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UW Rebrands Commercialization Office CoMotion, Sets Broader Mission

Xconomy National — 

Add a new name to the list of major changes at the University of Washington’s technology transfer office over the last year.

The new moniker, CoMotion, is meant to signal a broader mission for what was formerly called the Center for Commercialization.

“We’re expanding beyond [intellectual property] and startups and licensing to include supporting the growing innovation ecosystem of the greater Seattle and Puget Sound region,” said Vikram Jandhyala, UW vice provost of innovation.

The name, which is supposed to signal “collaboration and moving forward,” was selected from 135 candidates developed over a six-month process, with help from Seattle branding professionals and UW marketing, Jandhyala said.

Jandhyala took over leadership of the UW’s tech transfer organization last summer at a time when the university was facing the end of royalty revenue from one of its most commercially successful discoveries. It had also come under criticism for emphasizing revenue from licensing intellectual property at the expense of easier access to technology for startups, and for overstating the number and economic impact of startup companies that spun out of the university. Xconomy explored these issues in depth last fall.

Jandhyala

Jandhyala

UW President Michael Young, who set lofty goals for startup formation back in 2012, emphasized Thursday that the university’s innovation and impact agenda includes much more than financial returns from licensing intellectual property.

“It never hurts to have an extra Porsche or two in the faculty parking lot, but it’s not fundamentally about the financial resources,” Young told an audience of researchers, entrepreneurs, and supporters Thursday night. “It’s about the capacity to do good, to make people’s lives better, to create jobs, to create dynamism in the economic ecosystem.”

One way the UW is putting this into practice is through closer relationships with industry.

Earlier this week, Young, Gov. Jay Inslee, and Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner cut the ribbon on a new collaborative research center in which Boeing engineers will work side-by-side with UW students and faculty on real-world projects related to more efficient aircraft and spacecraft assembly.

Boeing is funding four projects under an initial two-year contract. As many as eight Boeing engineers will be stationed at the 4,300-square-foot Boeing Advanced Research Center within the UW’s mechanical engineering department. They will become affiliate university faculty, while retaining full-time jobs at Boeing.

It’s something UW professors like Shwetak Patel want to see more often. Patel teaches computer science and electrical engineering; is the co-founder of Seattle home sensors startup SNUPI Technologies; sold a previous company, Zensi, to Belkin, where he is chief scientist heading its new Seattle R&D lab; and has recently been working with Microsoft on wearable technology. UW history of innovation professor Margaret O’Mara said in a panel discussion Thursday that Patel is moving “in and out of the ivory tower on an hourly basis.”

Patel said the profile of a university faculty member has changed, particularly in technology fields. No longer is it adequate to merely publish research papers—or, in his words, “just throw it over the fence.”

“Moving back and forth between industry and academia really helps in terms of getting the ideas out there quicker, but also it plays a huge role in terms of what I can do on the teaching side of things at UW,” Patel said. “I have to refresh my class every six months. Part of that’s because the field’s changing, requirements are changing, and being out there and going back and forth actually gives me a good perspective on ‘What are we doing now?'”

Patel.

Patel.

Patel said he expects this kind of setup to become more common in the coming decade, not just for faculty, but students, too. “Internships are one thing, but it’s still not the right experience,” he said. “I think it needs to be more dynamic and more fluid and you kind of blur the line between a corporation and university, and I think we have a unique opportunity to do that.”

Closer relationships between industry and public universities raise potentially thorny questions about ownership of intellectual property, compensation, and the open-source and open-data movements in academia, among others. Those questions weren’t addressed directly Thursday. In an interview with Xconomy last year, Young said the university will be wrestling with the issues raised by faculty working simultaneously in industry and academia over the next year or two.