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UW’s O’Donnell Leads National Summit to “Sexify” Engineering, Inspire Students, Entrepreneurs, VCs

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the audience were hacking away with questions. It was clear this was doing the original idea of the grand challenges—inspiring people.” O’Donnell thought they should try to do it again in other cities, including Seattle. “You know what happens when you say that—you get volunteered,” he jokes.

O’Donnell says his first goal for the Seattle event is to infuse the idea of societal change “into the way our students think and how they do their senior ‘capstone’ design projects.” Part of the goal here, he says, is to make engineering “much more attractive to a much more diverse group of kids.” (For example, after years of effort to diversify, he says the UW college of engineering is still only about 25 percent female.)

His second goal is to make industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists “think bigger about what engineering means.” For example, he says, “engineers can change what it means to do science, to explore space, to change health…It’s not the little $50-100K investment or [Series] A round. What’s going to make it happen is, how are we going to do these major societal pushes?”

Which is all well and good, but the reality is that most VCs need to make money more than they need to change the world—especially in the current recession. “This is more related to when [the economy] changes, are you going to change, or are you going to do stuff the same old way? It’s got to be networks of people who have gazillions of dollars,” O’Donnell admits.

One way to help bridge what I see as a cultural gap between academic computer scientists and tech entrepreneurs and investors is to focus on solving big problems that could lead to, say, the next Google or Amazon. So I asked O’Donnell about major trends in computing that entrepreneurs should pay attention to. “We have transformed a lot of areas of science from being computationally heavy and instrument heavy to being data heavy,” he says. “It’s very simple now to say, ‘I’m going to look at human interactions, social sciences within building complexes, say, and demographics of social networking.’ So you get this enormous volume of data, and you make a database. But what do you do about it? This is the whole concept of eScience [a UW effort]. How do you develop tools that allow you to deal with these massive data sets and analyze them in real-time to make decisions? How do you make a theory when you have terabytes of data? That’s the challenge for global IT. That’s the reality of modern science.”

O’Donnell, who came to UW from the University of Michigan in 2006, is bullish about the long-term prospects for Seattle to contribute to breakthroughs in science, engineering, and business. “Seattle is well above threshold,” he says. That means if you’re trying to recruit somebody from another part of the country to a startup here, he says, they will move even if there’s a reasonable chance the startup will fail, because there are enough other opportunities to keep them here. One area he says to watch: green tech, especially efforts that capitalize on regional strengths in hydro power, IT, energy efficiency, smart grid, and smart buildings. He seems less certain about the future of the aerospace industry here, though he maintains that “Boeing is strong.”

I also asked O’Donnell which part of the Seattle summit he is most jazzed about. His answer: a panel on space exploration, “just to see what these folks think” about issues like manned versus unmanned space missions, the role of the federal government, and how to commercialize space travel. “I’m a Sputnik kid,” he says, having grown up in the U.S.-Soviet space race era.

The NAE Seattle Summit kicks off the afternoon of May 2 with talks and a student poster competition at the UW. That will be followed by a full day of talks and panels on May 3 at the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle, which will be moderated by New York Times science and technology correspondent John Markoff.

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