Image: Hal Calbom

Clean Genes

Why a Land Grant College Rules Pacific Northwest Clean Tech

The modest Wood Composites Lab on the WSU Pullman Campus cranks out the sustainable ceiling struts, reclaimed wallboard, and weatherproof decking on which we’ll all host our 21st Century tailgates and barbecues. It’s the opposite of an Ivory Tower: without a lot of fanfare, our land grant university continues to turn the mundane into the magnificent.

Best of the Brightest. At its Annual Meeting in November, CleanTech Alliance Washington awarded its 2015 Clean Tech Achievement Award to Washington State University. From among a distinguished group of entrepreneurs and innovators, WSU was chosen best of the brightest. Again this year, I filmed and produced brief video profiles of each of the finalist organizations, aired at the CTAW meeting and awards ceremony. My trip to Pullman confirmed and amplified what I already knew: the Cougs were doing sustainability before sustainability was cool.

Image: Hal Calbom
“The Cougs were doing sustainability before sustainability was cool.”

WSU owes its ascendancy to both location and lineage: the rolling Palouse and the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. This program of “land grants” from the federal government encouraged rural areas in particular to raise funds and establish “land-grant colleges,” which were tasked with “teaching practical agriculture, science, military science and engineering.”

Infrastructure. This mission continues to bear fruit today. Although we often apply the “software model” – garage geeks, widgets and killer apps – to clean tech, many of us today feel our sustainable future will be rooted as much in Infrastructure as in Information.

The stuff that’s researched, studied, and commercialized at WSU and other land-grant institutions is still the heart and soul of their original mission: sustainable agriculture, bio-fuels production, electrical power generation and distribution, energy efficient building design and construction, natural resource management.

Public-Private Partnerships. And the modern evolution of the land-grants’ mission – outreach, community education, constituent services – is offering real solutions in real time to real businesses and individuals. There is no “valley of death” when a land-grant college, usually in partnership from the get-go with not-disinterested private sector entrepreneurs, transforms an idea or technology from the lab to the land. The farmer, the utility manager, the irrigator, the wood products company have all co-conspired in their practical, shared, self-interest.

Visiting a lab on my recent trip I was handed a simple two-page flyer describing its mission: creating bio-generated plastics less dependent on fossil fuel sources. More telling for me,however, was the back page of the flyer: twenty or more corporate logos of the companies helping subsidize the research, and eager to participate in its results – a straightforward public/private partnership unencumbered by grant-making, public subsidy, and politics.

Hands-On. The State of Washington, and the clean tech community at large, are among the beneficiaries of this pragmatism. That Ivory Tower in Montlake may claim more research dollars and herald its status in the International Top Ten Research Universities, but in the hands-on world of clean tech and applied sustainability, its rural neighbor to the East runs rings around it.

The late WSU President Elson Floyd, dearly missed not only by the Cougar faithful but also by those of us media types that found him always accessible and engaging, used to begin many of his sentences with the words, “As the state’s land grant university…”

He’d then go on to brag the place up: citing on-the-ground innovations, commercialization successes, and applied research showing up around the state and region. Thanks, Elson, and you scrappy Cougars, for rejuvenating our roots.

And, if you never have to stain that new deck out back, thank the WSU Wood Composites Lab.