This article first appeared on on October 11, 2021.

As the economy shakes out, new and growing businesses are deciding where to locate post-pandemic. For most, the availability of skilled, trained and ready-to-work employees is a priority — if not the No. 1 criteria.

“This is going to come down to talent,” says Gary Ballew, GSI’s vice president for economic development. “We already see a scarcity of workers across the country. The ability for companies to be successful is the ability of the community to grow, attract and retain talent.”

Reliable, relevant data helps focus the search — so you know whether a community has the talent pipeline your company needs. In Spokane County, the numbers have been good and steadily getting better:

  • High school graduations. At 86.02% in 2019-’20, Spokane County’s high school graduation rate has been rising steadily for the past decade. It’s remained consistently higher than the statewide rate (83.91% in 2019-’20).
  • College attendance. In 2019, 71.2% of Spokane County residents 25 and older had attended college. That total percentage includes 40.2% of residents who had attended some college, on their way to earning a degree, or earned an associate’s degree. (That rate was higher than the state and U.S. averages.) That total percentage also includes 19.5% of residents who had bachelor’s degrees, and another 11.5% with graduate or professional degrees.
  • Civilian labor force participation. Spokane County offers the largest labor market in eastern Washington and northern Idaho. At 61.89% in 2019, the percentage of  Spokane County’s total civilian labor force — the number of employed people plus the those actively seeking work — had been rising steadily since 2015.

Advantage Spokane’s regional Data Center is packed with searchable information about talent, the business climate, infrastructure and utilities, transportation and other factors key to decision-making.

Key data curated for businesses is also easy to find on a free interactive web tool called the Vitals (the source of the talent-related data above). It’s a tool built for businesses throughout Washington and those looking to locate in the state. The Vitals bring together more than 30 key economic indicators in Washington counties or MSAs, and at the state level. The indicators reflect regions’ progress related to economic recovery, talent, business environment, infrastructure and connectivity, entrepreneurship and innovation, and place and community.

The tool makes is part of Washington in the Making, a framework for the state’s post-pandemic economic recovery created by the AWB Institute.

Commitment to education

In Spokane County, the strong numbers related to talent reflect a regional, long-term commitment to developing a talent pipeline that matches employers’ needs.

It starts with education.
The Spokane region is home to public and private colleges and universities attended by nearly 80,000 students. The county’s 14 school districts and 60 private schools provide charter programs, STEM academies, skills centers and bilingual programs in addition to high-quality K-12 education.

The region also supports training programs that ensure that the engaged, ready-to-work people in our labor force learn the skills and grow the talents that new and growing businesses need.

High quality of life

But Ballew notes that it’s just as important to be able to attract and keep skilled and talented people around, in addition to supporting quality education and training programs.

Ballew said he’s seen quality-of-life issues become more important for employers and workers, starting even before the pandemic. But now, many have experienced a shift in perspective; they’ve looking for qualities like shorter commutes and easy access to lakes, rivers, forests and mountains.

“COVID accelerated a lot of shifts,” Ballew says, “and that was one of them.”

And that important change is another good reason to consider the good life in Spokane.

This article first appeared in GeekWire on September 18 2021. Article by

The biotech and healthtech community in Eastern Washington has a loyal base of startups that laud their local connections and the support of a tight-knit group of entrepreneurs.

That’s a message echoed by several of the region’s CEOs and founders recently at the East West Life Science Summit, a meeting sponsored by industry group Life Science Washington.

“We have long-standing relationships and community built in this region that allows innovators to advance ideas and network and connect in a way that you just don’t get in more urbanized areas,” said Georgina Lynch, co-founder of Appiture Biotechnologies, which is developing ways to diagnose autism by measuring light reflexes in the eye. She is also an assistant professor at Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane.

Appiture is one of several startups in the region fostered by WSU’s tech transfer office — though not all WSU spinouts stay.

Well before its public offering last year, WSU neurosciences spinout Athira Pharma made the move to the Seattle area, as has Cancer Targeted Technology, which is developing diagnostics and therapeutics for prostate cancer and has a licensing deal with pharma giant Novartis.

