UW Adds Heavy Hitters from High Tech and Biotech to Turn More Ideas Into Companies
Two big names from the Seattle high tech and biotech scene—Rick LeFaivre of OVP Venture Partners and Pathway Medical’s Tom Clement—are taking new jobs at the University of Washington to help turn some of its most promising research ideas into new startup companies.
LeFaivre and Clement are joining the rebranded UW Center for Commercialization as key deputies to vice provost Linden Rhoads, the high-tech entrepreneur who was hired 18 months ago to light a fire for entrepreneurship on campus. LeFaive will split his time evenly between the university and his other job as a managing director at OVP in Kirkland, WA, while Clement is expected to work full-time for about 18 months, Rhoads says.
Janis Machala, the super-connected startup adviser who Rhoads hired as her deputy in November 2008, is leaving the UW at the beginning of February to go back to her consulting business. Machala says she feels “great” about the progress made in stirring more commercial activity at UW in 2009. “New VCs are also engaging from the Bay Area and other locales now that they are seeing commercial progress” coming from UW research, she says.
The hiring of two people with deep expertise in high tech and cleantech (LeFaivre) as well as life sciences (Clement) is a recognition of how the UW needs specialized talent on staff to help nurture more startups, Rhoads says. The UW conducted more than $1 billion worth of research in 2008, paid for mostly by the feds, charitable foundations, and corporations. It ranks second in federal research funding nationally behind Johns Hopkins University. Yet before Rhoads and Machala came aboard, business leaders long complained that the university was mediocre at best when it came to transforming all that research into new startups or useful products. Getting more experienced industry talent in house to mentor scientists and engineers about the ways of business is a key part of bridging that traditional gap, Rhoads says.
“This takes a lot of expertise. I know a lot about tech startups, but I think it sums it up to point out that two 23-year-olds can’t start a biotech company,” Rhoads says. “There’s a lot of domain expertise required in knowing the safety and efficacy requirements, regulatory issues, product reimbursement.” A similar thing is true for cleantech, she adds.
That rationale was what led her to LeFaivre and Clement. “I wanted to make sure we had the right expertise on both sides of the house,” she says.
Both of these guys are already familiar faces in the local innovation community. LeFaivre, 62, has a doctorate in computer science and formerly worked as a professor at Rutgers and UC San Diego. He has a long track record in the tech world, including stints in management roles at Apple Computer, Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, and Tektronix, before he joined OVP. LeFaivre lately has been carving out greater expertise in the cleantech scene, and he was OVP’s point man on its 2008 investment in EnerG2, an intriguing UW spinoff that’s seeking to develop more efficient ways to store energy.
Clement, 54, is known as one of the most successful medical device entrepreneurs in the Northwest, after a two-decade run as a co-founder of Heart Technology and Pathway Medical Technologies. He stepped down as CEO of Pathway a year ago as the company graduated from pure R&D mode into commercialization mode with its novel tool that drills through, and vacuums out, all sorts of fatty blockages and clots in leg arteries.
While he has backed off from day-to-day demands of running a company, Clement has stayed busy. He’s the chairman of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association, and has spent the last eight months or so as an entrepreneur-in-residence at UW for scouting and advising budding medical device entrepreneurs.
“A lot of people might say, ‘Why take this job?’” Clement says. “I haven’t had a boss for a while, and there’s bureaucracy. But I’m really very excited, and Rick is too, that I can help form connections and do something positive for the community. It’s also not a commitment for the rest of my life. I’ll get an opportunity to run another company, which I do want to do.”
Part of Clement’s responsibility will be to build up a new incubator for medical devices at the UW campus in Bothell. That effort has gotten a $500,000 state grant to build out and get equipment for space to perform crucial early-stage experiments on new medical devices, Clement says.
LeFaivre spoke to my colleague, Greg Huang, about why this move makes sense for both OVP and for himself.
“As they move towards raising the next fund, it doesn’t make sense for me to be full-time. It makes sense for me to step down to half-time,” LeFaivre says. “I also didn’t want to sit on the beach or watch soap operas. I talked to Linden. She said, ‘Would you be interested in working part-time with me to move things forward?’”
When asked why he took the job, LeFaivre says, “It gives me a chance to give back to the university. My entire career has been spent with both feet, or one foot, in universities.” He adds: “I have had ties to UW [for many years], and my daughter went here… It’s a natural thing, so let’s take the next step and work here part-time.” He didn’t say how long he expects to work with UW.
Last, but not least, we had to ask about the potential for conflicts of interest whenever prominent private sector people get involved in the public sector. LeFaivre noted that he will avoid conflicts of interest, in case anyone is wondering whether this might give OVP an inside edge over other VCs vying for cool technologies at the UW. He said he will recuse himself from talks if multiple VCs are competing for a deal and OVP is involved. “I will not tee up anything with OVP that I don’t tee up with everyone else,” LeFaivre says.
For his part, Clement says he isn’t too concerned about the potential for conflicts of interest. If Pathway or another company he has holdings in has a negotiation with the university, he would recuse himself. Clement says he expects to leave the negotiating for the university to other licensing officers.