Fostering Innovation in South Lake Union: Key Takeaways from the MOHAI Innovation Exchange

Photo credit:   Seattle Magazine

Photo credit: Seattle Magazine

by Rebecca MacLeod, President

B2Launch was proud to sponsor and attend MOHAI’s 10th annual Innovation Exchange event. This year’s discussion focused on Seattle’s South Lake Union (SLU) neighborhood and its’ transformational journey to become one of the world’s greatest hubs for innovation. 

In a conversation facilitated by MOHAI’s Executive Director, Leonard Garfield, and civic leader, Maggie Walker, top executives from SLU-area companies shared their insights about the past and the future of the neighborhood, and what makes it an epicenter for innovation.

The line-up of panelists included: Ada Healy, Chief Real Estate Officer, Vulcan Inc.; Dr. Christof Koch, President and Chief Scientific Officer, Allen Institute for Brain Science; Dr. Paul G. Ramsey, CEO, UW Medicine; John Schoettler, VP of Global Real Estate and Facilities, Amazon; and Matthew Trunnell, VP and Chief Data Officer, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Here’s a look at the key takeaways regarding the pioneering and risk-taking that built the foundation for the SLU we know today and how we can continue to cultivate community and growth in the neighborhood and beyond.

Betting Big on SLU

As one of the first keystone institutions to call SLU home, 80% of Vulcan’s $3 billion in real estate assets reside in the neighborhood. Leading Vulcan’s real estate team, Healey has some unique insights into what it took to transform a neighborhood into a hub for innovation. On this, she said, “There were four elements that led to SLU’s successful renaissance: shared values, trust between the public and private sector, risk taking, and integrity from all stake holders.” 

Amazon’s John Schoettler also shared the sentiment that collaboration between public and private sectors is essential — not just as a foundation for the neighborhood, but for successful continued growth. He said, “In order to prepare for change before it happens, we need to foster an environment where the city and constituents can collaborate.”

Innovation Fosters Innovation

Vulcan’s initial investments in the area laid a foundation for partnering with other businesses to make the area home, but what was the initial attraction to SLU? For UW Medicine, making the move from Portage Bay meant a closer proximity to like-minded institutions. Ramsey explained, “We were looking for a radical change in speed of discovery and impact. It was a shift from one-discipline academic style research to a multi-disciplinary approach enabled by technology. 

For The Allen Institute for Brain Science, it was a similar decision. “In order to draw global talent, we needed to be in close proximity to other scientists — create an open data, open science environment with an egalitarian ethos,” shared Koch. Trunnell echoed this saying that proximity has served as a key factor in Fred Hutch’s ability to continue to innovate. 

A Focus on Community

For Amazon, making the move to SLU meant finding a place for their team to call home. The location has proved to benefit their team in a number of ways including transportation — 20% of Amazon employees walk or bike to work. And since putting down roots, the company continually looks for ways cultivate community in the neighborhood. Amazon is building a permanent shelter for Seattle nonprofit Mary’s Place in one of its new office buildings, scheduled to open in 2020.  

The entire panel agreed that a focus on community and impact is essential while SLU grows. Healy says, “Serving on boards, engaging, listening and developing shared values with the community is key,” which is exactly the approach the Vulcan team is taking as it is building over 100 affordable housing units in the Central District. The team regularly meets with community stakeholders and is offering micro retail spaces that are affordable for local small businesses — extending the spirit and economy of SLU to other neighborhoods.

Room for Growth

When asked about the ability to iterate, evolve, and continue to attract a creative class, panel members agreed there’s still work to be done. Coming changes are imminent according to Ramsey who said, “We’ll see acceleration and changes in the next five years because there are rapid and frequent changes happening in the biomedical space.” Koch, who agreed, added, “There’s no reason Seattle can’t be the next biotech hub, but we need more pedestrian zones, affordable housing and transportation options.” 

Trunnell echoed these points and emphasized that there’s not much innovation happening when it comes to transportation, and that — beyond that — the workforce is changing. On this he said, “Working 8 to 5, 5 days a week is not realistic anymore although that is still what most companies do. We need to prepare for those changes and lead the way on workplace innovations as well.”

For more insights into the event, take a look at this article published by Geekwire.

Looking Forward 

Situated on the southern shore of Lake Union, MOHAI is a place where the community – and the world – can learn about (and from) our region’s rich history of innovation. Events like the Innovation Exchange provide opportunities for important conversations to take place as we build on our innovative past to create an exciting future for our city. B2launch looks forward to continuing to serve as a supporter of MOHAI as we actively seek opportunities to drive innovation and impact in Seattle.