UW Incubator: Ground Zero for Doubling Startup Spinouts in 3 Years

2/8/12Follow @curtwoodward

In a typical year, research at the University of Washington will spawn about a dozen promising young companies. In the next three years, the school’s new president wants to see that output double—and ground zero for a lot of those startups will likely be a new incubator space unveiled this week.

When renovations are complete, the UW’s New Ventures Facility will have space for about 25 startups, with some 23,000 square feet of space split roughly evenly between laboratories and offices.

The initial floor of office space is finished now, and the first startups are expected to begin stocking its cubicles and conference rooms in the coming weeks. Renovation of lab space will take a little longer—it’s expected to be finished in 2014.

UW officials aren’t waiting to start trumpeting what they say is another big step toward dramatically increasing the entrepreneurial output of the state’s largest higher education center. It coincides with efforts like the new W Fund, an early stage investment pool pegged at about $25 million that will concentrate on companies emerging from public universities in the state.

Young

Michael Young, the UW’s president, said the incubator on UW’s campus should help keep young companies and entrepreneurs in Washington by making sure they don’t have to hit the streets too early, where they might find a need to relocate to Silicon Valley.

“When businesses spin too quickly out of their university geography, the reasons for staying in the state begin to reduce, and all of the sudden sunny climates and higher degrees of venture capital and so forth begin to appeal,” Young said Wednesday. “And that is despite the fact that the real value-add is staying connected with the university for some period of time until it really has proved its worth, and has shown what that market niche is, and has developed that technology that truly is significant and truly is transformative.”

Rhoads

Young speaks from experience, having helped the University of Utah become a national leader in spinning out university research. Linden Rhoads, head of the UW’s Center for Commercialization, said Young’s “assignment” of doubling the school’s startup output will also focus on quality—”not just companies, but successful, thriving companies that will be a benefit to the community and a credit to the university. So really, we look at the applicants with that assigment in mind.”

Startups have to apply for the incubator, and once they’re in, will pay to rent spaces—a typical office setup would be about $220 per month, with a one-year contract. The incubator already has seven startups ready to move in, and is expecting a handful more to join the parade soon.

One of those companies is Envitrum, a startup founded by mechanical engineering students Grant L.S. Marchelli and Renuka Prabhakar. Envitrum turns waste glass that is too dirty to be recycled into bricks that can be used in finish construction, namely building facades. The bricks that Envitrum produces are 95 percent glass, but consume a third less energy to produce than typical construction bricks, while also showing that they’re stronger in tests, Prahakar said.

Envitrum is about two years old, and presently operating on grant funding. “It’s this great green technology. But the question is, how do we actually make the other type of green?” said Ryan Buckmaster, who’s working with Envitrum through the Center for Commercialization.

As the New Ventures building fills up, that’s the kind of question that people should be asking a lot more often in the next few years.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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