How Seattle VCs Are Adapting to the UW TechTransfer Revolution (Part 2)

4/17/09Follow @gthuang

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Patrick Ennis, Bill Gossman, Alex St. John, Jeff Canin, Chris Rivera, Jeff Schrock, Brian Bershad, Will Poole, Oren Etzioni, Dan Weld, Chris Porter, Susannah Malarkey, Connie Bourassa-Shaw… The format of the event was actually inspired by another retreat put on by Bourassa-Shaw’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UW.)

What came out of the meeting? Rhoads says, among other things, metrics to measure the success of UW TechTransfer, ways to improve the efficiency of communication with investors about hot projects, and a lot of top-tier networking. “People talk about walking the halls—but as I’ve said before, it’s hard to park, let alone walk the halls,” she jokes (but of course it’s true). She adds that her team is trying to help VCs and industry leaders better understand the opportunities at the UW—and do it in a cooperative way. “The other thing we’re really seeing, rather than more competition, is much more collaboration. We’re having WRF, OVP, Arch, Madrona, much more together to give chase to a market to get things spun out of the university,” she says. “We’re excited about working together to build syndicates.”

Nobody knows more about this sort of collaboration than the Washington Research Foundation, which has invested in more UW spinouts over the past 20 years than any other firm—most recently in startups like Arzeda, EnerG2, Skytap, PetraVM, Lumera, and Farecast. “We’ve never had to compete with other firms to do deals. We’re seen as partners,” says Thong Le of WRF Capital, in part because of their unique model of funneling investment returns back into the UW. “We’re very active in terms of being at the university.”

Le has noticed a marked shift in working with the university. “A lot of change comes from the very top. It’s a different attitude about how you help commercialize technologies,” he says. “Linden and Janis have brought a different culture to the UW. They’re trying to change the mindset. It’s actually OK to help turbocharge the environment in which commercialization can flourish.”

Another VC also notices a strong inward focus, which he says will help researchers and investors connect at an earlier stage. “With Linden, what I’ve been most impressed with is the focus on researchers,” says Madrona’s Gottesman. “It’s so hard to boil it down to what really matters. If we take care of the researcher, everything falls into place. She has hit that nail perfectly. It’s good for the UW, good for Madrona, good for everyone.”

Gottesman continues, “The best thing that could happen will be to have more wins. When you have a win like a Farecast, a lot of other professors and top graduate students, when they’re in the shower in the morning, they’ll think about not just the great research they’re doing, but ‘How can I commercialize this?’” In the case of Farecast, which was spun out of the UW in 2003 and bought by Microsoft last year, he says. “This wasn’t even two guys in a garage. This was an academic paper, this is really early stuff—is there an interesting business behind this? At the UW, you feel comfortable that from a technology angle, even though it’s very early, you’re getting a sense for the very best stuff that’s out there.”

Patrick Ennis, formerly of Arch Venture Partners and now global head of technology for Bellevue, WA-based Intellectual Ventures, provided some more perspective. “UW has always been one of the world leaders in tech transfer, and now they’ve really jacked it up a notch,” Ennis says. “This activity is more important than ever. During slow economic times, what you need is economic activity. If you don’t have … Next Page »

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. Follow @gthuang

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