Q&A: Vikram Jandhyala Wants Entrepreneurship to Be Part of UW’s DNA
Vikram Jandhyala, newly charged with driving technology commercialization and a broader innovation strategy at the University of Washington, wears lots of hats already. His Twitter profile lists many of them succinctly: “Professor. Administrator. Entrepreneur. Researcher. Educator. Husband. Dad. Cat Parent. Sports and Health Enthusiast. Bookworm. Generalist.”
Jandhyala, 42, will wear them all and more when he starts July 1 as the UW’s vice provost of innovation, a new position with responsibility for ushering university technologies from campus labs into society—and for making “entrepreneurship a part of the DNA of the university itself,” he tells Xconomy in his first interview since being named to the post earlier this week.
It’s a crucial role. The UW is a foundational piece of the state’s innovation economy, drawing in more than $1.4 billion in federal research funding last fiscal year and producing scores of patents, startup companies, and talented individuals to fuel high-growth industries. Jandhyala will oversee the way the university interfaces with entrepreneurs, investors, large companies, nonprofit groups, other research institutions, and alumni, in an effort to push the impact of that research funding as far as possible.
The job requires balancing a broad range of constituencies on and off campus, often with competing interests, and doing so as the role of—and funding for—university commercialization is being reexamined. While UW technology transfer has lately made great strides, Jandhyala, who will report directly to UW President Michael Young and Provost Ana Mari Cauce, also sees room for improvement.
Jandhyala has worked in industry, academia (including a recent stint as chairman of the electrical engineering department at UW), and as a startup founder. He helps bring together researchers and administrators at the UW and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory as co-director of the Northwest Institute for Advanced Computing—a position he expects to hand off in light of his new duties. He was among the first Presidential Entrepreneurial Faculty Fellows appointed by Young in 2011.
Xconomy caught up with him the day after his appointment was announced publicly. The following interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Xconomy: The UW has established great momentum toward a more consistent, productive process for technology transfer in the last five years. New funding from Washington Research Foundation for so-called entrepreneurial researchers promises to add more innovations to the pipeline. The innovation economy in the state is thriving. With that as a foundation, what are your aspirations as vice provost of innovation at UW?
Vikram Jandhyala: Linden Rhoads [the outgoing vice provost for commercialization] and the commercialization office, C4C, over the last few years have really improved things a lot from what it used to be. The UW used to be a very difficult place to work with in terms of trying to get licensing, and more importantly, startups out. I think a lot of that has changed for the better. There’s still a lot more we can do, but it’s been a great effort by Linden and her team.
This next phase is to say, How do we take all these changes and actually integrate them more with the educational mission of the university? The idea is how do we make entrepreneurship a part of the DNA of the university itself. There’s a business school, a law school, of course the college of engineering, there’s multiple campuses now. How do we actually create this scalable entrepreneurship across all of these areas, at every level of what we’re doing?
Post-docs and PhD students have typically been very good at working on commercialization. Not so much master’s students and undergraduate students at our university, simply because we haven’t put in the resources or the effort there, so that will be one change, which is, make commercialization and innovation more into the curriculum itself. So you can think of new ways of doing design teams, so you have people from business and law and sociology and computer science and engineering working together on designs. These could be products, these could be business plans.
We’ve really connected well to the venture capital industry in town. We have some very good support here. However, we also have very good alumni, high-net-worth individuals, but also angel investors who are distributed across the world. The Bay Area is one very strong place, but also the Pacific Rim. I recently went to Shanghai and Taiwan, and was just amazed at the cachet and the quality of UW as perceived there. It’s very high. So, how do we leverage both the interest and the resources from areas like that, from the Pacific Rim, from the Bay Area, in order to generate even more interest in innovation and startups. So that would also be my role.
X: Amid all this progress, an advisory committee convened by University President Young found significant flaws in the commercialization structure, with policies set by the same people charged with executing commercialization deals and UW licensing terms that are more onerous than those of other top research universities. Do these strike you as significant problems that need to be addressed?
VJ: Again, I think you have to look at the history. We’ve made a lot of progress, I would say, from where we were 15 years, 10 years ago. But at the same time, I completely understand there’s more to do to make what we call licensing more frictionless. It should be easy for faculty to go out and do what they want to do, and also for folks from outside to come in and engage. So we want to do that. I think we have more to do on the licensing front, and also in terms of things like equity to make it as transparent as we can, and as easy. I think that’s something we want to work on. I’m going to talk to folks across campus and also in the community to see what are these changes that we need to make. And I’m very happy to keep pushing this forward.
We want to become a university that people say we’re easy to work with in terms of spinning out startups and spinning out licensing.
X: Do you have any specific ideas at this point?
VJ: On licensing and startups, I think there’s certainly more transparency in terms of what the agreements are, which can be made available in the form of a template. So here’s a starting template for most agreements. There might be exceptions based on, did this technology come from multiple places? Are there others universities involved? But at least a starting point so that people can start coming up with terms quickly.
And also sometimes there’s a dual challenge of doing a startup and licensing at the same time, so you want the license done, and you start negotiating terms for the startup. The idea is you don’t do this serially and wait for a long time. You can say we will work on the licensing, and in the meantime, you can start thinking of the startup, so we can start doing things in parallel and keep the timing short. Because ultimately it’s about timing interest from investors and outside sources.
X: Underlying this is a question of funding: How should the Center For Commercialization and associated tech transfer efforts, and some of these broader initiatives you’re being tasked with, be paid for, particularly with the sun-setting of the Hall Patents, which have been a key source of funding in the past?
VJ: That’s definitely going to be a challenge. It was a large revenue source, which is going to go away. The patents are sun-setting. But at the same time there’s lots of opportunities for partnerships.
As an example, we have many federally funded research centers. Most of them want to engage industry, but there’s not been a holistic way of doing this. Each research center tries to reinvent the wheel, negotiate IP, figure out what a consortium might look like. This is a place where I think the Center for Commercialization and in general the vice provost for innovation’s office can work, and actually build value for each center. This would be beyond startups and licensing. This would be helping federally funded centers to grow. We have a neuroengineering center. We have an Institute for Protein Design. We have a brain institute in town. So there’s just many opportunities for large, federally-funded ideas to become not just centers, but to integrate innovation and commercialization into them, and through that also return some funding back to the office.
One way to think about it is, should this office be self-sustaining, or is it more about a partnership. My view is it’s more of a partnership between commercialization and innovation, but also large-scale research, and what we call advancement, so this is donors and industrial relations.
X: You get credit for making what some people call “needed changes” in the electrical engineering department. What was your experience there as department chairman, and what will you take from that to the job of vice provost for innovation?
VJ: Faculty tend to be, across the university, including electrical engineering, extremely intelligent and extremely creative, but they don’t always see how to work together in terms scaling out what they’re doing and being able to do something larger-scale that will benefit not only them, but the department and the college. That’s something we worked on—processes to make it easier for faculty to work with industry. We brought in a new advisory board, which has a lot of folks from industry who have been able to tap into our faculty, and push the word out to industry and our alumni as to what we are doing. That gave rise to new kinds of research funding. We have a new industrial affiliates program, which is industry comes to us, the department, with their challenges and we connect them directly to faculty members. Also, engaging with alumni has been very exciting. [Electrical engineering] has one of the largest alumni bases with more than 8,000 alumni. We’ve now connected to a lot of them.
X: You’ve been an academic who became a startup company founder, raising venture capital funding from Madrona Venture Group, