With cranes in the background further building out Seattle’s booming tech sector, two seaplanes landed on Lake Union Wednesday, including one carrying Canadian officials from Vancouver, B.C. Waiting on the dock were Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Microsoft President Brad Smith and more dignitaries excited about a new partnership and transportation connection between the two cities.
Starting Thursday, Seattle-based Kenmore Air and Vancouver’s Harbour Air will begin offering seaplane flights aimed at providing a shorter commute alternative for neighbors who are increasingly doing business together. Affectionately dubbed the “nerd bird,” it’s hoped the route will attract tech workers and researchers shuttling to offices and institutions in both cities.
Microsoft, which already has a large presence in the Canadian city, has been a leading advocate for finding quicker transportation options along the Cascadia Innovation Corridor. With a yellow and white Kenmore Air plane — a common and longtime presence over Lake Union and the Puget Sound region — sitting nose-to-nose with a red and white Harbour Air plane, Smith joined Inslee and several others in applauding a partnership that took years to solidify.
“As many of you know, we at Microsoft have been supporters, advocates, maybe even agitators for this route,” Smith said, saying that the two planes facing each other on the lake were emblematic of the state and province coming together.
Smith said universities, researchers, and businesses seizing on opportunities to collaborate in new ways really are leading to the development and strengthening of an innovation corridor “that is spanning the border at a time when I think we frankly appreciate, in this part of the country, how important this relationship so clearly is.”
Amazon’s large South Lake Union campus is easily visible across the water from Kenmore’s facility. But despite having a presence in Vancouver, no one from the tech giant appeared in front of the crowd on Wednesday. Smith and Inslee told GeekWire that the flights will be beneficial for all tech companies.
“I think it’s fair to say in the tech sector we compete with each other but we also, on many days, work together,” Smith said. “I think it’s interesting because there are now 80 companies headquartered in Silicon Valley that have opened engineering offices in the Seattle area. That’s great for Seattle, but there are also the first four companies to open engineering offices in Vancouver: Microsoft, Amazon, Zillow and Tableau — all based in Seattle. I think we’re a little ahead of the curve in appreciating just what a wonderful opportunity there is to bring people together in Seattle and Vancouver, and I have no doubt that all of us based in Seattle are going to get a lot of benefit out of what we’re announcing and seeing in person here today.”
The governor said it’s important to be able to bring researchers and ideas south, and ship ideas north, too.
“One of the things I’ve learned when I recruit high-tech companies to Washington, accessibility of talent is the No. 1 thing companies want,” Inslee said. “And when we can say we can effectively draw from British Columbia as well as Washington state, that’s just a boost for us. So it helps us in growing our tech economy by building new companies and bringing companies here because they want talent. And we know there’s talent on both sides of the border.”
The direct flight between the cities, from Kenmore’s facility on Lake Union, to Harbour Air’s downtown Vancouver location, is supposed to take about an hour, knocking at least two hours of travel time off the trip.
“If we were in Disneyland, this would be the ultimate fast pass,” said Kenmore Air President Todd Banks. The family owned company, founded in 1946, already flies to Victoria, B.C., and the new route, while being touted as a connecting link for business and tech travelers, is sure to be a hit with tourists.
Gov. Inslee wanted to personally thank leaders from north of the border who are helping to advance the Cascadia Innovation Corridor. The state of Washington already has a $300,000 budget to study a plan for fast trains connecting Vancouver, Seattle and Portland. Microsoft kicked in $50,000 to the that study, and the British Columbia government added $300,000 as well.
Inslee joked that communicating with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has actually been easier than communicating with President Trump.
“It’s interesting, I found that my letters get answered even better in Canada right now than they do in Washington, D.C. I don’t quite understand it,” Inslee said.
Navdeep Baines, minister of innovation, science and economic development for the Canadian government, said that Microsoft stepped up in a big, big way in making the route a reality. In following the governor, Baines made an inadvertent political reference of his own when he said that he wanted to thank “President Brad Smith.”
Heather Redman, a longtime Seattle tech investor and general partner at the new venture firm Flying Fish Partners, told Baines in her remarks that she likes how he thinks.
“I like this idea of President Brad Smith,” Redman said. “I don’t know if that’s a hint of some sort … we don’t say CEO Satya Nadella, but we do say President Brad Smith. So this is good.”
Redman further praised the unique nature of the relationship between Seattle and Vancouver.
“We’re special, and we’re special in a very particular way,” she said. “We’re the only multinational tech and innovation region in North America and maybe in the world. We are truly very very unique and interesting, and we’ve got to do everything we can to take full advantage of that. It’s a huge advantage. I’ve been telling people in the Bay Area for a long time that it takes as long to drive from San Jose to Sausalito as it does from Seattle to Vancouver. But with this new service, I can really start to brag about the multinational advantage that we have.”