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Elson S. Floyd, Ph.D. - 03/05/08

Shaping Our Economic Future

In my conversations with business, government and community leaders around the state, I often talk about the close connection between university research and Washington’s long-term economic prosperity. A recent news item shows how that connection happens.

Last week, Dr. Birgitte Ahring accepted our offer to lead Washington State University’s statewide interdisciplinary center on the conversion of biomass into bioproducts and biofuels.  Ahring, who will be based at WSU Tri-Cities, will coordinate our bioproducts efforts at all WSU research locations across Washington. The goal is to promote research and technology transfer, creating new businesses and jobs in our state.

A native of Denmark, Ahring is a world-class scientist who understands both the worlds of academia and private enterprise. The center is a great example of the kind of public-private partnership that Washington’s economy needs, and that we at WSU are eager to develop.

In recent decades, our state’s economy has thrived, in part, because of home-grown companies that have become international powerhouses. Going forward, however, we cannot simply wait for the next Microsoft or Boeing to bloom. In today’s intensely competitive economic environment, we need to focus on areas in which Washington has the research expertise and the facilities to become a leader.

Clean energy and sustainability are particularly promising. The Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, being built at the WSU Tri-Cities campus in partnership with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, will be a focal point of our university’s bioproducts research. In Ahring, we have attracted a leader who knows the scientific challenges ahead and, just as important, knows how to turn research advances into new businesses.

Ahring is founder and chief executive officer of BioGasol, an engineering and technology company that is a partner in the Pacific Northwest’s first ethanol plant, being built in Boardman, Ore.

Seed money that will contribute to the startup costs for her research at WSU should come through a legislative appropriation for the state’s new “entrepreneurial stars” program.  While I recognize that the Legislature faces many tough budgeting choices, I am confident that this program, if judged on its merits, will be funded. This is exactly the kind of investment that our state must make to become a leader in this emerging economic area.

Last week, the Seattle Times published an editorial in support of the program, which will fund a world-class researcher at both Washington State University and the University of Washington. The editorial read, in part, “This money isn't for only two researchers; it's for two researchers, their programs, labs and building the traction it takes to transfer the technology into the private sector. That means jobs.”

I am excited that WSU has been able to attract such a remarkable researcher to lead its effort and that, through this program and others, our university continues to play such an integral role in shaping Washington’s economic future.