But companies that stay are rewarded with a lower cost of living for their workers and a stable employee base in a region with a less hectic pace of living than larger cities, said Shade Needham at the meeting.

“Once somebody finds the right position they don’t leave, and so there’s very low turnover,” said Needham, who owns Alturas Analytics, a contract research organization that performs chemical analyses for drug companies. The company is located in Moscow, Idaho, adjacent to the Washington border.

Parrots CEO David Hojah, left, poses with a man using an AI-enhanced assistive parrot device, perched on wheelchair at right, to assist with vision. (Parrots photo)

Proximity to Seattle and the region’s recreational options are also luring an increasing number of tech companies to Spokane, such as Seattle-based pet company Rover, which has an outpost in the city.

Tech activity bolsters the larger startup ecosystem in the Spokane region, an area of about 500,000 people. Startups can tap into institutions such as Greater Spokane Incorporated, a business development organization, Startup Spokane, and the Health Sciences and Services Authority of Spokane County, a Washington state-funded group that issues grants to the life and health sciences research industry.

Last December, WSU launched a Spokane-based incubator for early stage life sciences companies. Spinout Space in Spokane (sp³nw) provides lab and office space for startups including H Source, a marketplace for hospitals to buy and sell medical products from each other, and clinical genetic testing company Allele Diagnostics.

Startups have also been buoyed by early stage funders in the region such as entrepreneur Tom Simpson, who sold his e-commerce company Etailz for $75 million in 2016. He has backed dozens of Spokane-area startups as CEO of Ignite Funds and president of the Spokane Angel Alliance.

Spokane entrepreneur and angel investor Tom Simpson. (Ignite Northwest Photo)

Since 1921, Spokane has been home to a company now called Jubilant HollisterStier that is manufacturing components for COVID-19 vaccines. The contract research organization is a subsidiary of global company Jubilant Pharma.

Eastern Washington has the talent pool and early-stage funding opportunities to support more life sciences growth, said meeting attendees.

“You can get very well connected here very quickly,” said Parrots CEO and founder David Hojah. Hojah received funding from Simpson and other backers to launch his eight-employee startup developing assistive technologies for people with multiple sclerosis and other conditions. Parrots also recently won second place at a Novartis-sponsored competition for its tech device to support vision, which looks like a parrot.

Hojah previously lived in Boston and recently moved to Spokane from Seattle. So far, his impression is positive: “It’s the connection, the people, the vibes and the energy.”

Several other Spokane-area companies were highlighted by speakers at the summit.

  • Swabbing a dog for a genetic test. (Paw Prints Photo)

    Paw Print Genetics services dog breeders and veterinarians with nearly 300 genetic tests for over 350 different dog breeds. Founder and CEO Lisa Shaffer received an undergraduate degree from WSU and returned years later as a genetics professor. She co-founded Signature Genomic Laboratories, a Spokane-based genetic testing company for children with developmental disabilities that sold for $90 million in 2010. Paw Print, founded in 2012, had 40 employees in 2020 and was growing.

  • Medcurity makes it easier for healthcare organizations to comply with federal privacy and security laws through an online series of queries resembling Turbotax. Last summer the startup raised $500,000 from Seattle’s SeaChange fund, on the heels of $737,00 from Washington Research Foundation.
  • Photon Biosciences leverages its technology for ultra-sensitive imaging of biological materials and is developing an at-home test for contamination of blood platelet donations. The WSU spinout has landed grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health totaling $415,000, matched locally by the Health Sciences and Services Authority of Spokane. CEO Chandima Bandaranayaka previously rose from research intern to business development manager at VMRD, a 40-year-old Pullman-based diagnostics company.
  • S2 Media manufactures and sells materials for culturing microbes. In 2019 the company secured $750,000 in funding from “local investors” to expand production in its 5,000-square-foot operation. The company was founded in 2015 by microbiologist Stephanie Bernards, who has a master’s degree from Eastern Washington University and is a former quality assurance manager at Jubilant HollisterStier.
  • Crimson Medical Solutions is led by co-founder Stephen Bone, who graduated from WSU in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering. Crimson is making an organization system for IV lines to reduce medical errors. The three-employee, three-intern company has received grant funding from Greater Spokane Incorporated.

