oracle of Spokane.
Tom Simpson, who has orchestrated several large investments for tech firms in Spokane and the region, considers Daines “the Bill Gates of Spokane.”
“Bernard exemplifies the type of entrepreneur Spokane needs to attract, support and accommodate if we aspire to transform to an emerging growth/technology hub,” Simpson said.
Daines gets occasional calls from local entrepreneurs hoping to persuade him to invest in their startups. But he’s a reluctant investor since he cannot take an active role in guiding a startup, he said.
By temperament, Daines would rather start his next company.
“For about seven years my brother Dan has bugged me to start a new company and do something new,” Daines said.
“I still have the itch to do that, but I just haven’t thought of anything yet that I want to do.”
His current business focus is running the Liberty Lake Portal, a three-level business center in Liberty Lake he co-launched in 2000. Daines is now the sole owner of the building, which sits in the center of Liberty Lake’s cluster of tech companies. He has plans to modernize the building and attract more small-business clients.
For someone regarded as one of the country’s tech leaders, Daines isn’t a gadget guy.
He said his primary tool is a desktop computer. He uses it for checking email, producing a monthly family newsletter and creating a regular newsletter for his church.
“I don’t even use a cellphone,” he said. “I don’t use tablets either, because they’re not easy for me to read.”
Like many tech evangelists, Daines can point to some of his earlier ideas that were ahead of their time. In the early 2000s, he preached the gospel of low-cost gigabit broadband, both for businesses and homes. He predicted that the growth of networks would allow people to consume huge gobs of data in the form of movies, TV entertainment, phone calls and business communications.
All of that has come true.
But Daines acknowledges he has been wrong a number of times, too.
While working in California in the 1990s, his company was asked by Pacific Bell to help develop a digital phone line service. The project went forward and the beta product did exactly what the phone company wanted – it delivered data over copper phone lines.
The phone company, however, got cold feet, leaving the product unused. Daines said the test product was one of the first versions of what later became DSL, a network product widely used today.
“There was DSL in my hands and I didn’t do anything with it,” he said, adding he’s done that more than once, being involved at the early stage of a successful product. “But I was always hopping onto the next thing.”