Hidden Gems Are Inside UW Computer Science & Engineering. Can They Be Mined?


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additional diverse and interesting research in several areas of computer science with real possibilities for commercialization.

A group of database experts, led by Magda Balazinska, is studying tools and techniques for creating and managing extremely large databases and storing huge streams of data in real time. The size and amount of data that can be collected today can be overwhelming, especially if the data needs to be organized in a way that allows useful questions to be asked about it. This is deep technical work that underpins future database products.

Faculty and students including Yaw Anokwa and Carl Hartung are working on applying information technologies in developing regions of the world where workers are low-skilled, funding is scarce, and the IT environment is harsh. Anokwa and Hartung use smart phones as data collection devices and push data into the cloud for storage, analysis, and reporting. Their use of these technologies allows health workers to collect medical data in the field and send it to urban centers for analysis. The underlying technology they devised for quickly building data collection applications has been widely adopted by others – the open source library Open Data Kit, developed in collaboration with Google Seattle.

One of several people working on machine learning is Pedro Domingos. One of Domingos’ projects is figuring out how valuable a person is to a marketer based on that person’s social network and their perceived expertise on a given product or subject. Knowing who is best-connected and most expert can allow precise targeting of marketing messages which can have a big impact on marketing effectiveness.

I met a researcher named Justin Cappos who is working on an alternative to cloud computing by creating a pool of shared personal computers that can work together to solve problems. He’s creating a network of safe “netbots” available to each participant in the network. Unlike the SETI network that uses volunteers’ computers for the specific purpose of analyzing collected signal data for evidence of extra-terrestrial life, Cappos’ network lets any participant use all the other computers in the network to help solve computational problems.

Barbara Mones, Director of the Animation Research Lab and formerly of DreamWorks and Industrial Light & Magic, is working on tools to support computer animation. Her students produce compelling, technically advanced animated films. Her recent work is on new tools for planning animations using a real-time storyboard application that allows the animators to work out all the elements of a scene quickly before they spend the time required to fully render each scene.

During my four months on campus I’ve covered less than a quarter of the faculty. I know there are many more gems out there, and the entrepreneur inside of me is excited about the potential to mine them and share them with the world.

My expectation was that technology comes out of academia through its faculty members. News articles report professors developing new technologies and forming companies. But not many professors will leave their university to play a significant operating role in a company intended to commercialize their technology. Although Etzioni and Patel have created commercially successful products, they continue as UW professors, not employees of the companies created to bring their research to market. Their strengths and passions, as with almost all university professors, are research and teaching, not building companies.

More likely, students develop an idea, working under the tutelage of a faculty advisor, and leave the university to form a company to commercialize their work. Students are the entrepreneurs, guided by faculty and other mentors. For example, Etzioni’s four Decide.com co-founders were recent UW undergraduates (three from CSE, one from another program); the company’s chief scientist and other two Ph.D.s are CSE alums; the CEO and 80 percent of the employees are UW alums.

That is the way it ought to be. Faculty members educate students. Faculty members are moving on to the next big idea while students are commercializing the last one. The history of successful university spin-outs in computer science is pretty clear. Google, Yahoo!, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, and many others were started by students.

As chair of the Technology Alliance, I care deeply about our universities and their impact on the Washington state economy. The real gems at the university are most effectively transferred outside by a motivated student who takes an idea and runs with it. Entrepreneurs can be helpful to the institutions, faculty, and students to better understand how to effectively commercialize research results, and to help identify results with commercial potential. Together we can create a culture that values and informs the commercialization of ideas, always remembering that faculty members and outsiders are not often the miners of these gems. Students are.

Jeremy Jaech is a serial technology entrepreneur who co-founded Visio and Aldus. Follow @

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