(Updated 7/16/2021 with new project cost and timeline on the Interstate 90-state Route 41 project.) by Kevin Blocker.


Established in Portland, Oregon in 1976, the transportation civil engineering consulting company David Evans & Associates Inc. has secured a solid presence in the Inland Northwest.

Especially in Idaho.

Despite the fact the biggest share of the company’s Inland Northwest employees are based in Spokane, it tends to secure more work in Idaho than in Eastern Washington.

“Idaho has a more robust program for consultants,” says Russell Leahy, the company’s transportation market leader for the Inland Northwest.

“(Washington state Department of Transportation) does a lot of work internally, so they don’t give much work to consultants,” Leahy says. The situation is similar for both the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley, he adds.

“Idaho typically runs lean, and they rely more on consultants to help deliver their work,” Leahy says. “We have a breadth of technical skills across the area and across the company that we can draw from. If we do a project here, we can pull people in from all over the company. We have the horsepower to deliver on tight time frames.”

The company has 750 employees in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, California, Colorado, Nevada, Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and New York.

Roughly 35 employees are based in in the company’s Spokane office with another 20 in the Coeur d’Alene office.

Due to COVID-19, however, a significant part of the company’s Inland Northwest workforce is scattered across the region and working remotely, he says.

“We’ve got people in Clarkston (Washington), Lewiston (Idaho) … one in Riggins, Idaho,” he says.

More recently, a significant portion of David Evans & Associates’ Inland Northwest staff has increasingly turned its attention to a planned two-year, $57.2 million Idaho Transportation Department project for which the company is the consultant and design company.

Though he declines to provide specific revenue figures, Leahy says company revenues and projects have been on the rise in the last two to three years.

The project, for which construction will begin in 2023, involves the complete realignment of the Interstate 90-state Route 41 interchange in Post Falls.

“That is a major interchange upgrade to take a lot of the current goofiness out it,” Leahy says in reference to the area’s often inconsistent traffic flow. “But it’s going to be a disruption to everyone driving on the interstate because there’s going to be a lot of work on it.”

When finished, a portion of state Route 41 just off the freeway will be relocated to the west of its current location.

“By moving it away from the hillside, that’s going to allow us to move the westbound off ramp to prevent cars from backing up on the freeway the way they often do now,” he says. “It will give more time and room for people to slow down coming off the freeway.”

“The ultimate goal is to increase the operational efficiency of the interchange,” Leahy says. “It’s a really exciting project for us.”

David Evans & Associates also is the consulting and design company for ITD’s soon-to-be completed realignment of the state Route 53-U.S. 95 interchange just north of Coeur d’Alene and eight miles north of I-90.

In Spokane

But David Evans & Associates also secures a substantial amount of work in the Spokane area, Leahy says.

The civil engineering company currently is operating as the consultant to WSDOT for the current realignment project involving North Barker Road at East Trent Avenue in Spokane Valley, he says.

The project will place a roundabout at Barker and Trent while moving vehicle traffic below a BNSF Railway Co. line bridge to slow traffic while separating motorists from the rail line, he says.

“The separation of vehicular traffic from the railroad tracks is the big facet of that project,” says Leahy, of WSDOT’s desire to reduce keep motorists and trains away from each other as much as possible.

Leahy, a 15-year employee at the company, says most employees at the company have long-standing tenure.

“That’s one of our strengths; we’re a very stable company,” he says.

Despite that, Leahy says it has been a challenge to add more staff to the company’s Inland Northwest operations.

“Following the financial crisis of 2008, 2009, for two or three years, no one was hiring civil engineers,” he says. “A lot of people went to other fields and careers. Even still, it’s really hard to find good engineers right now.”

The growth in the Boise area, however, did result in the hiring of an additional 20 civil engineers to the company to handle work on burgeoning projects there, Leahy says.

“We’re hiring anybody we can right now, if they have skills and are good,” he says.

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This article first appeared on the Washington State Department of Commerce website on July 31, 2021.

