Looking for Redmond in Saranac Lake

In 1940, Redmond, Washington had a population of just 503 people.  As recently as 1980, the town was still fairly remote — a long commute to Seattle, which itself was then a middling-sized city.

In those days, Redmond still boasted just 23,000 residents.

But in 1987, a company called Microsoft chose to locate its main campus there and Redmond quickly became the hub for a major computer and IT cluster.

The decision to settle away from California’s Silicon Valley and other established tech centers meant that Microsoft’s development teams were, in many respects, extraordinarily isolated.

The internet wouldn’t come into wide-spread usage for several years.  And Redmond wasn’t close to major high-tech academic centers like MIT or Stanford.

But the company used its new campus to create a new kind of corporate culture, one that quickly redefined the way modern, idea-based companies operate.

The Trudeau Institute’s decision to stay in Saranac Lake offers this company and this community something like the same opportunity.

Put simply, it’s time for all of us to think bigger and smarter about the future of this partnership.  If we pull it off, we could see something like Remond’s success here.

First, let’s look at the major hurdle that we face:  The Tri-Lakes region, where Trudeau is based, is in some ways even more isolated than Redmond was in the 1980s.

Yes, the web has made the world a smaller place in terms of the exchange of ideas and virtual collaboration, but our mountain village is still difficult to reach.

Many of Trudeau’s potential partners — research hospitals, facilities for clinical trials, etc. — are located in other parts of the country, or even overseas.

This challenge is partly offset by the fact that the Tri-Lakes offers an incredible and unique quality of life.

With a population of roughly 10,000 people, from the upscale resort neighborhoods of Lake Placid to the homey backstreets of Saranac Lake to the tucked-away rural routes of Vermontville and Ray Brook, we don’t look that different from Redmond in the 1980s.

You think our weather is bad?  Try slogging through a wet Puget Sound summer or a drizzly gray winter.

Last year, The Scientist magazine said Trudeau Institute was already one of the best places in the US for post-doc researchers to work, in part because of the quality of “family and personal” life.

We’re also not hopelessly remote.  Boston is a quick hop away by commuter flight.  A drive into downtown Burlington or Montreal from Saranac Lake takes about two hours.

Compared with the congested commute-times around Redmond, that’s pretty good.

All of which represents a great start.  But it’s only a start.  The truth is that to thrive Trudeau needs to grow.  And Saranac Lake needs that, too.

For too long the community and the laboratory have existed at arms length, partnering occasionally, celebrating one-another intermittently, but that’s about it.

There’s no vision for how the two pieces fit together, or where we’re going, or what we can do for each other.

In 2005, Microsoft entered into a long-range compact with the city of Remond.  That deal signaled that the computer company would remain anchored in the community, and set out long-term goals for their partnership.

A similar partnership has emerged here in the North Country between St. Lawrence University and the village of Canton, with both partners investing time and money in developing the relationship.

We need to begin a similar conversation in the Tri-Lakes, one that sets some very specific goals for unleashing Trudeau’s potential.

Can any of the laboratory’s research be done in partnership with Adirondack Medical Center?

Is there more that Paul Smiths College and North Country Community College can do to provide trained staff and lab techs?

How about housing for new research teams?  What transportation needs can we remedy?

We also need to make it clear to our elected officials that we see Trudeau — and the bio-medical sector in general — as a core part of the Tri-Lake’s economic future.

Currently, Franklin and Essex counties are spending more than a million dollars a year to promote tourism.  The state of New York spends far more supporting ORDA and the Park’s visitor facilities.

We have to move quickly to match that commitment for companies like Trudeau, Bionique and AMC, which taken together are the region’s largest private sector employers, offering far better pay and benefits.

This planning process won’t be easy.

Saranac Lake has some big cultural divides between our community leaders (who tend to be local and mostly blue collar) and the top brass who are shaping Trudeau’s future (who tend to be relative newcomers and academics).

Those already fragile ties were strained even further over the last half-year, as Trudeau’s board deliberated over its commitment to the Adirondacks.

We have to work quickly to repair those relationships.  Saranac Lake village, Franklin County, the state of New York and Trudeau’s board should create a standing committee that meets regularly to talk, share ideas, and plan.

It appears that Trudeau is on the cusp of great things.  The research projects underway there could revolutionize health care in the world, reshaping the way we think about disease and the human immune system.

If those technologies are patented and monetized, the “non-profit” could emerge as a major player in the biomedical industry.

Just as Remond shared in Microsoft’s explosion, Saranac Lake could be part of Trudeau’s success.  But it won’t happen by accident.

The bottom line is that Trudeau’s decision announced this week could be a brief reprieve, or it could give us a real opening, a chance to shape a remarkable future.

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6 Comments on “Looking for Redmond in Saranac Lake”

  1. Paul says:

    Brian, did the interstate that connects Redmond to Seattle exist when MS decided to settle there?

  2. Dave says:

    Love this post Brian, and hope you continue to do all you can to push this issue.

    Thinking about the Adirondacks in terms of modern and future economies is very exciting. Especially because science and technology industries have the potential to ease the stress between jobs/development and conservation/preservation. It seems like such a natural fit for the park.

  3. Crugill says:

    Working as a sub-contractor for “Big Blue” in the mid-70′s / early 80′s, I learned that “For every 1 Federal lawyer added to the attempt to break up IBM, we hire 4.” Mr. Gates loved the attempt to split MS between OS/Office software – company funds went out the door through his Dad’s law firm. Redmond is a short drive to British Columbia – where the Canada would have welcomed MS with open arms. The beta-test name for Windows XP in 2000-2001 was “Whistler.” I used to sign onto web conferences during the “WMV” development as “Steve_Jobs” — “Is Bill there? He’s not returning my calls – I need another 50 mill -” – They’d laugh, and tell me to shut up. – then it all became “pay to play” – bummer -
    I did get to beat up on the volunteer “MS Experts” during the XP corporate preview in 2001 – (nntp protocol, not http) via “usenet.”
    Anyhow, Dream on. Redmond is not in a “forever wild” zone –
    But we will bring Trudeau’s decision to the attention of the Gates Foundation — they support TB research – Trudeau’s influenza/immunology technology – Fed funding via NIH is now a lesser possibility w/the decision to remain in SL.

  4. Walker says:

    Brian, I would take issue with your statement “The truth is that to thrive Trudeau needs to grow.”

    That might be true of a for-profit company, but Trudeau is a not-for-profit, engaged in pure biomedical research. That gives it a very special niche– they don’t have to produce big dollar payoffs each year to please their shareholders and to fatten their exec’s paychecks. This kind of research is vital, but it is dependent on NIH funding or private foundation support, not the creation of blockbuster new drugs. It is vital, because research that is looking for short-term profit often misses making the real advances.

    No matter how much some might like to see Trudeau turn into an economic powerhouse, it is far from self-evident that such an outcome is necessarily the best thing for either Trudeau or Saranac Lake.

    And it is all but a given that if Trudeau decided to go for the big bucks, they would end up leaving. There are a lot of differences between a technology company and a bio-medical research institute, not the least of which is that biological material does not flow through fiber optic cable.

  5. newt says:

    Very good post Brian. I hope it makes the cut as you ADE column on Saturday, as it has a great deal of relevance to the local economy, but, unlike prisons, involves factors that locals might have some control over.

    I wonder how “Biomedical Research Wonderland” would work as a theme for the 2012 Winter Carnival? Oh, well.

  6. Mervel says:

    I think it would be a good thing. Washington is a very different state than NY however and Redmond does not have much in common with Saranac Lake. But I think the basic concept of working together is needed.

    Check out tax rates in Washington state.

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