Nonprofits to launch ‘innovation clusters’ with state grants
Methow Valley nonprofits are leading two economic development projects sponsored by the Washington State Department of Commerce. The state agency announced recently that TwispWorks and a partnership comprising Room One and Blue Sky Minds are recipients of Innovation Cluster Accelerator Program (ICAP) Launch awards.
Each award includes a $50,000 grant. The organizations will also participate in a year-long strategic guidance and technical assistance program.
ICAP supports development of innovation clusters, which the U.S. Small Business Administration defines as “networks of businesses and other organizations that work together to maximize their strengths and resources, allowing them to compete on a larger scale.” Commerce began fostering cluster development about two years ago to help “grow key industries in Washington state,” said ICAP Program Director Stephanie Scott.
Cluster members collaborate to “drive innovation, overcome industry-wide barriers, access new market opportunities and attract talent and capital,” according to a news release from Commerce.
To date, Commerce has supported development of nine clusters in several Washington industries. ICAP Launch is a pilot program intended to build capacity for cluster development in rural and other underserved communities.
Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody is a member of Commerce’s Community Engagement Team, and works with stakeholders throughout North Central Washington to build capacity and make good use of the resources Commerce provides.
“The ICAP Launch program is an incredible new opportunity, particularly for rural areas,” she said. “Rural communities in remote areas often lack the capacity and resources to establish a vital network in support of the area’s various businesses. … The establishment of economic clusters, particularly in underserved rural areas, like Okanogan County, can be a game-changer catalyst encouraging greater local collaboration, economic stability, and dynamic business opportunity that meets the needs of local businesses and communities within the region.”
Commerce currently has plans to support two ICAP Launch cohorts. Cohort 1 includes four teams, two in the Methow, one on the Olympic peninsula, and one in the mid-Columbia region. The program is intended to support each team in developing an innovation cluster strategy for its chosen industry. It will also help Commerce understand how to adapt the cluster model to fit non-urban areas, said Scott.
How they work
The concept of innovation clusters evolved from the idea of business clusters, which emerged in the 1990s and posited that multi-faceted partnerships could approach business and economic development differently, and be more competitive, than individual enterprises. Innovation clusters have been effective world-wide, said Scott.
The innovation cluster concept “centers around industry-led groups that bring together industry stakeholders to solve challenges that limit industry growth, like workforce-development challenges, policy and regulatory challenges, access to funding — whatever challenges that particular industry is facing,” she said.
“An innovation cluster is typically a membership-based, industry-led organization” chaired by an industry representative, said Scott. Along with industry, clusters include representatives of academia and government, entrepreneurs and investors.
“We also typically want to see tribes involved,” said Scott
Each ICAP Launch cluster will comprise a core group, whose members will participate in a series of strategic guidance sessions, and an ecosystem — a larger network of partners that brings all relevant voices into the conversation. Both core and ecosystem members will contribute their unique perspectives to the cluster and, ultimately, participate in the evolution of the industry and the local economy.
Local food systems
Based in Mazama, Blue Sky Minds was established last year to “[support] the growth of an equitable, sustainable, and economically thriving food system for everyone in the Okanogan region in Washington,” according to the organization’s website.
The region includes Okanogan County and all of the Colville Reservation, said Blue Sky Minds founder Maria Hines. Room One, the Methow Valley’s social-service nonprofit, is the organization’s fiscal sponsor. Access to food, including fresh produce, has long been a focus of Room One’s work.
Along with Blue Sky Minds and Room One, the group’s core team includes Roni Holder-Diefenbach, Executive Director of The Economic Alliance in Okanogan; Kayla Wells-Yoakum, Director of the Washington State University Okanogan County Extension Office; and food-system expert Katherine Miller, former Vice President of Impact for the James Beard Foundation and founder of social-change consultancy Table 81.
Hines envisions a cluster that will represent all aspects of the region’s food system, including farmers, ranchers, processors, producers of value-added products, and waste-stream management. She has organized a roundtable to facilitate community connection, and to date has hosted two gatherings.
The most recent, held this spring, drew close to 50 participants, including representatives of county and state agencies and local food banks as well as farmers, ranchers, and food processors. The roundtable is a way of building connections and also creates opportunities to “listen … to our small farmers and our small food businesses to see what they think would be of most benefit for the community and for their businesses,” said Hines.
The core group is currently refining its understanding of innovation clusters with Commerce’s guidance and assistance, as well as developing a solid sense of what will be of value to the region. That will help the team identify a business model—such as a food hub or a co-op—on which to base its cluster’s work.
“Within 90 days, we’ll have an idea of what the concept is going to be,” said Hines. “A lot of it is going to depend on what the community wants.”