Commerce work with local leaders in town decimated by wildfire reveals new approaches to better serve communities in crisis

Imagine feeling the scorching heat as you stand, stranded on the nearest small patch of green alfalfa, helpless against flames consuming the house on your family’s homestead settled generations ago. Or feeling a tightening knot in the pit of your stomach as you rush to the engulfed homes and businesses of your neighbors, making sure everyone is safe from the wildfire swallowing buildings whole. Imagine, then immediately shifting gears to lead rebuilding the devastated community, all while your own family is among those who lost everything.

That was reality for the current town mayor Dan Harwood and volunteer firefighter and town councilmember Scott Hokonson last September when the Babb Road fire roared through the rural town of Malden, Washington and destroyed 80 percent of its homes and buildings in a matter of hours. The small community of fewer than 300 residents sits among the rolling hills and fields of Washington’s Palouse, about 40 miles south of Spokane.

Horse in a pasture against background of green rolling hills in Malden, WA
Less than 300 residents call tiny Malden, Washington home. The town is nestled in the green, rolling hills of the Palouse about 40 miles south of Spokane. The Babb Road wildfire erased 80% of the buildings in this quiet rural community in a matter of hours.

Harwood, Hokonson and other local leaders and teams of dedicated individuals, have been working nonstop in their efforts to rebuild and come back even stronger. That effort has also challenged state agencies to rethink what it means to serve a community in crisis.

Community needs run the gamut, small to large, simple to complex

Immediate needs following a disaster are typically clear — food, shelter, water, communication and power restoration. Then what? What about the future? The extent of the damage in the community was near total, requiring extensive ongoing long-term recovery assistance.

For months, the president’s approval for a federal disaster declaration was delayed in Washington DC, leaving the entire community wondering if or when they could access recovery funds and resources for the town and its families and businesses. This put even more pressure on state and local government agencies, led by the state’s Emergency Management Division and Commerce’s Energy Emergency Management Director, to mobilize crisis response and support for the residents of Malden and neighboring Pine City.

Following the initial wildfire response, as the community looks towards recovery, Commerce Director Lisa Brown said the first step is simple but frequently overlooked — listening. She said all too often, well-meaning agencies show up to the rescue with a standard toolkit of services and funding in hand. Communities are unique, and this one-size-fits-all solution isn’t always what a community actually needs.

“Plenty of people are willing to step up and help, but coordination is the heavy lift,” said Commerce Director Lisa Brown. “We were able to embed with the community and listen carefully to their needs. Sorting out the processes for getting what they need is something local leaders very often just don’t have the capacity to track down and do in the midst of such chaos.”

Connections more important than funding

Commerce’s Community Engagement Team arrived in Malden and met with local leaders led by Mayor Harwood and Hokonson in his role as Long-term Recovery Project Director.

“It’s important to build the relationship — one-way communication is not what they need,” said Commerce’s Community Outreach Specialist Julia Havens who serves in the northeastern part of the state. “We didn’t come in with pre-conceived notions and try to do things right away. We started slow and kept showing up.”

With such overwhelming needs, it became clear that the question of “what can I do to be helpful” would keep changing.

Hokonson expressed that the community “will take whatever you have to offer, whenever you’re ready to offer it.”

Helping the local recovery leadership team map and track their myriad needs and then organize around finding the right resources was key. Small town leaders wear multiple hats under normal circumstances, so the strain in a situation like this is overwhelming. Commerce brought together “tech teams” to address everything from housing to broadband to water infrastructure with inter-agency partners.

Some needs, such as emergency housing and communications, were straightforward. Shortly after the fire, Commerce’s Community Services and Housing Division identified funds for emergency rental assistance, and the Washington Broadband Office jumped in to negotiate with private internet service providers to get and keep the community connected.

Other essential needs continue to pop up daily amid the destruction.

When the call came “we need highway signs,” Commerce connected the town with regional transportation officials to take the lead.

Every small victory keeps the team encouraged.

“They will have a replacement flag at the post office, a new outgoing mailbox installed and now a new nearby post office is in the works. These wins help the community realize the sense of place and they matter,” recalls Havens.

Rebuilding for resilience — planning ahead to be prepared

Dozens of federal and state agencies, nonprofit and faith-based organizations and other groups have come to the table to help strengthen the community. One of those organizations is the Washington State Public Works Board, a leading member of the infrastructure “tech team” of experts involved in the ongoing recovery work.

