Breathing new life into Seattle’s aged Pacific Science Center by running it like a startup

Pacific Science Center CEO Will Daugherty talks with Nick Ulring, a VR environmental artist with Hyperspace XR, about the startup’s construction of a VR experience at the Pacific Science Center. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Is it possible to revitalize a beloved but frumpy 56-year-old organization by running it like a startup?

Will Daugherty says yes.

Pacific Science Center CEO Will Daugherty. (Pacific Science Center Photo)

Since taking the helm of Seattle’s Pacific Science Center two years ago, the former tech leader has worked to infuse the educational nonprofit with a scrappy, git-‘er-done entrepreneurial spirit. And it seems to be working.

The Science Center has created new programs to boost access to low-income families, foster kids and Title I schools. It’s hosting weekly Science in the City presentations and Q&As during evening hours, and bimonthly Curiosity Days on weekends — a sort of science fair within the science center — featuring local leaders in science, health and tech. There are 21-and-over events, including the recent Brewology fest with craft beer makers that drew 850 people.

And this past summer, the Science Center took the unusual step of launching its own tech incubator. So now, alongside the tropical butterfly house and the IMAX theater, are local startups with their whiteboards and laptops on display. One business is even building a large-scale virtual reality exhibit that will both test its VR technology and give visitors a chance to play an immersive game.

All the more remarkable: Daugherty is enacting this resurrection on the cheap.

The Science Center has seen dramatic cuts in government support beginning a decade ago. In 2014, the institution was nearing a “financial disaster,” Daugherty said, and had to take on debt. He decided that now was not the time to go begging for philanthropic support for pipe-dream projects. Instead, he decided to take a page out of the startup playbook and bootstrap it.

“One of the biggest cultural and strategy and mindset changes that I think I’ve brought to this place is the agile, entrepreneurial mindset. We’re not going to wait for something to be perfect before we do it, we’re not going to wait until we have all of the funding necessary to start it,” Daugherty said.

“We’re going to have a hypothesis and we’re going to launch something on a prototype basis and an experimental basis and we’re going to learn by doing,” he said. Once you have, in startup-speak, a “minimal viable product” — when you can show your approach is succeeding — that’s when you invite investments.

Adriane Brown, chairwoman of the Pacific Science Center board. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Adriane Brown, chairwoman of the Science Center’s board, welcomes the shakeup. She and Daugherty agreed that while it’s tough to enact such a seismic shift in the culture of a long-established organization, it was essential to regain the Science Center’s relevance.

“We’ve got to earn ourselves back into the hearts of the community,” Brown said.

Startups as science exhibits

A stroll around the Science Center is a walk down memory lane for folks long familiar with the place. Originally built as part of Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair, some of the displays date back to the city’s grunge era. Decades-old, whirring animatronic dinosaurs slowly turn their heads. An elevated bike still circles above the ground’s water features.

The Pacific Science Center is located near Seattle’s iconic Space Needle. One of its longtime displays features an elevated bike track. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The 7-acre Science Center needs at least $10 million to catch up on neglected maintenance of existing infrastructure, let alone the costs for new exhibits.

Total revenue for the recent fiscal year was $27.3 million, with only $2.2 million coming from government coffers. Most of the income was from admissions, memberships and similar sources. The Science Center’s operating expenses totaled $25.4 million, with an additional $2.9 million in additional expenditures. All together the nonprofit was $6.3 million in debt by June 2017.

So the nonprofit is making the most of what it’s got, and hopeful that donations will follow.

The dinosaur exhibit has new signage showing the evolving scientific vision of how dinosaurs looked, with the most recent version including feathered lizards. The aged model of Puget Sound’s bay and inlets now includes digital tablets that, when aimed over the tide flats, show satellite images of the land below, bringing the landscape to life.

