Q&A With Linden Rhoads: UW TechTransfer Leader Brings VC Revolution to Campus (Part 2)

2/11/09Follow @xconomy

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are increasingly sophisticated about the fact that there are very few bright lines anymore between industry and academic research. We’re in a much more ambiguous place today. Certainly, with researchers who work to introduce new therapies, we all have to be incredibly careful to make sure there is no conflict of interest that would cause anybody to influence their research results. That’s obvious. The School of Medicine couldn’t be more careful about that. But everyone understands that increasingly you have university researchers aware of other industrial research out there, and that’s a good thing. I think there’s a lot of excitement out there around the idea that our researchers could work more closely with industry and be more aware of what they’re doing as well. We find a lot of receptivity.

X: Does it help at all that researchers are afraid about what’s happened to NIH and NSF funding, and a lot of researchers are looking around for somebody to fund their work?

LR: I remain pretty optimistic that with NIH and NSF, we’ll see good funding there.

X: From the stimulus package?

LR: From the stimulus, and just Democratic Party appreciation for science and what it can accomplish. This is an administration that understands we need to innovate our way out of some of our nation’s problems. I just went to the inauguration, and had a great time.

X: That raises one question I actually wanted to ask. Are you having fun?

LR: I really am. I am really admiring of our researchers’ commitment to what they do. I worked in high-tech, and was guilty of being like many software and Internet entrepreneurs who started early in their 20s. We feel entitled to make a whole lot of money, just because. There isn’t a lot of humility in that. It’s a relentless pursuit of personal aggrandizement, and monetary reward. To meet some of our life sciences researchers, who are M.D./Ph.D.s who have all the same charisma and force of personality. Sometimes we stereotype them as nerds, or think they’re doing it because they don’t have alternatives.

What I have found is these are people with all the force of personality and charisma that would have allowed them to have very senior jobs in industry if that’s what they wanted, getting paid many times more than they are now, along with equity participation in the companies they work for. These are people who win millions of dollars from the NIH, year after year. They know how to win the support of their peers. They get through human subjects committees. It’s very onerous regulation. They are very organized, and keep large teams of people working together very well. They have all these incredible skills they could easily put to use for someone else in some other capacity, if all they cared about was making money. The fact is they don’t. It may sound incredibly corny, but they are noble and virtuous people. They really care a lot about bringing new therapies to the world. It feels good to support that.

X: You’ve also got a lot of experience in small, nimble organizations, and now you’re in this enormous institution. How’s that adjustment going?

LR: Certainly, you have to be sensitive. There are many missions and mandates driving researchers here, and the leadership here, especially in a tough financing climate. You’re not going to enjoy 100 percent mindshare. You aren’t going to get people to dedicate their time entirely to your ideas and priorities, that’s to be expected. I’ve actually been surprised at how much can get done quickly here when there are visionary leaders pushing their ideas forward, and you have receptive, like-minded peers. The leadership of this department, and the university as a whole, are really oriented around the idea of increasing the university’s relevance to the community and the region, and to cementing our position as America’s premier public research university.

X: You made a reference earlier to how universities are separating themselves into tiers. Is UW in that top tier?

LR: We certainly are, when you think about many of our departments, and on the whole, in terms of the dollars we bring in.

X: But even globally, in terms of the quality of work that’s being done here. Harvard, Stanford, etc. You think UW is in that top tier?

LR: Definitely. We are, and we are growing in stature. The question now is whether we are going to do the things as a university that will cement this position and increase it. The big part of it is turning the office of technology transfer into a world-class center for commercialization that’s known around the country and that is a big part of the reason why researchers come here in the first place. That’s our vision, and it’s a big vision.

X: What about technologies when you look around here? I can imagine you get a pretty broad exposure to a variety of things coming up here. Has anything surprised you?

LR: I think the cleantech project (with solar cells) is really promising. Alex Jen’s work, he’s our chairman of materials science. I think he’s a volcano, … Next Page »

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