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New Economy cities: A Seattle slew of advantages

With a vibrant entrepreneurial climate and deep pool of venture capital, Seattle capitalizes on high-tech, exports, and world health.

By Dean PatonCorrespondent / November 20, 2009

A cargo ship floats in the waters off the mirror-skinned skyline of Seattle – a reminder of the city’s export prowess.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff

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Seattle

In some ways, Seattle is the prototype city of the future. It embodies in one leafy landscape virtually all of the forces driving the New Economy – exports, an educated workforce, a vibrant high-tech base, a budding green-tech sector, and an enviable lifestyle.

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One usually overlooked characteristic is how dependent it is on foreign trade. The flow of exports out of Puget Sound runs at about twice the national average. It now accounts for 1 in 3 jobs in the area.

“Look,” says Sam Kaplan of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle, “our big companies are very internationally oriented. More than 70 percent of Boeing’s sales are overseas, and 60 percent of Microsoft’s sales are overseas.”

That has paid off. Seattle has been growing at about twice the rate of the national economy since 2003, says Dick Conway, who publishes The Puget Sound Economic Forecaster.

Yet Seattle has more going for it than just 737s headed for Asian hangars. Experts say the city also benefits from a vibrant entrepreneurial climate, a deep pool of venture capitalists, and a genial tradition of collaboration. “We recruit not only from here, but from other places, too,” says Jeremy Lewis, president and CEO of Big Fish Games, a digital-media company. “So it’s not just a place where creative people are, but a place where creative people want to come.”

It helps that King County is home to as many as 68,000 millionaires, many of whom have stepped naturally into a tradition of risk-taking. “We have more business start-ups than any other state in the country,” says Steve Gerritson of enterpriseSeattle, a nonprofit business development group.

Part of the reason is the University of Washington, a research-money magnet, that has developed and patented hundreds of ideas. Many of them have migrated into the local private sector, pulling venture capitalists and top researchers into partnerships that continually fuel the entrepreneurial culture.

Yet Seattle also has become a world leader in a nonprofit “industry” that promises to create thousands of research-and-delivery jobs. Much more than simply the well-funded projects of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this new sector of the Northwest economy now accounts for about 180 organizations focused on global health.