Putting UW Startup Dreams on Hold: Entrepreneur Advises Researchers to Nurture Ideas More

4/9/09Follow @xconomy

We’ve been writing for months about the renaissance in startup activity at the University of Washington since Linden Rhoads came to campus to run tech transfer.

The big ideas, and the fire in the belly, are easy to find coming from UW these days (Arzeda and EnerG2 pop to mind), but as any businessperson will tell you, starting companies is hard. Joe Eichinger, one of the savvy entrepreneurs Rhoads is leaning on to advise UW faculty, told me he’s been cautioning researchers to think things through a little more, nurture their ideas a little longer, before taking the leap with a startup.

“One of my sore spots is that things sometimes come out of the UW too soon, before the intellectual property is fully developed,” Eichinger says.

Spinning out too soon with a promising idea can create lots of problems, says Eichinger, a veteran medical device entrepreneur with CoAptus Medical, AcousTx, Therus, and Ekos. The faculty inventor might envision one narrow application of an idea, without seeing other potential uses that might be a lot more valuable. If all the far-reaching IP gets licensed to one startup focused on the first application, and that startup drives an extremely hard bargain on licensing other applications to other companies, the idea could get bottled up forever. UW could miss the opportunity to start several companies. And young faculty members otherwise on the tenure track could see their careers derailed from research and teaching by getting wound up in a misguided venture, Eichinger says. “They can get starry-eyed over startups sometimes,” he says.

He ticked off a list of intriguing technologies that aren’t quite ready to emerge in the commercial arena:

—Imagine contact lenses that could be embedded with tiny electrical circuits, powered by small amounts of sunlight. This is the kind of thing featured in The Terminator. The potential applications are endless. The military might want these circuits to detect when soldiers step into a biowarfare chemical zone. They could help people with poor vision surf the Web. They could pick up on subtle biological signals, like whether a diabetic’s blood sugar is out of whack, or whether pressure is building behind the eye that might cause glaucoma. The gaming industry, obviously, sees potential for virtual reality to immerse players in games.

The technology for such lenses has been brewing in the labs of two promising young UW faculty on the tenure track—Babak Parviz in electrical engineering, and Teung Shen in ophthalmology. “It’s breakthrough technology,” Eichinger says. “They are going to be superstars in the future.” But some fundamental questions … Next Page »

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