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Originally published June 1, 2012 at 11:46 AM | Page modified June 8, 2012 at 12:30 PM

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The sparks fly for Puget Sound innovators

Between 2006 and 2010, the number of patents issued to people in the San Francisco Bay Area grew by 26 percent, while they grew by a whopping 79 percent in the Puget Sound area.

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WHEN MICHAEL Hite and John Hoekman first met in 2007 as graduate students during a business-plan competition at the University of Washington, the creative sparks flew right away.

Hoekman, a scientist, had been researching a way to administer drugs to the brain more effectively, and he'd hit upon a theory.

Maybe the way to bypass the brain's built-in defenses against foreign substances could be through the upper nasal cavity, by applying drugs in the olfactory region where those defenses are weakest but most nasal sprays can't reach.

Hite was studying the same idea and suggested they could build a new company around it.

"A lightbulb went off," Hite says, recalling that night five years ago. "I said, 'This is so fundamental and such a leap forward. We could make this work.' "

They won the business-plan competition.

Today, Hite, Hoekman and co-founder Rodney Hoh run the medical-device company Impel Neuropharma from a small lab on Seattle's First Hill, putting that idea to the test with their patented POD nasal drug-delivery system.

Two oversize grant checks totaling $30,000 decorate a room in the company's offices — a daily reminder that lightbulb moments can pay off if you know what to do, and whom to call, after that initial burst of inspiration.

As Hite and Hoekman discovered, invention has many mothers. But the subculture of innovation fueling the dreams of people who want to be the next Bill Boeing or Bill Gates is harder to discern.

There are lots of ways to measure a region's intellectual capital, its innovation mojo.

One way is to look at the number of patents issued to people and companies in the region each year. Prosperityblog recently posted results of its study showing that the Puget Sound area is second only to the San Francisco Bay Area in the number of "utility patents" issued in the United States to protect the function and capabilities of inventions, even though the Bay Area has a population twice as large as ours. More tellingly, between 2006 and 2010, the number of patents issued to people in the Bay Area grew by 26 percent, while they grew by a whopping 79 percent here.

Another way of measuring is to think of the area as a kind of innovation ecosystem, full of thinkers and tinkerers who compete but also feed each other.

SEATTLE IS a hotbed of great ideas, and those ideas bounce like Ping-Pong balls from place to place.

Think of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with its $33.5 billion endowment to fund projects in global health and education, which would not exist were it not for Gates' staggering success at Microsoft.

Very little hardscrabble research goes on at its stylishly serene campus near downtown Seattle. What the foundation does instead is fund other people's innovations, or make a direct plea to researchers and big thinkers to help with one of the organization's own goals, such as fighting malaria.

"We'll put out a call to the world" for creative ideas and promising science, says Tom Scott, the foundation's director of brand and innovation.

Given the foundation's immensity, it can afford to put hundreds of balls into play at any one time, increasing the chances of a truly great breakthrough.

Take, for instance, Gates' support for the vaccine efforts at the UW and Seattle's Infectious Disease Institute, or its grant to a World Vision researcher who is refining mobile technology that can be used by health workers in developing countries.

The foundation receives thousands of proposals each year for programs such as its Grand Challenges Exploration grants, for which applicants must make a convincing pitch in just two short pages.

"What's really neat," Scott says, "is someone may submit an idea and as the process goes on, they may connect with other people who have submitted ideas and kind of tweak theirs. It kind of creates a community of collaboration, and that's exciting."

Hite agrees: "There is a feedback mechanism in this town that is different from other places such as San Francisco or Boston."

The UW's director of the Center of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Connie Bourassa-Shaw, has thought a lot about how to maintain a climate of innovation that produces real results in the form of pioneering technologies, products and companies.

Maybe it's less about building a specific curriculum or following a set of rules than promoting a certain attitude.

"There are lots of people who come up with great ideas every day, but they don't do anything about it," Bourassa-Shaw says. "A great idea is not a great company. There's a lot that has to happen between that lightbulb going off and something over here providing value to customers, and the company, of course."

