NW Innovation Resource Center

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From one entrepreneur to another

Organization helps bring innovation to fruition

It began with a bright idea: to help other people with bright ideas turn innovation into reality. With the entrepreneurial spirit at heart, founders of NW Innovation Resource Center saw an opportunity to support early-stage entrepreneurs in their community and got to work. Eleven years later, NWIRC has grown from an idea into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that prides itself on its pay-it-forward model.

NWIRC is an organization created by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. Diane Kamionka, the executive director, played an integral part in founding the organization after leading a successful career in corporate America. She had founded a software company in Ohio, took it public, and sold it before moving to Bellingham in the early 2000s. Here, she began supporting other entrepreneurs with the establishment of the NW Agriculture Business Center, until NWIRC began in 2010.

“Once you have your own company and spend time supporting your own ideas, it really becomes important to help other people that have the same ambitions,” Kamionka said.
The executive director, along with her team, took this idea of giving back and applied it to NWIRC. Because the entrepreneurs with whom the organization typically works are in the early stages of their investment process, with little financial flexibility, Kamionka said NWIRC feels it is important to provide early-stage support free of charge. Instead, the entrepreneurs are offered an opportunity to receive support and then donate some of their earnings back to the organization if they are successful in their business endeavors. The donations are then used to support the next entrepreneur seeking NWIRC’s assistance.
When an entrepreneur comes to NWIRC, Kamionka said the team first talks through the validity of their idea with the client.

Kamionka explains: “Is it targeting the right customer? Is it the right solution to the problem that customer has? Because if you don’t discuss that up front, you’re building on possibly inappropriate assumptions.”

Next, NWIRC assists the entrepreneur in building a strategy, figuring out the financial logistics and determining how to market their new product or business. The entrepreneur not only receives a personalized business toolkit but works with a community member within the industry through NWIRC’s “Just-In-Time Mentorship” program — another aspect of the organization’s pay-it-forward model.

The organization matches entrepreneurial clients with like-minded mentors who provide an expert to explain the entrepreneur’s industry and assist with marketing and product development. NWIRC believes this process is equally important for the entrepreneur and the mentor, as both are able to successfully network and develop the region economically. According to the organization’s website, this method allows early-stage entrepreneurs a greater chance at business success.

Though NWIRC serves all innovative entrepreneurs in the region, they have a special focus on innovations for cleantech, maritime and oceans sustainability, agriculture and manufacturing that involve utilizing technology to be competitive in the new digital economy. Whereas King County is centered on technology and software innovation, the five counties (Whatcom, Skagit, Island, San Juan and Snohomish) within the organization’s region share a fabrication and agribusiness focus. However, Kamionka explained that NWIRC does not want to limit itself to just one industry, which is the reason the organization serves a region rather than exclusively Whatcom County.

“The balance of innovation overall is important,” Kamionka said. “It gives us much more of a variety of entrepreneurs with different ideas that can help each other. I think that’s really important for the success of each individual entrepreneur.”

In addition to assisting entrepreneurs individually, NWIRC also conducts various programs that accept a certain number of entrepreneurial or existing business applicants and guide them in various aspects of innovation. The organization recently completed an eight-week workshop focusing on data technology. The program worked with established small businesses to better utilize their data, such as using it for strategic planning, cost reduction and marketing. NWIRC is currently building on what it learned through running this program to create a more substantial program moving forward.

“All small businesses and medium businesses really need to be able to utilize data more effectively to be more competitive in the future,” Kamionka said.

Another program, the Bluetech/Cleantech Incubator Cohort, is scheduled to begin in September. It will assist entrepreneurs and early-stage startups whose innovation positively impacts the environment — specifically air, water or soil.

To achieve this program, NWIRC has partnered with Washington Maritime Blue and the CleanTech Alliance — organizations that support economic development within “bluetech” and “cleantech” innovation, respectively. “Cleantech” is a term used to describe any product or service that supports sustainability by reducing waste and pollution, while “bluetech” refers to innovation that benefits the maritime economy and supports a healthy ocean ecosystem.

The 10-week program will guide innovators from validating their idea to becoming ready for investment in their company. Kamionka explained that because the cohort is creating businesses from the ground up, the volume of jobs will take time to build but will be highly important for the region’s economy.

“There’s so much science and technology that’s involved in [environmental sustainability] that it really bodes well for our region to become leaders in those areas,” Kamionka said.
NWIRC is currently working to create more group-oriented programs; after all, as Kamionka puts it, “entrepreneurs thrive when working with other entrepreneurs.” The organization also recently opened innovation centers in Everett and Arlington. These creative labs are spaces in which entrepreneurs can collaborate on projects with others. The centers conduct programs and events and connect entrepreneurs with mentors and business advisers. NWIRC hopes to open more innovation centers, possibly in Skagit and Whatcom counties.

Kamionka said she holds a great appreciation for all the businesses that have supported the entrepreneurs with whom NWIRC works. She said she believes that the type of new businesses NWIRC assists are key to the economic development of the region and help it to remain “competitive with knowledge-based jobs and businesses.”

From its pay-it-forward donations model to individualized mentoring to synergetic programs and labs, NWIRC is all about one entrepreneur helping the next. One bright idea can change the world, and NW Innovation Resource Center is here to help bring those ideas to life through connection and collaboration.

For more information about the organization, visit nwirc.com. ■