Mead Treadwell takes the long view on his state’s inventive history. Speaking with GeekWire at the Arctic Encounter Symposium last week in Seattle, the former Alaska lieutenant governor and serial investor/entrepreneur described how Inuit hunters devised snow goggles to protect their eyes from the sun’s blinding reflection off the tundra, centuries before there were sunglasses.
“Alaska is a place where we have to innovate constantly,” Treadwell said.
Creative responses to a harsh environment continue to drive entrepreneurship in Alaska, a state that may be overlooked across the U.S. for its ability to come up with new ideas.
“If we have any challenge in the tech business, it’s that we aren’t understood by the rest of the world as a tremendous place for early adoption and field testing,” Treadwell said.
The sixth annual Arctic Encounter Symposium at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle brought together entrepreneurs, elected officials, and military brass from across the circumpolar world for a two-day confab on the future of the Arctic.
“People think of the Arctic as just wasteland, but we all know that’s not true,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who spoke at the event. Washington Sen. Patty Murray also attended.
“So many families and communities [in Washington] are directly and indirectly connected to the fate of the Arctic,” Murray said.
Katherine Jernstrom, a University of Washington graduate who grew up in nearby Whidbey Island, sits at the center of Alaska’s burgeoning tech industry. Named a 40 under 40 by the Alaska Journal of Commerce in 2015, Jernstrom co-founded Anchorage’s most startup-friendly co-working space, The Boardroom; serves as managing partner at Alyeska Venture Management, which oversees a $2.3 million Alaska-focused accelerator fund; and chairs the board of post-product, revenue-ready accelerator Launch Alaska.
“We see Alaska as an interesting proving ground for global plays outside the Lower 48,” she said. “We have super high energy costs so there is a business case for innovating new ways to generate and store energy, especially renewables.”
For example, Maine-based Ocean Renewable Power Company maintains a field office in Anchorage to manage its contracts providing river-based tidal power to remote Alaskan villages.
“In much of the developing world that has low-grid infrastructure, it makes a business case there, too,” Jernstrom said.
Jernstrom also pointed to Launch Alaska alumnus BoxPower, which developed a solar-powered generator delivered in a 20-foot shipping container and deployed it to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
BoxPower was born in California but was able to test its proof of concept easily in Alaska, where shipping containers are a common form of goods transport. The rugged environment and extreme climate provided valuable iterative feedback about whether its product could withstand the harsh environment.
Alaska is indeed a place of extremes, from the deep freeze in the Arctic, to the battering storms of the western coast, to rainfall in southeastern Alaska that puts the Pacific Northwest to shame.
“We have a lot more in common with places like Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the rest of the Arctic than we do with Seattle,” Jernstrom said.
But despite an environment more conducive to lone inventors making breakthroughs in hardware than creating a software talent hub like the Emerald City, the century-old gateway relationship between Seattle and Alaska remains. Without a big market, significant capital, or a talent pool, Jernstrom acknowledged that Alaskan companies cannot scale with outside help.
“We’re very keen on building bridges and relationships with larger markets outside,” she said. Seattle, with its social, cultural, and historical ties to Alaska, is chief among them, and she cited the city as the number one source of prospecting investors alongside Portland and the Bay Area.
“A lot of people see Alaska as huge untapped potential from the venture perspective,” Jernstrom asserted.
Likewise, Alaskan companies see Seattle as a potential landing point to scale up. Attently, a cloud-based video recognition software company, rose through the Alaskan ranks: the founders met at Fairbanks Startup Weekend, sought advice from the Alaskan Small Business Center, and won the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Arctic Innovation Competition. Now they are part of Madrona Venture Labs’ accelerator program in Seattle.
Alaskans with the requisite science and engineering skills have also found success in marquee national companies where their background has proven a competitive advantage.
Benjamin Kellie is a serial entrepreneur who cut his teeth at SpaceX before returning home to start K2 Dronotics, a drone service company, and The Launch Company, which provides hardware support services to rocket enterprises drawn from Kellie’s decade of experience in the space industry. He is also in a joint venture with the Seattle-to-Alaska twins behind Tune on Keeni Space, which aims to develop standard operating procedures for rocket launch software.
Kellie grew up helping his father, a bush pilot originally from Central Washington, deliver fuel, food, and building materials to remote communities off the road system. At home, he tinkered with snow machines and ski groomers. And with a mother originally from Kirkland, he was a regular visitor to Washington.
“There’s a lot of people that know math and science, but what made me useful to SpaceX was being a kid from Alaska,” said Kellie, who describes his knack for hardware fixes while on a barge 180 miles from the nearest hardware store as the kind of experience he learned from an Alaskan upbringing rather than his mechanical engineering degree program.
Alaska isn’t without its challenges, even beyond the obvious ones of a remote location and small population. The state’s science and technology fund, endowed with $100 million in 1988, has been closed for a decade and a half. Its sovereign wealth fund allocated $1.9 billion to so-called “alternatives” last year like venture funds. Jernstrom is hopeful there will eventually be political momentum to ensure that some portion of those funds are reinvested in Alaskan companies.
But in the meantime, Alaska is grappling with massive deficits and looming budget cuts to public schools, healthcare, and higher education as the stubbornly low price of oil has slashed revenues in the petroleum-dependent state — one that may try to reinvent itself, or at least diversify the economy.
“We’re now turning to private sector solutions out of necessity,” Kellie said. “We’re trying to figure out who we are going to be and how we are going to do it. It’s scary, but if you have an idea, people want to hear it and then immediately thereafter they want you to go do it.”
That attitude seems characteristic of Alaskan entrepreneurs’ lemons-into-lemonade attitude.
Or, as Treadwell put it, “The woods are full of people who are making things happen.”