UW Starts Program to Train Faculty in the Art of Startups

1/30/09

The University of Washington’s TechTransfer department has launched a new program over the last four months that brings local entrepreneurs into the university to help academic researchers in the early stages of starting a company. This program, which is part of UW’s startup-support service, LaunchPad, matches volunteer entrepreneurs with faculty and other researchers interested in learning what it takes to build a successful company. (Xconomy previously wrote about LaunchPad here.)

Unlike more traditional entrepreneurs-in-residence programs (which UW also has), where entrepreneurs come in later in the game to help shape a particular company and often take on the role of CEO in that company, these new advisors will help with a range of projects well before they’re at the startup point.

Janis Machala, the director of LaunchPad since November, is spearheading the new program, which is being formalized this month. The experts she’s bringing in are tentatively being called LaunchPad “entrepreneur advisors.”

“Vetting research early with industry, with people who have had to go through the funding process, with people who have had to pitch their deals to strategic investors, will help give the researchers a sense of the reality of what it takes to make something translated into the commercial world,” Machala said in an interview. “This is really about trying to narrow that gap between the lab and the commercial.”

To find these expert advisors, Machala looks to her extensive network of local contacts. She just came to UW from an extensive background in the startup world, most recently from Paladin Partners, a Kirkland-based consulting firm for startups she founded in 1995. Machala keeps her ear to the ground for news of senior executives going through some kind of transition—retirement, company mergers, and so forth—someone who would have some spare time to volunteer with the researchers.

“People are really excited about this program and the idea that they can help in a meaningful way,” Machala said. And it helps that she is only asking for their time and not a check, she added. “So many of these people are being pitched to be an angel or to be on a board. They don’t have to have a formal relationship here.”

Jeff Canin, a local serial entrepreneur and consultant specializing in clean technology, just started as one of the entrepreneurial advisors last week. One of his first orders of business will be helping some UW researchers start a company around new solar cell technologies. Starting a successful cleantech company is not so different from any other successful startup, Canin said. “You have to have a differentiating solution to a large problem,” he said. “Often one finds a researcher or a technologist may have a grand idea, but it doesn’t serve a specific market.”

Among other advisors recently signed on at UW are Chris Porter, formerly of Cellpro and Pfizer; Joe Eichinger, co-founder and president of Redmond-based CoAptus Medical; Michael Hovanes, a serial entrepreneur in medical devices and imaging; and John Hansen, the former CEO of Bellevue-based Vallent (acquired by IBM in 2006). We’ll be keeping an eye out to see what impact this distinguished group has on the UW startup community.

Rachel Tompa is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. She can be reached at rmtompa@yahoo.com. Follow @

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