Malden’s water system had been severely damaged in the fire, and private wells in the community were contaminated by ash and debris.

The Public Works Board was able to use its statutory flexibility to adopt a new policy to expand the funding limit of its emergency program in the case of catastrophic events, and took action to do so at their April meeting. This new policy also provided the Board with latitude to approve up to 100% grant funding to requests meeting this criteria.

As a result, Malden applied for $3.7 million in grant funding to drill a new town well, connect the private wells that had been contaminated to the system, and install additional water mains and fire hydrants to provide and increase fire protection. The board awarded full funding on May 7, Mayor Harwood signed the contract days later, and the required review processes began the next day. Completion of this project will ensure adequate water resources, public health and safety, preserve property values and support economic revitalization.

Public Works Board Chair Kathryn Gardow said, “The measure of any community is the way it handles adversity. Few towns have been tested as harshly as Malden, and their resolve and passion to rebuild after this devastating fire is clear. The Public Works Board is proud to stand with the town of Malden as it rebuilds and transitions to a brighter future and look forward to seeing Malden rebuilt better than ever.”

One wrinkle in the funding remained. In order for the funding to be used, state law requires the municipality to have an updated critical areas ordinance (CAO) in place. Malden’s CAO was last updated in 2007. Commerce connected its growth management services staff with town clerk Micki Harnois to work collaboratively on expedited completion of the new ordinance.

“Here’s an example of a government agency starting from ‘how can we make this happen’ when it could have been ‘you’re out of compliance.’ When you’re working to help a small, local community be successful, the approach has to be totally different,” Havens said.

Mayor Dan Harwood and Town Clerk Micki Harnois

Mayor Dan Harwood and Town Clerk Micki Harnois are among the dedicated leaders working tirelessly to rebuild their community where so many families lost everything.

Another consequence of the fire was that it destroyed the built and natural identifiers for land parcel boundaries. Parcel boundaries are crucial for property owners as they begin rebuilding, as well as the town and county for land use planning efforts. In February this year, Commerce provided a $55,000 grant to help Malden conduct a land survey and plan for integrating the data into their future plans, which was recently completed.

“It’s been my privilege to meet Mayor Harwood and Micki. It’s absolutely an honor to play a very small part in the recovery of Malden, not just to rebuild but to build back better,” said Commerce’s Local Government Division Director Mark Barkley, who deployed numerous team members to assist the town.

Once the request for federal disaster declaration came through 151 days later on February 4, FEMA assistance finally became available, opening a cascade of other resources that had been dependent on the federal designation. Property testing and cleanup is underway, but the list of priority infrastructure projects is long. Local leaders press on, supported by many offers of assistance from philanthropic, religious and other community partners in addition to federal and state partners.

Other long-term efforts underway include looking at affordable housing throughout the Pine Creek area. Commerce’s community services and housing staff are working with community leaders to form a low and moderate-income housing roundtable to identify resources to help address long-term needs and build community resilience for the future.

Lessons learned will guide change

Commerce team members remain engaged in various aspects of the community’s long-term recovery.

“We showed up and we stayed; we were there week after week,” said Brown.

Havens, who is embedded with the town and local long-term recovery teams, continues to attend and support daily and weekly coordination calls.

“I am inspired by those who have lost so much and yet are completely dedicated to keep moving forward. I am doing everything that I can to continue helping them get those wins,” she said.

Beyond the short-term satisfaction of helping neighbors in need, Brown said the agency gained important insights that will guide future action.

The experience raised a set of questions about helping the next community in crisis. What needs to be there, ready to go? What can be done proactively to ensure community resilience in the face of disaster?

For example, Brown notes restrictions on state funding is a challenge. “We learned there’s just not much flexible funding out there that allows us to come in and cross program or agency boundaries to get the community what they need. That’s something we’ll be exploring with legislators.”

Above all, the experience reinforced for Commerce’s entire team and their many partners that there is no substitute for the power of ongoing, trusted relationships to strengthen communities.

New flagpole installed on the site of what will be the town’s new post office.

A fresh flag waves from a new flagpole where a new post office building will soon stand, seeming to signal that Malden is on the comeback trail.

