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PNNL propels economic future of the Tri-Cities

DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory : 23 August, 2006  (Technical Article)
A year ago, the Tri-Cities economy was booming, swelled by a temporary influx of jobs and spending to clean up the Hanford site and build the vitrification plant. Now, forecasts show that Hanford funded-growth has reached its peak and is starting its inevitable downward slide as cleanup winds down.
In the midst of this cloudy crystal ball shines a gem that other small communities eye with envy: our robust high-tech sector. The Mid-Columbia area claims thousands of scientists, engineers, and other technically skilled professionals, working in more than 250 companies from telecommunications to equipment design to medical lab services.

One of these businesses is the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. For nearly four decades, PNNL has been a leader in the local tech sector, both as a science and technology powerhouse and a catalyst for startups. Now, we're playing an increasingly important role in the economic future of the Tri-Cities. In the coming years, we plan to expand our community presence even more, resulting in new business opportunities, new companies and more tech jobs.

PNNL, operated by Battelle for DOE, is one of the Tri-Cities' two largest employers, with over 3,800 staff. Though the public often views PNNL as part of Hanford, less than 18 percent of the Lab's funding is Hanford-related. PNNL performs research in national security, energy, advanced materials, computational sciences and information technology, molecular and life sciences, environment and chemical processes. The Laboratory does more than $600 million per year in business volume for government and industry. The Lab's growth into new research areas presents further local economic diversification opportunities.

The PNNL campus comprises 600 acres containing 2 million square feet of laboratory and office space, much of it owned by Battelle. PNNL is pursuing a number of new research facilities. One is a new multipurpose bioproducts building on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities, planned for completion in 2007. There, researchers from WSU and PNNL will convert agricultural byproducts like hulls and straw into commercially valuable products like specialty chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Roots and wings
One of PNNL's most important products is the intellectual property that its staff members generate almost daily. A familiar example is the compact disk. The fundamental technology for the CD was invented at PNNL and eventually licensed worldwide. Last year, PNNL staff earned 63 U.S. patents, bringing the total to more than 1,100 U.S. and international patents since 1965. Historically, about one-third of PNNL's commercial patents have been licensed to businesses in the Tri-Cities area.

Tri-Cities companies such as Staveley Instruments, Framatome ANP, Sandvik Special Metals, and ExpensePath Software have their roots at PNNL. In fact, at least 30 technology firms that can trace their beginnings to PNNL are doing business throughout the Tri-Cities, employing over 1,500 people.

PNNL offers a number of services that help local businesses, including free technology assistance and tools for finding capital and markets. We provide free email updates about a $2 billion annual source of R&D funding for small businesses, seminars and workshops, a database of local organizations that support entrepreneurs, a web-based service to match entrepreneurs and investors, and a free electronic monthly newsletter of technology sector happenings.

Free technology assistance has helped more than 175 local tech businesses over the past nine years, involving more than 13,000 hours of work by PNNL staff. For example, two Richland companies used PNNL expertise and facilities to develop therapeutic medical devices. We helped find an experienced executive for a Kennewick software company, who expanded operations overseas and grabbed the attention of private investors. This year we'll work with at least 50 more companies to meet needs they've expressed.

Though the local economy generally has weathered the worldwide economic slowdown better than most areas, surveys of tech sector businesses in the Tri-Cities consistently reveal the need for greater access to equity capital. With PNNL's involvement, 25 percent of investment opportunities presented to the Delta Angel Group in Spokane have been from Tri-Cities firms. PNNL also introduces local entrepreneurs to the Alliance of Angels, another group of private tech investors in Seattle. We're also working with the Washington Technology Center to help start a local private investor group that will be part of a statewide network. Six such groups are expected to be running statewide by the end of the year, dramatically increasing access to equity capital for Tri-Cities companies.
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