The future of Tacoma might exist in a building dubbed “The Wedge.”
The building, 2304 Jefferson Ave. near the University of Washington Tacoma, houses the Readiness Acceleration and Innovation Network (RAIN.)
The biotech nonprofit hub, which celebrated its grand opening Wednesday, exists to provide start-up companies “with significant support for ideation, research and development, prototyping, business development, and launch,” according to RAIN’s online biography.
Companies using the building might do such work as wearable tech research, environmental and food monitoring research, pathogen research or build on work that could lead to medical diagnostics.
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The plan is to draw from business partnerships, local biotech companies, investors, universities, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and the medical community.
RAIN was founded as a collaboration involving UWT, MultiCare Health System and Madigan Army Medical Center.
It’s the culmination of efforts by its CEO, David Hirschberg, and a small army of volunteers and impassioned staff members, who believe it’s Tacoma’s time to stand outside of Seattle’s shadow.
“Rather than being a bedroom community of Seattle, we can be an urban center,” Hirschberg said in a recent interview with The News Tribune.
“A scientist could work here instead of going to Seattle,” he said. “We would take over production, shift some part of the basic work and bring it here, such as growing a protein and purifying it. We can do that here.”
He works for UWT as affiliate professor and lecturer and principal investigator with the Center for Urban Waters. He also performs contract work for the U.S. Army.
“I grew up here,” said Hirschberg, who graduated from Charles Wright Academy. “I couldn’t wait to get out of here in 1980. The city has done a lot, and it’s going to be an amazing place whether I get involved or not.”
He sees RAIN as a starting point for blue-collar tech. Not only is there lab space available, but also commercial kitchen space and event space.
“Cooking is biotech, too,” Hirschberg noted. “Most of my best students worked in food service; if you can do that, biology is easy.”
There are opportunities for entrepreneurs, researchers, full-fledged companies, startups and students to access the space. RAIN is working on attracting partner companies that would pay membership fees.
“I think companies will come and rent space,” he offered as one business model, but he’s also interested in people starting their own companies “and making it here.”
He sees the hub as a way to think differently about Tacoma’s future.
“It helps us define our destiny,” he said. “Everyone wants a bottling plant or Amazon fulfillment center, but I’m looking for factories that generate tech jobs that pay $50,000, $70,000 or $100,000 that attracts the young people and diversity.
“We can do very fundamental things here, we can build the tools you need to do cancer (research) ... that’s kind of how the biotech revolution started in Seattle.
“You follow your students, watch them start a company, then you have a place for your next tier of students.”
And if a smaller venture decides to make a go of it in Tacoma, after starting at the hub?
“One of those will hit big here,” Hirschberg predicted.
He encourages those in the hub to keep in mind his own simple business model, which he believes is a viable angle for new industry in Tacoma.
“Solve a problem, get it good enough to modify and scale it.”
“I can train anybody,” he said. “(The) ultimate goal is a strong workforce of trained people.”
And, make no mistake, he wants those trained people to stay here.
“My No. 1 export is students,” he said. “ ... the hard thing is to keep them here. We need companies to keep them here.”
He tells those concerned about our real estate and local economy, “If we create jobs and high-paying tech jobs, you guys will fill your apartments and your restaurants.”
“There’s so much opportunity (in Tacoma); I look at these empty buildings ... you just need talented people to drop into them.”
Richard Samuelson, co-president of Keiretsu Tacoma, an angel investors network, believes there’s no time like the present for RAIN to take off.
“One advantage Seattle has is buildings full of Grade A lab space,” he said. Without that in a city, “it’s one of the barriers attracting biotech companies. They absolutely need that.”
The University of Washington certainly played a role in that for Seattle. And, Samuelson sees parallels in Tacoma.
“The connection between UWT and the success of RAIN can’t be ignored,” he noted. “There’s no reason why an economy growing as dynamic as Western Washington can’t support two major universities as part of one system.”
As for the future of the hub and growing new jobs and industry in Tacoma, “In 10 years we may still look like a garage,” Hirschberg said, “but across the street from us I want shiny buildings I can send my students to.”
To learn more about RAIN, becoming a partner or checking out its calendar of events, visit rainincubator.org.