Harwood, who calls himself a “glass half full” guy, is upbeat about his community’s future, in spite of challenges still ahead for the residents of this small town who have experienced the double trauma of COVID-19 and wildfire in one short year.

In addition to completing clean up of nearly every property, construction of new water and large scale septic systems and acquisition of two new fire trucks, Harwood is bullish on opportunities that will come with the town’s future fiber-optic broadband infrastructure.

He likens the potential impact of broadband to that of rail coming to Malden in 1903. Once the Port of Whitman’s plan for connecting the community to high-speed internet is complete, Harwood envisions more folks opting for the slower pace, recreational opportunities and lower land prices of small town life in a beautiful place.

And for some who already call the town home, Harwood paints a picture of what it could mean. He thinks about training veterans struggling with PTSD to work from home, providing supplemental income, and more importantly, he said, bolstering a sometimes battered sense of self-worth.

Harwood is matter-of-fact: “Broadband changes lives.”

He also strikes a serious tone as he speaks about challenges still on the horizon, such as mental health capacity for people to be able to have a proper “debrief.” Neighbors need to talk with each other, he said, about what they went through and how they survived it, first the trauma of COVID and then the fire.

Havens and others continue to stand side-by-side with local leaders as they navigate these and other emerging needs on the road to recovery.

“Commerce is the one of the best kept secrets,” Harwood offered. “I can’t name them all, but these people are ingrained in Malden. I can’t say enough about what all the support means for our community.”

This article first appeared in the Spokesman Review on May 21, 2021. By Amy Edelen [email protected](509) 459-5581


Kootenai County companies saw an uptick in investment despite the pandemic last year, according to a recent report by the Idaho Technology Council.

The council’s 2020 Idaho Deal Flow report, released earlier this week, tracks private funding, public market transactions and mergers and acquisitions.

North Idaho had 10 company mergers and acquisitions and 26 private investment deals last year totaling $164.3 million, according to the report.

Companies in Kootenai County garnered more than $67.7 million in funding from investors last year.

Ryan Arnold, director of regional entrepreneurial strategy at North Idaho College, said Thursday that 2020 was an interesting year for North Idaho’s business community.

At the onset of the pandemic, the region’s startup activity was expected to decrease, but the opposite occurred as more entrepreneurs took risks and developed business ideas, Arnold said.

“We saw an uptick in entrepreneurship activity,” he said.

North Idaho is now on the map as a viable area to obtain funding and conduct business, in part, because of its proximity to Spokane, Seattle and Boise, Arnold said.

“Overall, it feels like a good time to be here,” Arnold said.

Statewide, the number of investment deals dropped slightly to 151 last year, compared with 154 in 2019. However, the overall amount of capital invested increased to $5.2 billion last year from $4.4 billion in 2019.

Coeur d’Alene-based Tractor Beverage Co. last year was among the state’s top 10 private placement deals, a round of investment through a private offering . The specialty soda company completed an $18.5 million round of venture funding from investors in 2020.

“Our equity raise completed in April 2020 has enabled Tractor to continue its growth in the industry and helped us achieve a 475% increase in revenues in 2020,” Dan Kerker, CFO of Tractor Beverage Co., said in an email.

Seven Kootenai County-based companies raised more than $1 million in funding last year. GarageSkins Inc. is one of those companies, raising $1.2 million in December in a deal led by Central Texas Angel Network.

GarageSkins founder Rick Medlen moved from Oregon to Liberty Lake last year and is leasing 60,000 square feet of space at 5405 W. Riverbend Ave. in Post Falls for a new production facility, with plans to take the company’s garage door overlay system to market in July.

Medlen developed a concept of thin, wood veneers adhered to lightweight foam that attaches to metal garage doors via strong earth magnets, transforming the appearance to high-end wood carriage doors without need for alterations.

“I have found North Idaho to be incredibly welcoming to new businesses,” said Medlen, adding the business community has been supportive of the company’s production facility.

It’s been typical to see late-stage funding for North Idaho startups, meaning established companies are receiving larger amounts of investments, Medlen said.

“Companies showing true growth and great year-over-year increases can expect a ready investor market,” he said.