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

4/17/09Follow @gthuang

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it, you can’t tax it, and there’s no money to invest in more economic activity.”

Intellectual Ventures, which partners with universities around the world to commercialize inventions, is building its relationship with UW TechTransfer. About three months ago, the firm hired Karen Kerr, formerly of Agile Equities and Arch Venture Partners, to head up business development in the U.S. So Kerr is now IV’s liaison with Rhoads’s team, and with professors at the UW. (It will be intriguing to watch what sorts of licensing deals and other agreements may come of this.)

All this progress seems fine and good. But might the UW back off from its ambitious commercialization agenda the minute a prominent public voice accuses the university of selling its soul to corporate America?

“Absolutely not,” says Ennis. “UW preserves, with vigilance, academic freedom and the ability to do basic research. That has not changed by any means. What has changed over 20 years is those professors who do want to get involved with commercializaton can. It’s about more freedom, not less freedom. I don’t see the opportunity for pushback. It’s not relevant.” What’s more, he says, “All of this is voluntary. If a professor doesn’t want to work on a startup or patent, they don’t have to. The potential conflict of interest is where there’s funding from an organization—it could be a company, it could be the government—that wants to control the research. Are there any strings attached to your basic research funding? History has shown that the best research is performed when there are no strings attached to your money.”

As for promising areas of technology spinouts to watch at the UW, WRF Capital’s Le says, “We’re seeing early stage platform-type opportunities. Antibodies in a particular area, or fundamentally new materials for batteries and cell phones, or security applications. The university is so broad. We take a step back and look for very fundamental technologies that give us an unfair competitive advantage.”

Gottesman, for his part, points to “great stuff going on in search, with Oren Etzioni. The graphics side is extremely exciting, and systems work that Hank Levy and others have been working on. We’re really open to a bunch of different areas.” Outside of straight computing, Gottesman also points to medical technologies as a field to watch at the UW.

As for Rhoads, she says that Accelerator, the Seattle-based biotech incubator, is “in the process of closing another UW technology…Accelerator’s anchor tenant was Lee Hood’s Institute for Systems Biology, but we’re in active discussions [to create] an Accelerator for biomedical devices, and for cleantech/energy startups. It would have the university as its anchor tenant, and a number of venture firms. We’re seeing cooperation as the model right now.”

Rhoads couldn’t be more specific about this just yet, but she added some broader perspective on the coming year. “We’re on track to do as many deals as we have in the past,” she says. “It’ll be a hard time for companies to close large rounds in mezzanine financing, to reach a broad marketplace. But if you’re in the product development stage, as long as VC firms are still able to raise capital, it makes sense to invest in companies that will be looking for customers in two or three years.”

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 or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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