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SIRTI back to lean, mean

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane Intercolle- giate Research and Technology Institute was intended to nurture new technologies and companies, but Executive Director Kim Zentz says her first mission will be repairs — to the institution’s credibility.

Zentz has spent her first five months on the job finding out what perceptions government, business and academic officials have of the institute, and their vision for its future.

Changes in leadership and mission have muddled expectations, she says, and disappointed many who believe SIRTI has never been the hotbed of innovation espoused by its early supporters. Zentz, herself on interim status, is the latest of six directors at the institute since its inception in 1989. She came aboard from the Spokane Transit Authority, where she earned high marks for restoring that agency’s tattered reputation.

SIRTI is no bus stop.

Last week, SIRTI’s board and that of the SIRTI Foundation met together for the first time to reassess its mission and identify the benchmarks that can be used to measure its performance. The foundation handles federal grants that help sustain SIRTI programs.

New jobs are the obvious starting point, but head counts are tricky, Zentz says. New companies start lean, staff up as they anticipate new business, only to lay off some of those hires. Sustained employment growth comes later — if the companies survive. The institute is going to poll every one of the 55 companies it has assisted over the last decade — at least those it can find — to find out just how many they employ, as well as their revenues, what salaries they pay, and what patents, licenses or trademarks they hold.

The boards also wants to know how many interns from area universities the companies have used, and the number hired permanently from those schools.

By one criterion, at least, SIRTI has done relatively well. The $15 million U.S. Department of Defense grant that was SIRTI’s seed money a decade ago was awarded to 35 companies. The 23 that still exist have attracted more than $128 million in additional financing, with ReliOn and ISR the biggest beneficiaries.

“That’s not an insignificant amount of money,” Zentz says.

SIRTI operates on a $1.4 million annual budget, funding Washington lawmakers have sometimes provided grudgingly. In April, the institute eliminated two positions, bringing full-time staff down to 13. The budget provides for 21, including interns. Zentz says SIRTI will follow the advice it gives tenants; you started lean, stay lean.

She says the institute will also tune up its criteria for graduating tenants — there are seven now — out of SIRTI and into their own space. “In here, through here, and out of here,” as she puts it.

On December 1, the institute’s $3 million Technology Center will be ready for occupancy, but Zentz says officials are re-examining marketing strategy for the 29,000 square feet of laboratory and office space that will be available for lease. The new building was designed to attract companies in biomedical technology, but competition for those tenants will be tough with Seattle awash in vacant space for that industry. Two potential tenants have been identified.

SIRTI’s boards have charged Zentz with submitting preliminary one- and five-year plans for the institute by mid-September, with final versions to be adopted at an Oct. 20 meeting. A focus on homeland security, energy, the environment and agricultural sciences, disciplines in which Eastern Washington already has strength, is likely.

Zentz, a civil engineer by training, says the institute wants to attract only the best ideas, and will offer the services that bridge the “chasm” from concept to commercialization. John Overby, the founder of Advanced Input Devices in Coeur d’Alene and former president of Advanced Hardware Architecture in Pullman, has been named incubator manager director refine the criteria for accepting tenants.

“We won’t accept any other than best in show,” Zentz says, noting the foundation also has a $1.5 million growth fund to support new technology companies.

She says she’s optimistic about SIRTI’s prospects given its relationships with partners like Connect Northwest and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in the Tri-Cities, the Inland Northwest’s overall prosperity, and board members committed to success.

The institute cannot afford many more misfires, Zentz says.

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