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VJ: After my PhD from the University of Illinois, I actually went to industry for a couple years, learned the ropes in software for the electronic design industry—software which helps companies like Intel design their chips, for instance. And that gave me a great insight into industry. I always wanted to be an academic, so after a couple of years I came here. A lot of my funding came from sources which were really interested in building high-quality software for solving really complex research problems. So these were Department of Defense and Intel and IBM and so on. So over a period of six years, my students and I came up with very nice solutions and algorithms and software which were able to help design new kinds of electronics. And that’s what piqued the interest of certain companies and also investors.
We as a lab were almost already working in startup mode. Department of Defense and DARPA particularly has a very nice model where you essentially have to come up with deliverables every few months. So the whole lab was really working in a team atmosphere and [there was] no time, essentially, for individual egos and you might say the siloed, old-fashioned research lab. This was really more like a startup.
So we were doing all that work, and then we got the opportunity essentially to spin that out. And fortunately, I had learned enough by then about IP so that everything was kept clean. I knew that we owned this IP and it wasn’t given away. And then we got connected to fantastic folks in town, both Madrona as well as Washington Research Foundation. We built the team out. We had some very nice early customers, especially Texas Instruments, so it was very helpful in helping us build the product out.
From there it went on. Six of my PhD students went with me to do the startup. Five of them are still there, now part of the new company in Mentor Graphics.
So just seeing that whole impact that your work and research can make out in the real world—in this case in the semiconductor ecosystem—that was very exciting. You can talk about what the impact might be of the research, but actually to see that happen and be part of it, I think that’s a great feeling for students and faculty, and that’s what I want to instill in more faculty and more students here at the university.
That’s why, honestly to me this is a dream job right now, and I’m looking forward to it.
X: Is there something you see commonly holding back other faculty members who might have a good idea, from taking the plunge into a startup?
VJ: There’s a couple of reasons. The way faculty are measured—the promotion and tenure system—typically has been not favorable to faculty doing startups. It’s all about how many papers you have, how many students have you pushed out, and what kind of service have you done? And service really means committee work or professional organization work. I think that emphasis is changing, and I want to be part of that change. Doing a startup should be considered service as well. It’s really service to society. I think that’s happening, but it’s going to take some time. So that’s one place where there’s some pushback.
The other is really the skill sets. There’s a lot of business acumen and understanding of what a startup is about that is not common knowledge to faculty or students. I think it’s something that C4C and the business school can really play a role in making that common knowledge so that people realize it’s not rocket science, but there is some work to do.
And the third part is connecting to the business community, and I think that’s again something that we want to do more of because maybe the faculty member is not the right CEO for that position, but you have to find someone you can have chemistry with, but also someone who understands that space.
I think we can address all three of those.
X: In some parts of campus the idea of entrepreneurship seems to still be at odds with the traditional metrics of academic success. What can be done so that academics feel like they’re advancing their careers while pursuing entrepreneurship?
VJ: It’s more evolutionary than a step change, but it’s already happening. What we want is to make it like a tipping point where there is no going back. I think to do that is where we need to spread this message across campus, and I think the one change might be to really make into the DNA of the university saying that doing a startup is really service, and I think that message is something we need to keep pushing. It may be more informal to start. I don’t think you need any policy changes there, but it’s more about getting that into people’s understanding.
Now if we can get more state support, more support from alumni—who are very excited about this—that could benefit us a lot, if we start seeing that UW is recognized for being entrepreneurial. That would have a virtuous cycle, and I hope to start pushing that.
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