Pairing tablets with an existing exhibit of Puget Sound’s waterways provides an on-the-cheap update of the Science Center display. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Most impressive is the virtual reality exhibit that’s still under construction by the Seattle startup Hyperspace XR. Occupying part of the hall formerly used for traveling exhibits, Hyperspace employees are building a sort of set that will be part of a VR fantasy game. In addition to VR visuals, the Hyperspace experience will also include physical sensations such as smells, wind and cobbled flooring.

“We’re trying to find as many details to convince the person beyond belief that they are there,” said Jeff Ludwyck, founder of Hyperspace.

The Hyperspace project is part of a broader initiative for the Science Center called “What is Reality” and it’s the first startup in residence to set up shop at the science museum.

Visitors can check out Hyperspace’s work-in-progress and talk to employees as they write code to create the virtual world and troubleshoot on white boards. Sometimes it’s likely to be boring, other times will be exciting when there’s a breakthrough or new prototype. The goal is for authenticity.

“We’re able to show guests who come in what startup life is like,” Ludwyck said.

The partnership aligns with the nonprofit’s educational mission, said Daugherty, as visitors “get to see technology products and services being innovated in real time. They get to see the process of experimentation and innovation.”

And the startups get the chance to tap some of the 2,000 daily visitors, on average, to test out their products.

When the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair ended, the fair’s Science Pavilion was turned into the nonprofit Pacific Science Center, becoming the first U.S. museum founded as a science and technology center. Now the institution is in need of reinvention. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

“It’s pretty cool,” Ludwyck said. “If we were in a warehouse in SoDo (in Seattle’s industrial neighborhood), we’d have to figure out ways to get them down there and try it.”

A second startup called Curio Interactive has joined Hyperspace to work onsite and Fearless 360 will begin in March. A financial tech, or fintech, startup recently toured the space, and businesses in various fields have expressed interest in the opportunity. Businesses located offsite are bringing in their virtual and mixed reality devices for testing by Science Center visitors.

The trade-off for the Science Center is losing a hall that used to host shows like Terracotta Warriors and King Tut. But those exhibits were financially risky and expensive, requiring a sudden, temporary boost in staffing.

In a city steeped in startups, Daugherty is eager to pursue his alternate path.

“I don’t know any other intuitions like us that have startups in residence,” he said.

A ‘world-class’ science center?

When Daugherty began his job at the Science Center, he set out to survey community members to learn what they wanted for the half-century-old institution. One recurring request: increased access.

So almost two years ago, the nonprofit began offering $19 memberships for low-income families. In November 2016, they began giving free memberships to kids in foster homes or who are homeless. Nearly 3,500 new members have joined through the programs, and these members visit more often than others, their data show.

The Science Center began offering financial aid and scholarships to summer camps for the first time in 2016, giving benefits to 80 kids last year and 92 this coming summer. Their Science on Wheels program provides hands-on science lessons in schools statewide, reaching 120,000 kids this year. Thanks to a new effort to reach more low-income families, that will include 50,000 students in Title I schools. An initiative is also underway to grow the number of kids in the Discovery Corps, a program that trains high school students how to teach science education.

The Pacific Science Center when it was part of the World’s Fair in 1962. (Seattle Municipal Archives Photograph Collection)

Expanding these programs could help prep kids for future employment, and targets students who might otherwise be left behind.

“We’re going to be positioning our local region to fill the technical jobs that are coming,” said Brown “This has important socio-economic implications.”

The adult-focused Science in the City programs are connecting residents with some of the area’s internationally renowned businesses and institutions, including experts on global health and development from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the CEO of transportation-analytics innovator INRIX and crytpocurrency experts from Madrona Venture Group.

The idea is that while whizz-bang displays are great, it’s the people — the scientists, the innovators, the thinkers — who matter just as much or more. They’re the ones who can help support curiosity, experimentation and critical thinking at all ages, which are part of the Science Center’s stated mission.

When Daugherty surveyed community members, “The question I asked people was not how to be a ‘world-class’ science center, because really, why does that matter,” he said. “The question I asked was, ‘How does this institution best serve this community?’

“And if we do that at a world-class level, then I suppose we’re a world-class science center.”