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Calling Tacoma a 'tech town' is far-fetched. The city could make some inroads, though

A metal sculpture of a dinosaur sits outside the headquarters of the Readiness Acceleration & Innovation Network, or RAIN. The startup is a biotech incubator that is the latest business and science startup for Tacoma. They want to be a life science research hub
A metal sculpture of a dinosaur sits outside the headquarters of the Readiness Acceleration & Innovation Network, or RAIN. The startup is a biotech incubator that is the latest business and science startup for Tacoma. They want to be a life science research hub News Tribune file photo

“Tacoma’s a tech town,” proclaims the subject line of an emailed newsletter from the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, touting the community’s latest wins and accomplishments.

The immediate reaction among the jaded and cynical — like the proprietor of this column — might be found somewhere between eye-rolling and resignation for another round of disappointment. Ever since someone thought up the concept of technology as a distinct industry, like steel or cars or ag, and saw how certain parts of the country, like Silicon Valley or Seattle, were getting rich off it, every American community has pined for and lusted after a piece of that action.

More often than not, those efforts came to naught. It takes a precise and still poorly understood combination of luck, history, foundation companies and academic institutions to create tech hubs, and most communities lacked those ingredients or had them in insufficient proportions. Tech hubs are also rarely planned; they seem to spontaneously combust.

Thus the notion of Tacoma being a recognized tech hub prompts responses of “here we go again” and expectations that this won’t produce anything more than being “America’s No. 1 Wired City” did.

But is that fair?

The EDB cites as evidence of Tacoma’s emergence as a tech town the recruitment of Oxford Global Resources, a staffing and consulting firm specializing in the tech industry. The Massachusetts-based company is relocating its regional office from Federal Way (apparently Tacoma and FWay are going to be swapping companies with each other) to downtown.

Other signs that Tacoma is "fast becoming a center for inspiring high-tech startups and training future professionals,” according to the EDB, include a life-science innovation incubator and development of co-working space.

Not a lot to inspire the idea of Tacoma as the nation’s latest tech hot spot, admittedly. Tacoma doesn’t have major medical-research institutions of the sort that biotech companies cluster around. Incubators have been around for decades. Co-working spaces are updated incubators and are such a trendy thing that they’re sprouting like Starbucks stores in every city (some consolidation seems inevitable).

The Oxford Global office, meanwhile, represents all of 25 employees, hardly on the order of the growth in new tech jobs that Seattle seems to get without even trying.

Before sounding the “abandon all hope” warning, let’s poke and prod at this a bit more.

The reference to biotech’s potential in Tacoma (in the form of the Readiness Acceleration & Innovation Network) comes at an interesting stage in that sector’s evolution in the Northwest.

Biotech was heralded as the next big thing for this region, and Seattle did get a core of companies out of it, but it never developed into the mega-cluster here proponents thought it would. That’s partly a product of the sector’s high-risk nature, with long development lead times and frequent research failures.

Two events are quite telling of how biotech’s potential is regarded now. The giant Amgen campus in Seattle, expensively outfitted with research-lab space, is getting a new tenant —not another biotech but the online travel agency Expedia. Meanwhile, the state shut down a fund that provided financing for biotech startups.

So why expect anything out of biotech or tech in general for that matter? Research and development prowess matters as does having a core of sizable companies spinning off ideas and talented employees. On those ledger items Tacoma is lacking.

But Tacoma has some other competitive elements to its advantage.

To quote from a LinkedIn posting from Oxford Global on why it picked Tacoma: “Taking living expenses into account, it was important that the surrounding housing districts be financially appealing to our employees. As noted in Sperling’s Best Places, housing in Tacoma is 61 percent cheaper than in Seattle. Also factoring in the cost of meals, transportation and more, Tacoma is 36 percent cheaper overall.”

Every company and industry can claim to be in high tech these days; they’d better be if they want to survive. This cranky columnist has argued before that Tacoma has an established presence in several sectors which it can leverage to build a high-tech base focused on those. Logistics and trade is one. Advanced manufacturing, a sector that Seattle is doing its darnedest to push out of town, is another.

If by design or by unintended consequence Seattle chases away or discourages startups, innovators and small companies with big ideas, Tacoma can position itself to catch the spillover (provided it avoids the municipal “how can we whack business today?” operating philosophy that is a hallmark of Seattle today).

And there’s a lesson for building a tech-centric economic-development strategy: If you can’t build your own tech hub, at least be in close proximity to someone else’s.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.
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