It’s Fashionable to Be Early, and Other Startup Lessons from the Innovation Showcase

2/7/11

The point at which an exciting research project is poised to become the next great product or service can be fraught with peril. So, what’s an innovator to do?

Make connections, seek advice, build a team of advisors and investors who can help navigate that rocky road and bridge the gap between research and results. As the valley of death has expanded in recent years, making the right connections has become even more critical to achieving the next milestone.

The Innovation Showcase, which is produced quarterly by the Technology Alliance, offers innovators the chance to expand their business network as they move forward on the path to commercialization. It started out as an experiment to see if we could help innovators make the transition from grant-funded research to company formation and investment. Based on the enthusiastic response to our pilot program a year and a half ago, we knew we must be onto something. For many innovators, this event is their first opportunity to pitch their ideas to those outside of the academy. For the experts in building and growing companies that attend the Showcase, it is a unique opportunity to witness some of the most interesting work being commercialized at our state’s research institutions.

Last Tuesday afternoon was no exception. An enthusiastic audience had the opportunity to learn about ground-breaking technology in the life sciences, clean tech, and wireless sensing fields. Presenting companies included:

EnVitrum: This company, based on technology developed by University of Washington graduate student Grant Marchelli, has a patent-pending technology that converts low-value, waste stream glass into a high-value material that has several applications in the green building industry.

Hive: UW professor Brian Otis has developed a wireless technology platform that increases the battery life of transceivers – with applications in medical devices, body-area networks for consumer sports and fitness, and the automotive and aviation industry.

Precision Genome Engineering: Dr. Andrew Scharenberg and his team are developing tools for making precise genome manipulations and custom organisms.

Shockmetrics: Critical care physician Kenneth Schenkman has develped a noninvasive monitor for the early detection of shock in patients.

SNUPI: UW computer science professor Shwetak Patel, who sold his water monitoring company, Zensi, to Belkin last year, is building a highly specific resource sensing system for homes and businesses. The system, which builds on colleague and fellow presenter Brian Otis’ “bumblebee” technology, has the potential to fundamentally transform how customers consume electricity, water, and natural gas.

Having worked with these and over two dozen other companies during the program’s two years of existence, we’ve noticed a few things about the very early stage opportunities emerging from Washington laboratories:

Be Early, and Be Interesting

We have found that our audience responds to a well-balanced slate of technologies from different industries. Audience members – even the ones with an investment focus – are focused on the technology first; stage of development is a secondary consideration. Interesting technology appears to trump traction every time with this group. That should be encouraging to innovators and would-be entrepreneurs who have a great technology but haven’t progressed very far down the road to commercialization.

It also should lay to rest any concerns about being too early. We often encounter potential presenters who believe that because their company is so far from the stage at which they would seek capital, they are not ready for this type of forum. But they are not too early: this is the perfect time, and the ideal setting, in which to start gaining traction and to connect with the expertise needed to take their very interesting technology to the next stage. Once we have convinced hesitant innovators to participate, they generally agree that it was a great experience and the right decision.

It Really Does Take a Village

While the companies we spotlight may seem early to the typical angel investor or VC, years of work and millions of research dollars have gone into developing those technologies to the point of commercialization. Grant funding from both public and private sources plays a key role in moving these technologies forward. As important, mentoring from seasoned business leaders like the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence at UW Center for Commercialization and WSU Research Foundation provide critical real-world perspectives.

The great news is that the village is willing. Our program is constructed to be collegial, not competitive. Our participating companies are screened and coached, with our presenters gaining essential feedback every step of the way. Our audience is engaged, with many joining advisory boards, making introductions, and providing funding for companies following our events. But the Innovation Showcase is only one member of the start-up ecosystem.

Our continuing challenge is to make it easier for entrepreneurs to access all the start-up resources available to them. From university based programs like the UW Business Plan Competition, to industry specific forums like Life Science Innovation Northwest and the Cleantech Open, to funding sources like Alliance of Angels and WINGS, we all need to work together to continue to guide companies on their path.

The Progress is Measurable

Speaking of paths, the path to revenue for most Innovation Showcase companies is often longer than that experienced by so many of Seattle’s well-known software start-ups. It may include establishing key strategic partnerships, obtaining regulatory approval, or as is frequently the case, shifting paradigms on the part of the target market.

Still, each quarter when we update the audience on past presenters’ milestones – a highly anticipated segment of the program – the traction these innovative young companies have gained at this critical stage is remarkable. Most recently, we were joined by three alumni: Mike Hite of Impel NeuroPharma, Brian Glaister of Empowering Engineering Technology, and Sailesh Chutani of Mobisante. The enthusiastic applause each presenter received was an acknowledgement of the dedication it took them to successfully complete clinical trials, refine the prototype, and obtain regulatory approval, respectively.

One of the most heartening results of this grand experiment in focusing on earlier stage technologies and fledgling companies has been the measurable progress of so many presenters. In our December survey of 27 past participants, we received very encouraging news. Seven had received grants to further develop their technology from sources as varied as the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, National Institutes of Health, DARPA, and the U.S. Army, to name just a few. Seven had made pitches to angel investors, with four securing early stage capital while another received seed funding from WRF Capital. Four had received awards recognizing their innovations. Numerous others reported securing strategic partners and/or recruiting advisory boards to help them move their technology forward.

Seattle Is Not Alone

It is easy to focus just on Seattle, or the University of Washington for that matter, because there is so much happening here. But, as the Technology Alliance is a statewide organization, we’ve worked closely with incubators of innovation from the other side of the Cascades, such as Sirti, the WSU Research Foundation and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory operated by Battelle. We are not just building bridges between research and commercialization, but between the Puget Sound and other innovation hotspots across the state.

Yes, there are interesting things taking place all across Washington, and yes, we can build those bridges that will turn research into results. We hope you will join us at our April 26th Showcase to find out for yourself how innovation is taking shape in our state.

Susannah Malarkey is the Executive Director of the Technology Alliance, a statewide organization of leaders from technology businesses and research institutions dedicated to Washington's long-term economic success Follow @

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