Innovation in Washington state helped build airplanes and software, but now it's taking off into new realms to tackle energy, environmental...

Share story

Innovation in Washington state helped build airplanes and software, but now it’s taking off into new realms to tackle energy, environmental problems and global health.

Technologies to detect cancer and turn waste into energy exemplify the new direction, highlighted Tuesday during the annual Washington Technology Summit in Bellevue.

“Everywhere I look, we are at the forefront of innovation — from clean-energy technology to global health to advances in manufacturing and materials,” Gov. Christine Gregoire said in a speech to kick off the event.

Even with a weakening national economy, Washington state is doing relatively well.

“We are not immune to changing fortunes, but we are in much better shape than most states,” Gregoire said.

As one measure, state exports have doubled since 2004 to $67 billion last year. And Washington led the nation in people employed in software publishing, she said.

Much of the new innovation involves partnerships between private companies and public researchers or nonprofits.

Gig Harbor startup VisionGate, which has developed an early-detection system for lung cancer, teamed with University of Washington researcher Eric Seibel with funds from the Washington Technology Center.

Alan Nelson, VisionGate’s founder and chief executive, said the company’s technology takes a sputum sample and uses three-dimensional images of the cells to find mutations and determine the likelihood of a patient developing cancer.

VisionGate is financed entirely by angel investors and plans to begin selling its product in the U.S. next year.

With an annual screening test, Nelson said, some of the 1 million new cases of lung cancer each year can be caught in the early stages, so patients have a better chance to survive.

Spokane-based GenPrime showed its “lab in a stick” technology to detect bacteria in a wound, which could help doctors decide whether to treat a patient with antibiotics.

Jim Fleming, GenPrime co-founder and chief technology officer, said the pencil-size tool can be used with little expertise, making it ideal for managed-care facilities.

Both VisionGate and GenPrime see opportunities in developing countries, but getting the price down to a level acceptable in places like China and India remains a challenge, Nelson and Fleming said.

One way to encourage innovation is to make small but riskier bets, and make it easier to reach a wide variety of entrepreneurs with capital, said Steven Buchsbaum, senior technology strategy officer with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The foundation is giving its first Grand Challenges Explorations grants this year, using a streamlined approach summarized as “more science” and “less paperwork.”

The grants, starting with $100,000 each the first year, aim to expand work on global health solutions to include different disciplines, such as math, physics or bioengineering, Buchsbaum said. The foundation is also advertising the program internationally, hoping for applications from many parts of the world.

Already, it has received about 1,000 registrations in two weeks, Buchsbaum said. The simplified approach, starting with the two-page application, allows people to “tell a small story, and if they’re successful, go on to the next step.”

While Gates Grand Challenges grants are typically about $10 million over five years, the smaller “Explorations” grants let the foundation “take a chance on new ideas” and provide further funding if they are effective.

Another way to encourage innovation is to bring academics and industry experts closer together, said Rick Orth, technical group manager at Battelle, which operates the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.

PNNL is partnering with Washington State University in a new Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory opening on WSU’s Tri-Cities campus next month.

The lab will include 10 jointly appointed scientists who will conduct research in converting various forms of biomass into fuels and chemicals. The work is something Gregoire called a “cornerstone of the state’s efforts to take a leadership role in the areas of sustainability and clean energy.”

State-of-the-art facilities, including large-scale fermenters, will help students test their ideas in a setting close to industry standards.

“By the time it gets handed off to industry, they’ve got a high degree of confidence it’s going to work out on the huge scale they’re looking at,” Orth said.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or