Q&A With Linden Rhoads: UW’s TechTransfer Leader Brings VC Revolution to Campus (Part 1)
Six months have flown by since Linden Rhoads joined the University of Washington as its first high-tech entrepreneur in charge of technology transfer. This is a critical job for Seattle’s innovation community at the nexus of university research, venture capital, and the high-tech and life sciences business. From the minute she arrived on campus back in August, Rhoads made it clear she was ready to shake up an office long criticized for not doing enough to spark the local economy.
This is a job with lots of constituencies, many of them cranky, so it would be easy to rip any new tech transfer boss to shreds. Yet the early reviews on Rhoads’s tenure are positive. UW president Mark Emmert, in an October speech to the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association, said her hiring was an experiment in seeing whether the university could learn something from a business person, adding, “We’ll learn together. If anyone can pull it off, it’s Linden.” Bob Nelsen, a managing director of Arch Venture Partners in Seattle said she is doing, in a word, “Awesome. They are very lucky to have her.”
Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates chair of computer science and engineering, said this via e-mail: “There’s been a dramatic change since Linden’s arrival. The tech transfer officers are crawling all over our building working with students and faculty. An Entrepreneur-in-Residence program has been started. Janis Machala, an incredibly experienced and well-connected startup “coach” who many of our previous startups have worked with, has been brought on-staff. It’s like night and day.”
I sat down with Rhoads at a conference room at the TechTransfer office a couple weeks back to hear directly from her about what sorts of changes she has brought to the place, and her vision. Here are edited excerpts of the first part of the conversation, with more to come tomorrow.
Xconomy: It’s been a little more than six months since you were named to the job, so I figure it’s a good time to ask. How are you doing in this new position?
Linden Rhoads: I’m really pleased with what we’ve accomplished to date. The most important thing we’ve done is revive the mission of this office, to be focused on making the University of Washington the best place in the world to do research. When you think of the direction universities are taking, there’s an extent to which the American university system is becoming somewhat like that in Britain, where there’s Cambridge and Oxford and everyone else. I think you’re beginning to see a little bit of a two-tier system like that here in the U.S.
At the same time, universities are becoming fungible platforms off of which researchers are in a sense free agents. So it’s important that the University of Washington is America’s premier public research university. I’d like to see, and it’s critical for the region, for the university to increasingly be recognized as such over the next 10 or 15 years. Given that we don’t have 200 years of Ivy attached to our name to lend stature, and we don’t have a state government that even in good times has the political will to spend the tens of millions of dollars it needs to spend for starter packages to get star researchers into the university. It’s certainly not enough to provide grounds on which we can compete. The question is how are we going to attract the researchers doing the very most compelling and promising work. How are we going to attract them and retain them. It’s essential for this region and this university that we do. That’s what’s going to determine whether we remain and increasingly become recognized as America’s premier public research university.
Increasingly, we see this office as one of the differentiators in an otherwise fungible platform. In addition to the opportunity to collaborate between engineers and a school of medicine, which not every university has, to have an office of tech transfer that is committed to be the ultimate in commercialization support for researchers. One that’s not focused as much on all those other mandates that tech transfer offices can get distracted by. We’ll be focused on doing anything and everything that every other university in the country does to help its researchers achieve their commercialization goals.
X: What’s your philosophy of tech transfer? What should this office be doing, and what should it not be doing?
LR: What we really need to be doing is asking ourselves every day, ‘Are we doing everything possible to support our researchers?’ That’s different than being distracted by the idea of impact, in terms of what we’re doing for the local economy, being distracted by the idea of making money. I really believe if we do everything we can to be the best place for researchers and we help them as much as we can, all those other things will come and more. I just think it’s not useful to be overly conscious of those other goals as you actually carry out the work. What we need to be doing is focusing on helping our researchers, and being everything a university can be for them.
Too often, everyone runs around to think their job is to do industry relations, or their job is to be constantly thinking about revenue, or showing Olympia what we can do for the state. The bottom line is we can’t commercialize things unless they’re here. They’re here by virtue of the fact that researchers doing promising work have chosen to be here. What we need to do are things that make them want to be here, and want to stay here. We see ourselves as a big part of the reason why someone doing the most promising work in this country would choose to join this university. Increasingly, researchers in high-demand areas have, alongside their academic and research goals, a set of commercialization dreams as well. What we want them to know is this office is proactive in helping researchers achieve those goals, and it’s a reason to come here.
X: So are you getting involved in recruiting some of these star faculty? You personally?
