University Economic Development Association

By Alyssa Patrick,
Communication Coordinator, Washington State University Office of Economic Development

As we are continually working to better our economic development efforts at Washington State University, we’ve been looking more and more towards UEDA’s body of knowledge to build our strategy. UEDA has also been doing more to share best practices, which we find valuable in advancing our economic development mission. We wanted to take part by sharing a recent example of our efforts to develop talent, place and innovation through engagement with university faculty. Alexis Holzer, assistant director of economic development, is continually making connections with faculty whose research and activities align with initiatives to advance the economy of Washington.

WSU-UEDA-Guest-BlogFor example, Alexis first met assistant professor Jake Leachman at an aerospace event in Seattle. His work on hydrogen storage stuck with her, and when she learned that this work related to development in unmanned aerial systems (UAS) technology, she realized he was a perfect match for a project she had just started. In partnership with the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District (MCEDD), Alexis was working on a federal planning grant to grow regional manufacturing throughout the U.S.

The planning grant is for the Mid-Columbia Gorge region, which has opportunities for growth in UAS, composite material, and food manufacturing. Universities add value to these kinds of initiatives in three major economic development areas: talent, innovation and place. In this case, WSU can help the Gorge grow manufacturing by finding new ways to attract and retain graduates (talent), collaborating with companies to research and license the latest technologies (innovation), and helping the Gorge continue to develop their sense of community through collaborative planning for regional growth (place).

Alexis and her MCEDD counterpart planned several forums and tours that brought manufacturers, economic development organizations, policy makers, university researchers and the public together to discuss the challenges and possibilities for the region’s manufacturing sector. Dr. Leachman participated in two of those forums because his work adds value in innovation, talent and place. With his expertise in UAS, their applications, and empowerment of students to develop the future workforce, he was a great asset to the event and has worked with Alexis on several other projects since.

“Alexis and the WSU Office of Economic Development’s work are carrying out the heart of the land grant mission,” Leachman said. “Land grants are service organizations that are supposed to connect the rural populace with the rest of the world, which is exactly what the economic development office is doing in Seattle for WSU.”

Building connections with both WSU researchersand business and community members through statewide initiatives allows Alexis to identify other beneficial economic development opportunities. For example, since Alexis knew Dr. Leachman’s research focus, she was able to recommend him as a featured speaker for the Technology Alliance’s Discovery Series.

So last Friday, Dr. Leachman spoke about his latest research to an audience of Seattle’s tech community.

“Seattle is the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country with a focus on sustainability and clean tech – two areas WSU is heavily involved with,” Leachman said. “In a little over 2 hours I can be in Seattle, talking face to face with this influential audience.”

Dr. Leachman’s talk was on hydrogen’s potential as an alternative fuel source and involved all three economic development aspects. He started with place – pointing out how Washington is a prime location for a hydrogen fuel industry because it is the 8th largest producer of hydrogen and home to researchers at WSU and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who are well positioned to develop the potential of hydrogen fuel. However, because of public perception that hydrogen poses safety issues, it remains a controversial fuel. This is where Dr. Leachman’s research is truly novel. With his breakthroughs in hydrogen storage and cooling, we may see these concerns dissipate and the fuel incorporated into machinery such as forklifts, ships, trucks, and cooling machines for long haul trucks.

“I chose to focus my research on hydrogen because of its vast possibilities,” Leachman said. “The general lack of education and misperception among the public makes it a largely unexplored area that I want to help break open.”

The talk covered how hydrogen is generated, how it is stored and the challenges involved, and its best uses and benefits. He highlighted successes he has had in innovation and talent development, including a recently patented technology, a student-designed hydrogen fueling station that won an international award, and a student-designed hydrogen fuel cell powered UAS. The students that work with him get hands-on experience that land them with employers such as Blue Origin, Boeing, PNNL, Scaled Composites and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

In the Office of Economic Development, we are constantly seeking out opportunities for our researchers to shine, whether it is in a rural area in Washington or in front of a crowd of Seattle’s top investors, public policy makers, and business leaders. After all, what good does it do to keep the solutions to our world’s biggest problems hidden away in a lab? To us, it’s all about getting these innovations into the hands of the public, developing a workforce to support them, and ultimately leading people to live healthier, happier lives.

If you’d like to hear more about WSU’s efforts to improve quality of life and enhance the economy of Washington, follow our blog at