Legislation that boosts innovation: Meet two lawmakers being honored with GeekWire Awards

From left: Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, and Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick.

Successful tech ventures don’t materialize in a vacuum. They need talented, skilled leaders and employees, and capital and customers to fund their ventures. And they benefit from supportive policy makers who believe in what they’re trying to accomplish and craft legislation and funding that helps along the way.

This year at the GeekWire Awards we’re delighted to announce the Public Policy Champion for Innovation Award to recognize outstanding elected officials for their contributions to the tech sector.

The Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) is partnering with GeekWire in sponsoring this new category.

We have chosen two accomplished state legislators for this first-time honor: Sen. Reuven Carlyle from Seattle and Sen. Sharon Brown from Kennewick in south-central Washington.

Later this year, these lawmakers are both winding up notable careers in Olympia. But before that happens, we’ll be recognizing them in-person at our awards event on May 12 at the Showbox SoDo in Seattle. If you don’t have tickets already, be sure to tune in online to learn the winners across more than a dozen categories. You can register for the event online.

Continue reading to find out more about Brown and Carlyle.

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick

Sen. Sharon Brown

“Technology,” said Brown in a recent GeekWire interview, “should be agnostic. I get very, very frustrated when good policy or good technology gets shut down because of somebody’s preconceived, political notion surrounding the technology.”

So it follows that one of Brown’s accomplishments during a decade in Olympia was establishing a science and technology caucus to address this challenge. The so-called SciTech Caucus is open to lawmakers from either house and any party.

“Legislators are very guarded” when it comes to what they’ll say and who they’ll meet with, said Brown.

“And so I wanted to create this environment,” she said, “where no matter where you’re coming from, you could sit in this space and you can ask experts any question you wanted to ask them, and you can basically do your own research. Because No. 1 for me, absolutely key, has always been doing my own research.”

She applied that approach in her support for legislation addressing numerous tech-related issues, with a focus on entrepreneurs and job production. Brown, who was a business attorney before entering politics, became a senator in 2013.

Here are some highlights of her tenure:

Blockchain: Brown is a strong believer in the economic potential of blockchain, not only in the realm of cryptocurrencies and NFTs but for its power as a distributed ledger for tracking information. Her passion for the sector led her to earn a certificate in blockchain technology so that she could serve as a liaison between policy makers and entrepreneurs.

This spring she spearheaded the effort to create a working group to study economics applications for blockchain.

“Washington state needs to recognize this as legitimate technology,” Brown said, “and we need to support it.”

Industrial symbiosis: The basic idea is one industry’s trash is another industry’s treasure. Brown learned about the concept on a trip to Denmark and sponsored legislation that created a program to assist companies interested in the approach.

There’s already research underway in the state to take the inedible waste from corn crops and convert it into airplane fuel, and the wine industry is another sector ripe for exploration.

Nuclear power: Brown was promoting nuclear energy years before its recent resurgence. She served on a select state task force to study the potential for nuclear power in Washington and proposed legislation to spark the sector. Brown’s hometown of Kennewick is part of the Tri-Cities, which is the locale of Washington’s sole nuclear power plant. Last year, X-energy signed an agreement to build an advanced nuclear reactor near the existing plant.

STEM education: On a visit to LIGO — the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in Richland — Brown was excited to talk to world-class physicists about their cutting-edge work. She wanted the same opportunity for schoolkids, possibly inspiring next-generation researchers. So Brown became a lead proponent for the creation of the STEM Exploration Center at the facility, which received $7.7 million from the state.

Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle

Sen. Reuven Carlyle

After 14 years in the Legislature, Carlyle’s work addressing climate change is arguably his most important contribution. It weaves together his concern for the planet with his early career in tech, starting at McCaw Cellular Communications and continuing through roles at multiple tech ventures.

“Climate is a technology issue,” he said. “It’s a societal issue, it’s an innovation issue and it goes to the core of who we are as a state, as a home of innovation.”

Carlyle was elected to the House of Representatives in 2009 and the Senate in 2016.

Working alongside Gov. Jay Inslee, who ran for U.S. president on a climate-focused platform, Carlyle sponsored legislation that created an economy-wide cap-and-invest program to ratchet down carbon dioxide emissions. Washington became the second state after California to cap carbon, and Carlyle said he’s recently in touch with lawmakers there who are updating their rules with similar provisions.

Moving forward, he’s eager for public agencies, utilities, ports and others to serve as trial beds for testing the innovations being created by the state’s climate tech companies.

“I want Washington state companies to explode with curiosity about how to solve climate change,” Carlyle said.

Here are some highlights of his tenure:

Climate change: Carlyle sponsored additional climate legislation that made its way into law, including an energy act to wean Washington off of coal power by 2025 and set a standard for 100% clean and renewable energy generation by 2045; creation of a clean fuel standard; clean buildings legislation; and policy that incorporates environmental justice into climate efforts.

Hydrogen fuel: The federal government is planning to spend $8 billion to create four clean hydrogen fuel hubs — and Washington wants to be one of them. So Carlyle backed a bill that creates a new statewide Office of Renewable Fuels and that will help the state make its pitch for landing one of the hubs.

Consumer privacy protection: Despite years of effort and support from tech sector players including Amazon and Microsoft, this is one that Carlyle didn’t win in Olympia. But other states, including Colorado, Virginia and Utah, have passed consumer privacy protections using the language that Washington proposed as a model for their policies.

Facial recognition: The legislation backed by Carlyle requires public agencies to regularly report on their use of facial recognition technology and test the software for fairness and accuracy. Law enforcement agencies must obtain a warrant before using facial recognition technology in investigations unless there is an emergency.

Cybersecurity: Carlyle sponsored legislation that created the Office of Cybersecurity to draft security standards and policies, and established reporting requirements for state agencies when they experience security breaches.

Net neutrality: Carlyle helped lead the effort to make Washington the first U.S. state to enact a law protecting net neutrality.

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