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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

May 9, 2013 at 4:40 PM

Seattle mayor talks tech, announces startup initiative

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is turning his attention toward Seattle’s tech community, which he’s going to promote by hiring a liaison to interact with tech startups and market the city as a technology hub.

McGinn announced his “startup initiative” today at Zillow headquarters alongside a group of tech industry representatives who helped the mayor brainstorm things the city could do for the industry.

It’s a competitive move, responding to other cities touting themselves as the best place to start a new company. It also positions McGinn as tech-friendly as he begins pushing in earnest for re-election.

There’s no shortage of advocates for tech startups in Seattle, which has dozens of public and private organizations that promote, mentor, consult and fund new ventures. Seattle also consistently ranks as one of the best places in the world for tech jobs, McGinn noted at the event.

“But we want to do better, we want to continue to grow,” he said, adding that startup companies “are really a critical part of our economy here.”

“You can look back in our history and see a lot of companies were started here and grew from little companies into big ones, which is where most job growth comes from, so we want to continue to lead and I want Seattle to be the best city in the world to found a technology startup,” he said.

The city also plans to form partnerships with local tech organizations such as Startup Weekend and Code.org that are working with entrepreneurs and computer-science educators.

Other, existing city programs were pulled under the initiative’s umbrella, including the city’s work with the University of Washington to plan for commercial development around transit stops near the school.

“We have a lot of people in city departments who already interact with business. We’re just trying to give people an entree into that,” McGinn said.

McGinn’s term ends this year so it remains to be seen how much of his plan will be implemented, at least by him. He still needs City Council approval for the program’s $145,000 annual cost, most of which is the liaison’s salary.

McGinn has already started campaigning for re-election, and support from the affluent leaders of Seattle’s tech community could help. The initiative will also round out his list of accomplishments at City Hall.

Attracting, aiding and advocating for tech companies are done regionally by groups such as the Washington Technology Industry Association, but its vice president said the city initiative is “complementary.”

“As far as we’re concerned, anybody that wants to get in and help startups grow, we’re all for it,” said the WTIA’s Lew McMurran. “We’re happy to collaborate when possible. If people want to compete, we’ve been around long enough – we’ve seen competition and we’re still around, and others aren’t.”

Technology was a priority McGinn highlighted when he first ran for office in 2009. Specifically, he said the city should provide fast broadband to every resident.

But McGinn abandoned that plan last year when he canceled a nearly decade-long effort to build a citywide network based on government-owned fiber-optic cables.

Instead, McGinn opted to divvy up the city infrastructure and offer portions to companies wanting to serve particular areas. The first bidder, Gigabit Squared, is now preparing to offer service in pockets of the city, reaching less than 1 percent of city homes in its first phase. Its service is expected to begin during the fall election season.

One of the first places to be served by Gigabit Squared will be the University District, where the startup initiaive may benefit real estate developers as much as software developers. The city plans to do market research identifying sites where it’s feasible to develop office space and other amenities that could attract young tech companies.

The startup initiative is also a response to the insecurities of Seattle and its tech community about not getting as much attention as Silicon Valley and even upstarts like New York that are now aggressively promoting themselves as innovation hubs.

Seattle has a “second child complex” even though it has built amazing companies such as Microsoft and Amazon.com, said Chris DeVore, an investor in Seattle startups who advised McGinn on the initiative.

“We do the work that we can, but it’s critically important that as a community we pull together and find ways to federate our resources to support more of those entrepreneurs, more of those innovators,” DeVore said.

DeVore and McGinn noted that much of Seattle’s startup growth happened because Microsoft attracted so many talented people to the region.

“Their expansion, development, attraction of talent is what made so much of it possible here,” McGinn said.

So does that mean he’ll trade in his iPhone for a Windows Phone? Apparently not.

“You know, I’m the kind of guy, when I get something I like, I just stick with it,” he said.

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