Where did the innovation center come from and why does it exist?
(Diane) The Northwest Innovation Resource Center (NWIRC) actually started in late 2010 but the idea and the design and the feasibility of it was started a year and a half prior to that. Some individuals who were on the board of the Economic Development Council were individuals that were really passionate about entrepreneurial support and believed as I did that we were missing that early, early stage elements of support for entrepreneurs in this area. So entrepreneurs were leaving and going to Seattle or California. They wanted to put something together that would create that support up here. So we talked to a lot of people and did a lot of research.
There turns out to be nothing for this stage of entrepreneurs from here down to the King County line. The whole five county area was missing that stage of support. We created the Northwest Innovation Resource Center as a nonprofit. We set it up with two primary principles in mind. One it had to be organized in such a way that it helped individuals in any industry because there’s not enough of a concentration to create a customized program around a particular industry in any of the five counties. The other thing was that we had to find a way to help people start their business wherever they were. Which means we didn’t want a physical incubator or accelerator that would require people to relocate or travel in order to get the services. We wanted to have in-place services – a “virtual incubator”.
So with those two things in mind we started the resource center which basically helps the entrepreneur by facilitating the use of the expertise of business leaders or successful people in the five counties in what we’ve called the Just-In-Time mentoring program. We find the individual who knows the industry or the place in development—the skill that’s needed or the industry knowledge that’s needed—they come in and provide advice at the time that it’s needed. That way we are not over-using a mentor in ways that they are not experienced in or time demands that they can’t deal with. And we are able to help people in any industry. And help them in a virtual manner so they don’t have to relocate.
I can imagine that the virtual nature of it makes it easier for both mentors and mentees to be involved. I would imagine that if you just had an incubator in Bellingham it would be harder to find mentors. I mean who in King County is going to want to send their entrepreneurs to Bellingham?
(Diane) That’s true, however, I will also say that the entrepreneurs that we work will tend to be more mature. They are already established. They are not individuals fresh out of college that can be part of an accelerator. We haven’t developed a significant number of that type of entrepreneur with that kind of need yet. I think that will happen in two to three years. Right now we have mostly people who are makers or growers. We have agricultural related products and we have manufacturing products—especially advanced manufacturing. Different tools are needed than what you would find in say Seattle which is more high-tech. For example, makerspaces are most useful for inventors and engineering innovators.
Is it correct to say that you are focused predominantly on pre-product.
(Diane) Yes. Most of the people that we work with don’t even have a business started yet. So they are doing product or idea evaluation. Or they have started a little bit but they don’t have broad business expertise. So they go as far as they can with business development or service development and then they get a little bit confused or lost when it comes to adding other elements that are not their expertise, especially finance or marketing.
Is the hope that people sort of graduate, go out into the world and come back as a mentor at some future date?
(Diane) Yes. That has started to happen.
Lara is the one who works with entrepreneurs when they first walk in the door.
Lara, you probably have more examples….
(Lara) We certainly have had a number of clients through the years who we work with to achieve something whether it is to build a business, or get a product to market through licensing. And clients often want to pay that forward—to be able to help somebody else when they are stuck.
So for somebody in the region who builds a widget to meet their need and wants to use it to meet other’s needs but doesn’t know how should come meet you guys? Is that the next step?
(Diane) Just to put that into context—we have two programs in the NWIRC. We have the Build It program which focuses on inventors that have a product and it drives to the product end game. Whereas the Enterprise program is for entrepreneurs who want to start a business. You can be an inventor that’s an entrepreneur planning to start a business. Our question is what is the end goal? What we have found is that in both of those programs there is a natural barrier that without some resource in the community, no matter what we do, they will not get over that barrier and succeed. In the Enterprise program that barrier is financing. If you are going to start a business most of the time you are going to need financing and it’s very unlikely that the people we work with would qualify for bank funding. So we are working to develop additional private investor opportunities that can work with our entrepreneurs to get that going because without that from the community you can never have a thriving entrepreneurial system.
