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Rhoads resisted getting pinned down on too many specifics about her goals, however. She stressed that there are many ways to move academic ideas into the business world. She did warn against being too “patent-centric,” noting that non-exclusive licenses often work well with software innovations.
Still, you’ve got to measure progress somehow. The traditional measurements from the Association of University Technology Managers annual survey can often be a thorn in the university’s side. It ranks an array of statistics for technology transfer output, like number of startup companies formed, annual revenue from licenses to the university, number of inventions disclosed by researchers, and number of patents awarded. When I asked what the measurements are that will define success in five years, Rhoads declined to be specific: “We’re still thinking about that,” she says.
Inside of the university, Rhoads says, she’s working to build relationships with key faculty, like dean of engineering Matt O’Donnell, Hank Levy, the chairman of computer science and engineering, and John Slattery, vice dean for research at the medical school. One of her key contacts on the outside is Ulrich Mueller, the vice president of technology transfer at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Since technology transfer is a part of the university that practically invites scandals—ever seen a headline about public employees using taxpayer resources to line their own pockets?—I wanted to know if Wise and UW President Mark Emmert have Rhoads’s back if and when days turn dark. Four years ago, before the new administration of Emmert and Wise was established, I quoted a former university official in The Seattle Times who said, “The attitude here is, ‘Don’t stick your neck out, because if you make a mistake, you’ll get hammered.'”
Here’s what Wise had to say now: “We try very hard to do what’s right. We’re certainly willing to be criticized if we feel we’ve done work to promote work of researchers, faculty, and students that can be of benefit to the state economy.”
Getting the culture right is clearly looming on Rhoads’s mind. She wants to make sure that people in the office aren’t afraid to fail. “Nothing is as helpful in getting people to be entrepreneurial as success stories. It inspires people. But in entrepreneurship, there is risk. You know what? Failure is a big part of entrepreneurship. There has to be a culture that not only gets excited about things that take off, but also things that were worthy enough that they attracted talented management and venture dollars, but didn’t work out. If they were worthy enough to attract that, it’s an achievement. You can’t start companies with a fear of failing.”
Ultimately, what does Rhoads really want to keep from happening? She had to think about that for a minute. “I don’t want people to invent something that never ends up seeing the light of day,” she says. “We don’t want to leave opportunities on the table.”
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