ICAP Launch program builds rural business through collaboration

For the Basin Business Journal | September 7, 2023 1:00 AM

SEATTLE — Everything works better when people work together.

That’s the premise behind the Innovation Cluster Accelerator Program, the Washington State Department of Commerce program aimed at boosting Washington businesses through collaboration.

“The Innovation Cluster Accelerator Program is helping our key industry sectors in Washington state grow through collaboration,” said Stephanie Scott, ICAP program director. “It’s based on an internationally successful model of industry-led economic development that brings together all of the key stakeholders in an industry to solve challenges that limit industry growth. So everything from policy and regulatory challenges, workforce development, access to funding, whatever the industry is facing that’s limiting its ability to grow.”

The stakeholders in question aren’t just business owners, Scott explained; government agencies, academic institutions and community organizations all play a part in economic development. It’s an approach that’s worked well in other parts of the world, she said.

“Ultimately, innovation clusters pursue market development opportunities on behalf of the entire sector,” Scott said. “So instead of competing with the business down the street, you’re bringing folks together to pursue market development opportunities together, oftentimes globally.”

It’s one thing to collaborate when the businesses involved are only a few blocks or a few miles from each other and from the resources they draw on. What about in rural areas, where the nearest collaboration partner may be several hours’ drive away, and human resources aren’t as plentiful as they might be in the city?

For those areas, Commerce recently rolled out ICAP Launch, which takes the cluster model of ICAP and applies it to some of the less bustling parts of the state. For ICAP Launch’s rollout, the Commerce Department has reached out to four of the least populous areas of the state to establish partnerships with TwispWorks in Okanogan County, Room One and Blue Sky Minds, also in Okanogan County, the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District, which includes Hood River, Wasco and Sherman counties in Oregon and Klickitat and Skamania counties in Washington; and Clallam County Economic Development Council, in Clallam and Jefferson counties on the Olympic Peninsula.

“It’s a different ecosystem than we might have in our metropolitan statistical areas or bigger cities or bigger towns,” Scott said. “It’s just a different makeup. What we’re doing through this program is very early stage; we have awarded them some capacity-building funding. In most cases, they’re using that money to hire support to bring their stakeholders together.”

Growing tech

With the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District, based in The Dalles, the ICAP Launch funds will be focused on the unmanned aerial vehicle industry. Drones are a rapidly-growing sector in the five-county area with a combined population of 88,295, according to Jessica Metta, executive director of the MCEDD.

“So we have folks that make the aircraft and we have folks that make the camera systems that go onto the aircraft,” Metta said. “We have people to do the software processing that goes in the camera systems. We have people that do autopilots.”

Technology has broad ripples in the Gorge’s economy, Metta explained. UAV manufacturer Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary based in Bingen, Washington, is one of the largest employers in the Gorge with a team of more than 720, according to its website.

Commerce’s goals in partnering with the MCEDD include fostering a thriving Gorge tech community, promoting and supporting member businesses, supporting STEM education, and optimizing the impact of this emerging cluster, according to a statement from the department.

“I saw through announcements with Commerce, about the ICAP program, what they’ve done on a larger scale, and always thought that it was a great fit for the UAD companies and the Gorge Tech Alliance,” Metta said. “But the original ICAP program is a little bit bigger than what we would have been competitive for. So when they came out with this launch program to help smaller, more rural clusters form and strengthen and grow, it just looked like a perfect fit. I was very excited. It was like, ‘OK, we’re definitely applying.’”

Food security

In Okanogan County, the focus isn’t on technology, but on food. There the Department of Commerce has teamed up with Blue Sky Minds to tackle the problem of food insecurity in one of the Northwest’s most remote regions.

“(For) our farmers, the folks that are growing our food, making a living wage in our region is a challenge,” said Maria Hines, founder and director of Blue Sky Minds, based in Mazama. “And then the distribution of food is also a challenge because we’re so spread out. We’re the largest county in Washington state. And we’re rural, so we’re not densely populated, and we’ve got all these mountain passes. It’s absolutely beautiful country, but we have the geographical challenge of being a rural area. So, distribution of food is also a challenge.

Okanogan County has a 15% food insecurity rate, according to the website of hunger relief organization Feeding America, and 97% of the county’s population is eligible for SNAP and other food benefits.

“Because we are not densely populated, food processing can be a challenge,” Hines said. “Very often our food needs to travel some miles, often out of state, to be processed, only to come back to us in its processed state, and then we have to pay more money for it.”

The ICAP Launch partnership with Blue Sky Minds is in its beginning stages, Hines said.

“We’re going to come up with a concept,” she said. “We don’t know what our concept is yet, but it’ll be based around food systems. The concept could be a food port, or a food hub, or a food co-op. Any of those could be potential concepts, where you’re taking a bunch of small businesses that are clustered together in order to compete against big business.”

Hines is no stranger herself to small businesses, she said, having been a chef for 30 years and owned her own restaurant for 15. The pandemic forced her to close, she said, but the close interaction she had in that career with farmers gave her a passion for improving their lot.

“My restaurant was certified organic, and I worked with all local farmers,” she said. “So I have a little bit of an understanding of the challenges that they go through. I want to help support them to make a living wage in order for them to have a successful business, be able to have medical insurance for their family, to be able to grow their operations. We’ve got to keep them growing food, and the best way to support them, in my mind, is to develop an infrastructure that works for them, and all their unique challenges. So how we develop this is really going to be based off of what they tell us what they need.”

Industry-led collaboration

That engagement with industries, be they technology or agriculture or anything else, is what ICAP Launch is all about, Scott explained.

“Industry-led means that the board of directors is led by industry; you have industry voices at the table, they want to talk about solving challenges that limit industry growth. You’re hearing those straight from the mouths of industry. We’re not guessing what industry needs. We know what industry needs because we have them at the table. They’re telling us what they need.”

Joel Martin may be reached via email at jmartin@columbiabasinherald.com.