UW TechTransfer’s Linden Rhoads Aiming to Nurture More Startups, Entice More VCs to Look at UW’s Research Cupboard

8/27/08Follow @xconomy

Linden Rhoads is fired up. The high-tech entrepreneur-turned-university official has been circulating around town since she started on August 14 to lay the groundwork for a new era in technology transfer at the University of Washington. First on her calendar are meetings with all of the Northwest’s venture capital firms. When that’s done, she plans to make the rounds at the usual Monday portfolio meetings with VCs in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s spreading the word that the UW’s doors are open.

“I want the reputation of the University of Washington to be that we’re excited about doing business with the investment community,” she said last week, in her first interview since starting the job. “If the UW can commercialize the research we do here, there’s a tremendous opportunity to bring tremendous revenue to the university, produce many, many jobs, and bring innovations into the world that can help people.”

It’s certainly no small task. The story of technology transfer hasn’t changed much in recent years. The UW conducted more than $1 billion worth of research in 2007, paid for mostly by Uncle Sam, charitable foundations, and corporations. It ranks second in federal research funding nationally behind Johns Hopkins University. Yet every year, it seems, the local business community complains that it’s a royal pain to spin out university inventions into new startups, or licenses that companies can develop into moneymaking, job-producing products. A recent report commissioned by the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association said the university has a culture that frowns on entrepreneurial activity.

So what is UW doing about it? That’s what I asked in an interview at 301 Gerberding Hall with Rhoads and the woman who hired her, the No. 2 official on campus, provost Phyllis Wise.

Wise made it clear she sees room for improvement in how the university spins out research into the marketplace: “We want to get our ideas out through patents, licenses, startups, or papers and grants. We realize the important role technology transfer can play. We want to make sure we’re taking advantage of every opportunity.”

So far, Rhoads, 41, said she’s been seeking input from lots of people off campus. She’s tapping her rolodex of VC contacts from her past career as an entrepreneur with ChiliSoft, Singingfish.com, AdRelevance, and others. She’s no biologist, so she’s spent some time getting to know key leaders in local life sciences, including Leroy Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology. She’s studying the massive breadth of what the UW has to offer in its research cupboard. She’s working on organizing evening symposia to help VCs mingle efficiently with UW researchers who might have projects with commercial potential. She’s working to get some of her staff of 50 to focus more on mentoring, motivating, and even “inspiring” faculty members to build companies around their ideas, Rhoads says.

“Some of our faculty don’t know they’re sitting on information that can be dispersed in more effective ways,” Wise added.

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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