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The Politechs of Innovation: Putting Weight Behind Idaho's Tech Industry

Idaho state government gets in the R&D business


In Idaho ideas sprout as abundantly as the state's signature tuber--more so, even, since high-tech products account for more than 60 percent of the Gem State's exports, according to TechAmerica's annual Cyberstates report.

Year after year Idaho racks up accolades for its techno friendliness, a characteristic reflected by data in the most recent Idaho Patent Report released by business law firm Stoel Rives in 2011. According to the report, Idaho inventors received 974 patents from 2009 to 2010, an 18.3 percent increase over 2008-2009.

What's more, Idaho is routinely ranked among the friendliest states for small business start-ups--most recently earning an A-plus ranking from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in conjunction with In the study, released May 8, Idaho was one of only four states to earn top marks, joined by Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. Even better, Idaho ranked seventh nationally in the category labeled "Optimism about the future."

With international tech heavyweights like Micron and Hewlett-Packard, a national laboratory and robust research programs at three state universities, Idaho has long been regarded as an up-and-coming innovation superstar. But going from "eureka!" to a marketable product is a high hurdle in the best of times. Idaho may be rich in ideas but turning them into companies is a perennial challenge. Now it's a matter of state policy.

Think globally, invent locally

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter is fond of his good ol' boy mystique. Routinely seen in cowboy duds and toiling on his sprawling ranch in Star, Otter first made a name for himself working for his late father-in-law, potato magnate J.R. Simplot.

The gov is an ag man for sure, but he's also an increasingly ardent supporter of pushing Idaho's ideas out of the ground and onto the market.

Case in point: the Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission, or IGEM, an idea hatched by the Idaho Technology Council and which Otter helped usher through the Legislature with broad support this past session.

Though labeled with the somewhat vague tagline, "Driving industry through innovation," IGEM has a specific set of goals: increasing the amount of research being conducted at state universities, marrying the fruits of that research with private industry, accelerating commercialization into products and, ultimately, creating new home-grown businesses.

It's a public-private collaboration fueled by three pots of money from the state's general fund: $1 million to the Department of Commerce, with $950,000 earmarked for bridge funding grants to start-ups; $2 million in permanent, ongoing support for the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, another collaboration effort between state universities and the Idaho National Laboratory; and $2 million in increased research funding, which will be competed for by Boise State, the University of Idaho and Idaho State University.

Modeled after the successful USTAR program in Utah, IGEM is an effort to bring together--with funding--three legs of what Boise State Vice President for Research Mark Rudin calls the "triangle."

"Oftentimes, whether it's the university or the government or industry, they all try to figure out how to leverage their separate abilities to increase economic growth," Rudin said. "This represents the state trying to invest some money into that triangle. ...

"I believe this is the first time this has happened in Idaho, and I think it really has energized the private and public sector to take it upon themselves to accept the challenge and move development forward."

At an unveiling of the program at the University of Idaho, officials pointed to research in areas that could save commercial trout fisheries as a potential economic boon. At Idaho State University the IGEM presentation included a tour of the university's nano crystal laboratory. According to Rudin, Boise State is focused on ramping up its computer science department--specifically, turning out more CS graduates.

"We produce probably a couple dozen [computer science] graduates per year, but the work force needs are much more than that," Rudin said. "The IGEM opportunity allows us to compete for additional funds to do a couple of things: one is to propose more faculty lines within our CS department and augment graduate assistantships. ...

"Ultimately the purpose of the grant is to bring in talented faculty and grad students that can engage with industry, conduct research with industry, and really beef up the number of graduates that we produce annually as kind of a work force development initiative."

Come together, right now

Peter Midgley, a Boise patent attorney and founding member of the Idaho Technology Council, couldn't agree more that IGEM's overall purpose is to bind Idaho's tech sector stakeholders in a new way. And it's been a long time coming.

"The need for IGEM goes way back," Midgley said. "If you look historically at the tech industry in this state, it's kind of been a work in progress. The various companies and thought leaders in the industry were not necessarily coming together in a coordinated and cohesive way--especially if you compare the technology industry to other industries, like the dairy industry or natural resources industry. We didn't have Silicon Valley or the Research Triangle--there wasn't that power base that was a coalescing force."