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Originally published Sunday, July 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Hybridize research, economic development

The Innovation Research Teams program invests Washington state money into research to help create new industries in nanophotonics and bioproducts.

In an office in the southern part of the University of Washington campus, the seeds of a new industry are germinating.

Nanophotonics expert and entrepreneur Michael Hochberg speaks not only about the technology's potential for greatly increasing computer processing speed but about how to build an industry infrastructure. He envisions Washington being as much a leader in nanophotonics as it is in biotechnology and global health.

Hochberg is one of the first recruits under an innovative state program that invests in research and the transfer of that technology to the private sector. The Innovation Research Teams program is a hybrid collaboration of the state's economic developers and scholars — pushing technology while creating industry and jobs. The partners are the state Economic Development Commission, the Higher Education Board and the state's two research universities.

Across the state in Richland, Birgitte Ahring is settling into her office at Washington State University's new Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory. Recruited from Denmark, Ahring is the new director of the Center for Bioproducts and Bioenergy and will help establish the state as a leader in developing bioproduct technologies.

Both Hochberg and Ahring are renowned scholars in their fields. But as founders of commercially successful companies, they also have a knack for driving technology to market. And they have the chops to leverage state investment with grants from foundations and the private sector. Hochberg was recently honored with a three-year grant from the U. S. Air Force's Young Investigator Research Program.

The Innovation Research Teams program is fully funded for the current biennium, after supporters fended off an ill-conceived state House effort to cut funding last legislative session. The commission, HEC board and universities are at work now considering what they will ask the Legislature for next year.

While the state budget is likely to be constrained, this program ought to continue to receive strong state support. This program is a case of spending money to make a lot more — and spawning some vibrant industries in the process.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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