In the Build It program, working with inventors, we have found that they really struggle with marketing. It became very clear that if we didn’t figure out some way to get over that barrier we were wasting our time and so were they. They were spending their time and money on getting their product ready for market and it not getting there. That’s where Slingshot comes into play.
There critical resources that we put together are mentors, financing, and now Slingshot with Bryan coming on board.
And that’s new, right?
(Bryan) Yes. We started at the end of May.
So you have been going four or five months now.
What were you doing before this?
(Bryan) I founded a software company back in 2001.
That’s back when software was fun.
(Bryan) Back in the day when we started we weren’t planning to start a company but we were back in the 2000 tech bubble burst. We spent six months trying to find development work but couldn’t find it. So we finally said we are going to start our own company and did so. I was involved in that as a co-founder then took over as CEO about four years ago. Then at the end of 2014 I was able to secure a partnership with a European company to take over the operations. I wrapped up my day to day role with that company in 2015.
I got involved as a mentor at NWIRC as I was looking for what my next job opportunity was. I started giving back through the mentorship program then when Slingshot came around they thought, hey, maybe you would be a good guy to head up the Slingshot efforts.
Help me understand the relationship between Slingshot and clients. Obviously it was birthed out of the need for marketing. Is Slingshot a marketing firm?
(Diane) It’s a totally separate, for-profit organization. It is an option for the inventors if they want to take advantage of it.
(Bryan) Yes. It is an option. If they say I want to get my hands in marketing then they can go for it and the NWIRC continues to support them in doing that. But if they reach the end of their comfort zone my role is to step in and negotiate a license agreement with the inventor to take over their product and start marketing it. We sit down and it’s a friendly negotiation because we are all targeting towards the same end goal—the economic development of the region. Ultimately I take the product license it from the inventor and market it through whatever channel is appropriate for that product.
Are there specific types of products that you are seeking or are you just looking to see what comes out of Western Washington?
As part of the NWIRC program, the inventor is assisted to evaluate the market viability of the invention before proceeding. My role in Slingshot is to identify the specific route for the product to get to that market potential. We haven’t come across one yet that we didn’t see a possibility for but certainly that’s an evaluation. Slingshot is now up to eight licensed products. I have a lot of work with eight products in eight different market places.
Is it a one man show now or do you have backup?
It is currently a one man show.
(Diane) Although the board members are carefully selected to have specific skills available to provide assistance..
(Bryan) And that was a lot of what lead me to take the position. I saw a lot of backing not only from the NWIRC side but from the board members. There are a lot of resources that I am taking advantage of.
There is not really a product type. We just look for a product that we can work with. Really we focus in on then taking that to market through three different channels. There is the direct response television—the as-seen-on-TV market. Some products really do fit that niche. There are other products that need to have ecommerce success so we get them up on ecommerce platforms, test them and drive marketing to sales for them. Third simply because of the manufacturing requirements or the market opportunities I will try to pursue licensing of the product in the appropriate industry. Right now most of our products fall into that category so right now I am operating as a license broker. I do all the legwork for marketing and identifying the companies and industries. I make the phone calls, contacts, and negotiate new license agreements for products to be launched out into the appropriate manufacturing distribution.
That’s a big ball of wax.
[Laughs] Yeah. It’s a lot of work.
I want to know. Why is your homebase here as opposed to something more geographically central like Everett?
(Diane) Well Bellingham is where it started with the Whatcom County Economic Development Council. I think there was more of an awareness of entrepreneurial activity up here than there was in any of the other counties at that time. We have of used this to perfect the model. We used this area to get the mentoring program in place. Over the last two years we have reached out and established the model in other counties. We have entrepreneurs and mentors with whom we are working in all five counties. Our belief is that having a regional approach is much more effective. The ability to have mentors in one area help a startup in other areas really establishes the momentum and synergy which is so necessary for startups. That happens all the time. We will have somebody in Snohomish County helping somebody here. Or somebody here helping somebody in Skagit county. With more room to swim in the entrepreneur has a bigger chance of success.