Within 120 days, said Hines, the core group expects to have an idea of what its ecosystem will look like. Hines has already taken one step toward creating that ecosystem, recruiting Okanogan County Community Action Council Executive Director Rena Shawver, who oversees nine of the county’s food banks — a critical piece of the food system, Hines said.
Ultimately Hines hopes the region will enjoy a food system that’s both “mission driven and heart centered” — one in which businesses succeed, employees earn enough to live on, and everyone has access to fresh healthy food and understands its nutritional value and how to prepare it.
The second local core team is led by TwispWorks and includes Patrick Law, TwispWorks Economic Program Director; Sarah Jo Lightner, Executive Director of Methow Recycles; WasteWise Methow co-owner Casey Bouchard; Joshua Porter, Director of Western Washington University’s Sustainability Pathways Program; Jon Brown of BCS Livestock’s Methow Valley FoodShed, and Julie Muyllaert, co-owner of Methow Cycle and Sport.
The team will focus on developing a circular economy that will “help the area address the effects and causes of climate change on a local scale,” according to Commerce’s news release. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines a circular economy as one that “keeps materials, products, and services in circulation for as long possible.”
That has implications for the valley’s natural ecosystem as well as the economy, Lightner explained. “The circular economy is really about our waste stream and our consumption and resource extraction,” she said. It includes “business that is created around more opportunities and innovation to use our waste stream [within] our communities.”
Especially in rural areas where access to goods and materials is limited, “it makes sense for us to use the resources that we’re bringing into our community as many times as possible in as innovative ways as we can, before [they end up] getting landfilled or ultimately recycled,” said Lightner. “It’s all about resource conservation, slowing down resource extraction, and innovating ways that we can use our waste more than just in a linear way.”
Law noted that a circular economy may be able to “help mitigate the worst effects of climate change, and prepare for an economy that’s going to shift when we have different access to resources — [when] some things aren’t available, or when seasons shift.”
Climate change may affect things like growing seasons or the timing of people’s visits to the valley, said Law, and he sees the ICAP Launch project as “a great opportunity to examine some industries that can not only … help us reduce our impact, but also can, potentially, be reactive to the new climate that we’re going to see going forward.”
To support that examination, Law envisions an ecosystem that will “look at how to reduce waste [and] reduce our impact on the environment, while also creating jobs, and creating opportunities for entrepreneurs.”
To that end, the core team has begun to assemble an ecosystem that, to date, includes eqpd founder Jonathan Baker, supply-chain expert Gavin Gregory, Mazama Store co-owner Mark LeDuc, and Mark Easton, Twisp Town Counccil member and an independent artist. Of the core and ecosystem team members, Law said, “All of these folks were selected because of the amazing work that they’re already doing,” and also for their broad reach as representatives of business, government, academia, and the non-profit community.
TwispWorks is “very interested in seeing the development of a healthy economy that is accessible to everybody throughout the valley,” said Law.The organization has a history of working with local businesses, including providing access to capital through the Methow Investment Network, and Law said he anticipates building on TwispWorks’s connections to “share tools and resources with the business community.”
Commerce’s Scott does not expect the teams to fully develop their clusters during the one-year ICAP Launch period. “We’re bringing together their industry ecosystems, teaching innovation cluster strategy, and learning what components of this industry-led approach will work best in rural communities,” she said.
“Our goal is to prepare these communities to apply for future rounds of the full Innovation Cluster Accelerator Program and better position them for federal funding opportunities and private investment,” said Scott. “This collaborative, industry-led approach aligns well with what we’re seeing federal agencies ask for in competitive applications for grant funding.”
The full ICAP program is supported with funds from the state Legislature and the U.S. Economic Development Administration and provides recipients with additional financial backing and further training and support, including help with strategy, leadership development, branding, and communications.
With their diverse representation and powerful drive to build on what the Methow Valley and Okanogan region communities do best, both local ICAP launch teams have already begun demonstrating their ability to harness the energy of collaboration and take full advantage of the resources that Commerce is providing.
“I am sure that their commitment to explore the formation of a sustainable network of existent vital businesses and partners working within both the circular economy and food industry will serve the local and regional businesses and community well,” said Ing-Moody.
Lightner says that the circular economy the TwispWorks team envisions “fulfills our mission on many, many, many levels.” As the ICAP Launch partners gather, discuss, reach out, and listen, they will be laying the groundwork for changes that will affect the community on many levels, as well.
Low-waste living guide
Methow Recycles recently published a low-waste living guide that provides local households and businesses with detailed information on participating in the valley’s circular economy by reducing, reusing, repairing, composting, and recycling. Living a Low-Waste Life is available at Methow Recycles, the Twisp and Winthrop visitor centers, and online at www.methowrecycles.org/recycling/low-waste-living-guide.