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 still need to be answered about some of these applications, and when they are, this technology could lead to several companies pursuing multiple applications, Eichinger says.

—Another idea he cited came from an otolaryngologist at UW who developed technology that could zero in on a specific person’s voice, screening out all surrounding background noise after 20 seconds. The researcher’s first thought was to apply this toward hearing aids. But a far bigger business opportunity, one the researcher hadn’t fully grasped, is to adapt the technology for use in cell phones (we’ve all had the problem of talking to someone while walking down a noisy street) and license it to some of the giants of that field. “What if the next application is even more valuable than the first? The investors in the startup company may not want to license it,” even if that means it likely won’t get developed as quickly, Eichinger says.

—One last example comes from technology developed with Boeing for the new 787 Dreamliner that makes it possible to do away with window shades on planes and allows people to lighten or darken windows with a manual dial. One other obvious application of this technology, with a little more fundamental work, would be to put a dial on eyeglasses to make them lighten or darken with the spin of a wheel, he says.

“Our job is to find ways to marry the technology to real world, commercializable problems,” Eichinger says. Of course, faculty who invent things don’t necessarily think of commercial applications. “They need to think about their teaching and research. They’d rather write a grant than a patent,” he says.

Eichinger is imparting his advice on a volunteer basis, and says he wants to make sure the UW doesn’t waste a lot of its potential. “If I was being selfish and greedy, I’d try to grab these things and run with them as fast as I can,” he says. “I really see myself as a fiduciary of the UW, and would like to say ‘let’s develop these things a little more internally, understand the potential of them a little more,’ and then let’s license it out when the time is right.”

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