All these localities, with maybe the exception of Seattle wouldn’t have the critical mass on their own, but with you acting as the hub connecting people with similar interests it works.
(Diane) Right. And in each county there is a slightly different emphasis. And we try to align the way we spend our time with the emphasis in each county. In Skagit county, for example, there’s an emphasis in developing the economy in the eastern half of the county, so we are doing some special outreach focus there. In Snohomish county there’s a focus on the Arlington & Darrington communities as they recover from the landslide. So in each place we try to sync with the priorities on the ground, but the general approach and strategy that we use in each place is the same.
We have purposely not established physical offices anywhere else because to do so would contradict our message that we are a virtual organization.
When you are working with a new client are you driving to visit them, or are they driving to visit you? Or both?
(Lara) Some of both. We try to meet with clients where they are. We have some nice partnerships with businesses in other counties who have space that we’re able to use, so it’s not always a coffee shop or a restaurant.
We do a fair number of phone calls and skype calls too.
So we all work in Bellingham. Do you all live in Bellingham too?
Oh close. So, what’s your favorite spot to hang out in Bellingham?
(Bryan) Personally or professionally?
(Bryan) Especially as the weather gets rainier, Archer’s Ale House is my favorite place to hang out on a personal level.
(Lara) On the sunny days I like going down to Boulevard Park. That’s a nice spot. Rainy days are tougher.
(Bryan) I’m a sailor, so I sail once a week with the Corinthian Yatch Club. During the summer I’m on the water at least once a week, sometimes twice.
Do you live aboard?
(Bryan) No. I used to.
My parents moved onto a sailboat when I was in eighth grade, and they’ve lived on a sailboat ever since.
Is there a correlation between entrepreneurship and a love for sailing? I seem to encounter more sailors or aspiring sailors among entrepreneurs than in other circles.
(Bryan) I don’t know.
(Diane) If you were from the midwest you wouldn’t.
(Diane) Not inventors so much. They are busy in their workshops.
(Lara) Maybe the challenge and freedom of sailing is attractive to entrepreneurs.
(Diane) There’s a very large correlation between entrepreneurs and farming.
(Diane) Oh yeah. There have been a number of studies about how people who grow up in rural and agrarian settings are more likely to become entrepreneurs.
Because in agriculture you have to be independent and flexible, nothing is guaranteed. You can’t count on the weather, the market . . . so there are a lot of similarities there.
What does Bellingham need?
(Diane) I think that we still need a lot more of the individual, especially retired people, to recognize the value that they can contribute to the area. There are a number of folks here who have come from wonderful careers, and many of them are involved in mentoring but not all. Not all have invested in the community in that way. Some view this as an extended vacation location, and then in the winter they go away to Palm Springs or Arizona. We need to figure out how to better mobilize that resource.
(Bryan) I think we need more diversification in the high tech sector. More high tech businesses coming into the area. We have a very agrarian community up here. It’s changing, but not as much as it needs to. We need more manufacturing and more tech-centric businesses in Whatcom county. But I think we need a more structured approach to growth. We need to learn that density is okay. We continue to fight this battle about spraul, and continue to send the Urban Growth Area up north rather than accepting more density in the downtown core. If we allowed more density in the core neighborhoods and taller buildings in downtown, we won’t have to send more single family homes into the farmlands that we also hope to maintain.
(Lara) I think entrepreneurs need more places to do their work, so I would suggest a Panera Bread.
(Bryan) We’re getting a MOD super-fast Pizza.
(Lara) We are! In all seriousness, entrepreneurs in our community struggle to find a place to do their work. There are a few co-working spaces, but those aren’t right for everyone.
And coffeeshops will get you so far, but at some point you’re going to need a desk.
(Lara) And makerspaces are the other thing. I don’t think we have enough of those yet.