The ideal innovator, she says, is one who can see a pioneering opportunity, then surround himself with good people who can help carry that idea through to the marketplace — or maybe even create a whole new market.

"It takes a specific sort of individual to say, 'I see this problem. I can solve this problem. I'm gonna do this thing,' " she says.

Luckily, our region has no shortage of role models operating at this level.

Fortune magazine recently listed Gates, Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Starbucks' Howard Schultz among the top 12 "Greatest Entrepreneurs of Our Time."

All you have to do is visit a place like Intellectual Ventures Lab in Bellevue, the invention and patent mill founded in 2008 by Microsoft megamillionaire Nathan Myhrvold, to get a feel for how those great minds think.

As Bourassa-Shaw suggests, they are not like the rest of us.

Sitting in his office one miserably rainy day, the IV Lab's director, Geoff Deane, lets out a belly laugh over the mere idea of harnessing or even understanding the level of creative thinking required for innovation to happen.

"Where does that spark come from?" he says. "That's a hell of a question!"

With billions of dollars in its research war chest, IV Lab specializes in mixing garage-level tinkering with strategizing among the world's smartest people.

But when Deane, formerly chief technology officer of a medical-device company in California, arrived at IV in 2008, there were two machinists, an administrative assistant and himself. There was no real business strategy.

Very much in keeping with the freewheeling personality of its founder, Myhrvold, "We were told to figure it out," Deane says.

"At my first major meeting on the job," he says with lingering disbelief, "I'm sitting next to Bill Gates, and we're talking about his vaccine-development strategy for the next 10 years at the Gates Foundation."

"When you're sitting on the outside of the universe and kind of wondering what it's like in the middle, you don't quite know where it is but you know it's somewhere," he says of his first months at IV. "And when you get there, you're like, 'Oh! This is where this stuff happens!' "

He cracks up laughing again.

Deane says his company's business is to dwell in the "fuzzy front end" of innovation, where blue-sky thinking and prolific patent-making rule. The lab will pass the most promising ideas on to others who will develop them into products for the market.

He says members of his team of about 110 researchers and inventors hold regular "invention sessions" to dream up ideas that will have high impact "and make us a lot of money, quite frankly." IV Lab is a business, after all — and a growing one. It will hire about 50 more inventors by year's end.

Even so, at IV Lab, the approach remains, " 'What are we doing today? Let's go play,' " Deane says.

Where else but here, for instance, would people conceive of a machine to beat back hurricanes or reverse global warming?

Deane may not be able to answer the question of exactly how lightbulb moments happen, but he's created an environment that seems designed to increase the chances that they will.

Taking a tour of the complex's rarefied wonders with Deane is a bit like being led around the Chocolate Factory by Willy Wonka.

The whole compound is decorated with "little artifacts" — purchased at auctions by Myhrvold and others on the team. They have a glassed-in Wimhurst electrostatic generator from the 1800s, which Deane cranks to produce startling, Frankenstein-y lightning bolts. "It's in a glass case because it can actually kill you," Deane says before breaking out into childlike laughter once more.

There's a 1960s-era computer as well as Soft-serve and Slurpee machines — somebody had to invent those, too.

Each building at IV Lab is named after a famous inventor.

We stroll from the Da Vinci Building, where Deane's digs are, next door to the Gutenberg Building. The annex houses a massive computer that Deane casually says is "solving problems" for IV's nuclear-reactor company, TerraPower, and mapping out disease patterns to develop vaccine programs.

We cross the street to a drab, 20,000-square-foot warehouse IV shares with a commercial cleaning business. Just inside, we're greeted by a life-size model of a skeleton dressed in a lab coat, its light-up eyeballs made of yellowcake uranium.

In addition to aggressively acquiring patents from other research groups, a practice that has earned the firm some detractors who believe they've been overzealous, the company draws from a worldwide network of several thousand outside inventors who constantly feed in new ideas.