LR: Yes, me personally, and people in the office. The way we’ve done that is by taking responsibility for getting the venture capital community involved. For example, there are open faculty spots in bioengineering now, and it’s really important, we would love to see this university become more translationally focused. We have been going to the local life sciences venture community and saying, ‘Look, take this opportunity deadly seriously. You need to start networking with all your colleagues, and ask them, if you had a chance to recruit any one bioengineer to live in your neighborhood and generate intellectual property in your neighborhood, who would it be?’ You need to start out by getting those names to the hiring committee. When I tell them that, and don’t hear anything, I personally call them back and hound them again.
On top of that, when these researchers visit the university, we take them on a tour that includes visits with local venture capitalists who are familiar with their work, and can sincerely express excitement in their work. We can take them to meet CEOs of UW spinouts who can explain to them how we can facilitate their transition from the lab to a startup.
X: Are there any particular names you can point to in the past few months who have come on board?
LR: Not yet. But we’re integrated with department chairs in ways that this office never has been before. We’re trying to be proactive.
If you think about it, the point at which most tech transfer offices become involved with a researcher is at the point of an invention disclosure. So you get a disclosure, and then you do an analysis to the extent to which it’s material to the commercial universe, and if it is, is it protectable? So we want to work, under my direction, with researchers years before that point. We want to meet especially with our most prolific researchers, those who are commercially facing and already dedicated to doing impactful work. We go meet with them and say, ‘Talk to us about the next three to five years, since the most precious resource you have isn’t your research funds, it’s your time and that of your grad students. So tell us all the things you thought about doing and why, and how you vetted these decisions, and what you’re thinking you might write grants for in the next three to five years. That way we can have more information, and help you go through which of these projects might have the most commercial potential. We go through that white-boarding exercise, which is fairly analogous to Intellectual Ventures-guided invention sessions.
What we end up doing is saying, and this is a lot of heavy lifting for our office, we say let us find the members of industry who are most acquainted with what you’re doing and create a safe, non-disclosure environment in which you can discuss what you’re doing and get more information from them about what industry can use and would be excited about.
X: With a venture capitalist? That early?
LR: Yes, that early, and with venture capitalists. But not just any venture capitalist. We’re combing the nation for the venture capitalists who are truly aware of a specific research area. And people from industry, like someone from Intel or somewhere else. Let me give you an example. We might talk to someone like Alex Jen, our chairman of materials science, who has this incredible idea around thin-film solar, on organic material rather than silicon. He thinks he can get to 10 percent efficiency within a certain number of years, which is an incredible goal.
First of all, we want to look to someone in industry who can tell us if that’s really important, or whether its more important than being 9 percent cheaper to manufacture, or having really good stability in the environment for six-plus years. So let’s find out from industry what aspects are the most important things to them. Then we’ll let the researcher proceed with that information. We want to recruit the most relevant people from inside these companies, and it isn’t always a business development person, to get involved with our researchers many years before there is any intellectual property coming out. We’re hoping to get our really prolific faculty involved early with industry, and we hope to stack the pipeline of innovation. Years from now, we want that pipeline to be full of more commercially relevant innovation.
X: We’ve heard that your tech transfer officers are just a lot more visible on campus now.
LR: We are hosting meetings for researchers too. You’ll find all over campus that there have been meetings with a researcher, with people from industry, and a venture capitalist. We don’t do this in the hope that a license will come out of it, but that a relationship will come out of it. It will be such that our researcher will emerge from it with advisers who they can be consulting from, and getting input from over the years. We consider ourselves, in a sense, business development officers so our researchers have more information that they can use to proceed. They ought to know the state of the art in industry. So they can understand the relevance of their own work. It’s something most tech transfer offices don’t undertake. It’s a more proactive and longer-term approach.
X: You’re not trying to juice your licensing stats for next year?
LR: No, and let’s face it, in this economy, I’d be tempted to say something like even if we wanted to, we probably couldn’t do it this year. However, even with venture capitalists as hard hit as they are, and the economy in the terrible shape that it is, it’s a very different economy than the one we thought we were in when I joined this office. It’s a different climate, let’s face it. But with every crisis, there are timing beneficiairies and timing victims. If you’re a company seeking mezzanine funding, $15 million or $20 million or so and have substantial funding to reach your first customers, or maybe a broader marketplace, this is a very hard time. You’re a timing victim. No matter the advantages you provide over the status quo, there won’t be much adoption. However, if you’re a lot earlier right now, if you’re at the stage of convincing the investment community that if you put a couple million to work now, that in three to four years from now, you can be ready to go to the market at a point when it will be receptive again, that’s an attractive proposition. To the extent that venture capitalists still have funds to play with, certainly strategically it still makes sense to make those investments.
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