Michelangelo, the UW Innovation Emerging From an Unusual Place

3/4/14Follow @bromano

There’s a new product emerging from the University of Washington. It was just granted a patent. It is being adopted by other high-profile institutions. And it’s showing promise as the core of a startup company or licensing deal.

“Ironically, it’s not from an engineering lab or some chaired faculty position,” said David Bluhm, who was introduced to the cloud-based, self-service reporting tool called Michelangelo as an entrepreneur in residence at the UW Center for Commercialization (C4C). “It’s a guy in Advancement that came in and saw that we at the university could not understand all the touch points of our alumni and supporters and donors. Everybody had separate databases and there was a lack of tools to build quality relationships with them.”

That guy is Chris Sorensen, who has worked for UW Advancement for more than a decade and is currently associate director for reporting. The group has raised, on average, $319 million a year from upwards of 111,000 donors during the last five years.

Michelangelo helps a UW fundraising staff of more than 300 people charged with cultivating donations through regular communications, alumni events, newsletters, and giving campaigns, and the technology has now been licensed to 11 other universities and nonprofit groups. It allows non-technical users to quickly sift through multiple, diverse databases with attributes on their potential donors—more than 1 million different entities in the UW’s case—to find the perfect target audience for a particular event or fundraising pitch.

Sorensen, a self-taught programmer, joined with colleagues to develop the software. They have sought to spread the word and show it off, along with other products and approaches from partners and competitors, at a conference called DRIVE (Data Reporting Information and Visualization Exchange). More than 450 people are expected in Bellevue this week for the UW-hosted event, now in its third year.

This spring, the Michelangelo team, UW commercialization staff, and other advisors will meet to determine the next steps for an innovation that has followed an unusual, if not unprecedented, path within the university from idea to commercial product.

Not surprisingly, UW Advancement and alumni relations professionals in individual departments across campus have access to lots of data about donors, from basic contact information, to details about degrees, accomplishments on and off campus, interests, and past events they’ve attended or supported. Also not surprisingly, that data is stored in a hodgepodge of places and formats from Excel spreadsheets to SQL Server and Oracle databases.

Sorensen

Sorensen

Say UW Advancement was planning an event in southern California and wanted to invite all the College of Arts and Sciences graduates who made their first donation to the university more than 20 years ago and are now living in the Los Angeles area. Previously, someone would put in a request to the department’s database programmers, who would then spend the better part of an hour pulling together a report. Because there were so many reports being requested it could take more than a week for the programmers to get to each request, Sorensen says.

“But opportunities present themselves to a university as large and as diverse as ours in real time,” he says.

Using Michelangelo, Sorensen came up with a list of 252 Arts and Sciences graduates who meet the above the criteria in less than a minute.

In 2008, Sorensen began looking for self-service reporting software that would do what Michelangelo does, but the tools he found at that time were too expensive, too broad, or required too much technical expertise to be useful to most of the advancement professionals, he said.

The department decided … Next Page »

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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