UW Startups Have the Tech Part Down, Need Management Talent, Says Janis Machala

2/2/09Follow @gthuang

It’s been three months since Janis Machala took the helm of LaunchPad, the University of Washington’s support service for UW spinoffs. Her charge: to grow the service into a world-class entrepreneurial assistance program, and to promote the creation of new startups based on university research. I recently dropped in on Machala, a former tech executive and the founder of Paladin Partners, to see how her experience has been so far.

LaunchPad has just started a couple of new initiatives, she told me, including an “entrepreneur advisor” program that Rachel wrote about last week. For that program, Machala says she has signed up about 15 seasoned entrepreneurs in the Seattle area—Joe Eichinger of Redmond, WA-based CoAptus Medical and John Hansen, formerly of Bellevue, WA-based Vallent among them—to volunteer their time and mentor UW faculty and researchers on the ins and outs of starting companies. Another new LaunchPad thrust is an internship program whereby MBA students at the UW’s Foster School of Business team up with faculty entrepreneurs to work on market development plans. (More on that soon.)

It sounds like a very busy time. Machala says she’s currently tracking about 40 company prospects at the UW. They range from faculty members who have said they want to start a company to full-fledged business plans and management teams. “I’m incredibly enthused by all the entrepreneurial activity,” Machala says. “It’s far greater than I initially thought it was. What’s clear to me is the lack of business talent to drive it forward.” Almost every plan she reviews these days needs a qualified CEO, she says, and they’re tough to find.

Why is that? “Researchers hang out in their labs, and engineers don’t network,” Machala says. “They didn’t know how to get out there and engage….Anything we can do to help them leverage their time and bridge the gap, we do.”

As for her experience at the UW TechTransfer department so far, Machala says, “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the lack of bureaucracy. My biggest fear was that it’s such a big organization, it would have lots of impediments. People have been very open, and very engaged in entrepreneurship. I haven’t felt the resistance I expected. The support is top-down.”

More broadly, I asked Machala about her philosophy on starting technology companies, especially from within an academic institution. “A startup needs three basic elements,” she says—a management team, financing, and market research and development. That all assumes the technology is strong, she adds. (Which usually isn’t the issue for UW startups.)

So where will the next Amazon or Google come from around here? If Machala knows, she’s not letting on. But she points to the wireless sector, including mobile software and devices, as particularly fertile ground—and a technology cluster in which the Seattle area is particularly strong. Of course, the aim of LaunchPad would be that whatever field the next big winner is in, it will come from the UW.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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