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 , Correspondent

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

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.”

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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.

“Outside Geneva, Switzerland, where the World Health Organization is headquartered, it’s Seattle that is the center of global health,” says Lisa Cohen, director of the Washington Global Health Alliance. “When you look at the growth projections of these organizations, almost all of them are planning to double or triple in size during the next five years.”

The start-ups and search for healthcare solutions may simply be a byproduct of Seattle’s other “natural” advantage: high rates of education. Perennially named “America’s Most Literate City,” Seattle leads in the number of bookstores per 10,000 residents as well as in the percentage of adults with high school diplomas and college degrees. “It’s the juice that just keeps this economy constantly reinventing itself,” says Susannah Malarkey of the Technology Alliance.

Still, Seattle is hardly perfect. It suffers from notorious traffic, expensive housing, and is legendary for months of aluminum-gray skies. Perhaps most foreboding was Boeing’s recent decision to snub the area and build a second assembly plant for its next-generation 787 Dreamliner not here but in Charleston, S.C. – which may be an ominous statement about the area’s unionized, high-wage workforce.

Other cities:

1. Boston is magnet for high-skilled workers

2. Fort Collins, Colo., builds on clean tech

3. Houston aims to move beyond the oil age

4. Huntsville eyes next launchpad for growth

5. The next boom cities overseas

Main story: Five cities that will rise in the New Economy

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