But at the lab itself, Deane has about 27 Ph.Ds on staff. Some employees come from other companies, where they gained experience developing products. "And then you have some people who are sort of self-educated," he says.

"You throw 'em all together and you see what comes out, and what you end up getting is an attitude which is best described as 'irreverent.' It's a little tongue-in-cheek. It's a little fun . . . We're serious about the research that we do but, you know, rules need not apply here." (More laughter.)

The IV Lab complex is plastered with inspirational and cheeky sayings from great inventors throughout history, but you can't help thinking of something Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka said: "A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men."

IV Lab, the center of the universe where "stuff happens," is indeed a realm of pure imagination.

The lab may use base things that most of us have seen or heard of before, but many of its products are straight out of Dr. Who.

Just above the skeleton is a video screen with red and green bands of light streaking across it. Deane points to an aquarium-like container at the far end of the room, where mosquitoes zip back and forth. A "photonic fence" in the lab picks up the flutter of their wings, showing them as red or green streaks on the screens. Male and female mosquitoes flap their wings at different speeds, producing distinct frequencies. The fence's laser can be programmed to home in on the females — only female mosquitoes transmit malaria — and zap them dead in the blink of an eye, a trick Deane demonstrates with pride.

The ideas that spring out of the lab are downright Pythagorean. One cool idea here plus another cool idea being hashed out across the room can equal something even more mind-blowing than the two original ideas.

"You get a chemist hanging out with a biologist hanging out with a neuroscientist and you get new stuff," Deane says. "A mathematician wandered into a meeting a couple of weeks ago and ended up solving a problem that had been plaguing him for like four months."

When people like Bill Gates hang out at IV Lab, amazing things happen. Deane shows off a portable refrigeration unit that can keep an ice cube frozen for 100 days, a great tool that can be adapted for storing lifesaving vaccines in developing countries as well as perishable goods that farmers can transport to distant markets.

Deane's inventors have also built an antenna tower with a receiver that can track moving satellites using "metamaterials" that can bend radiated emissions, such as light, a technology that could revolutionize wireless communications — or just make a cool invisibility cloak someday.

Then there is what looks like a kitchen that's been plucked out of someone's home and placed, intact, in the middle of the lab. This one area has made Myhrvold something of a household name. Here, he and his "Modernist Cuisine" researchers are revolutionizing the way we prepare food.

As we pass, one of the researchers on the cuisine team "cooks" with a jar of raspberries, but on second glance, you realize the kitchen is stocked with beakers, test tubes and other paraphernalia not found in grandma's kitchen.

And those raspberries? A closer look reveals they are frozen so solid they're giving off cold vapors. This will be no old-fashioned dessert.

AFTER THE mind-bending attractions of IV Lab, it's refreshing to walk into the cluttered offices of Tovolo, a small kitchenware company hidden away in a complex close to Seattle's Lake Union.

There, owner Matthew Frank and his team sketch out, design and market innovative and brightly colored takes on mundane utensils like spatulas, mixers, tea presses and ice-pop molds.

While the grant makers at the Gates Foundation sponsor programs to wipe out disease and the geniuses at IV Lab brainstorm inventions with a distinct wow-factor, the staff at Tovolo employs a subtler cleverness when designing a new take on, say, a casserole-dish holder or a lemon juicer, in hopes they can "create delight" at the point of sale, as chief designer Ryan Peloquin puts it.

"We literally go back to the drawing board and reinvent the wheel with each of these implements," he says.

At the end of the day, though, the same rules for whether to move forward with a project apply here as much as at the upper echelons of research, Frank says.

"Does this make sense? Is it marketable? Does it have a story behind it?" he says, reeling off the questions his team must ask for every design.

"There has to be an emotional connection from the user," he says. "There has to be an 'Aha!' moment."

Even for a company dedicated to helping people have more fun cooking, the key to success starts with a spark.

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW staff writer. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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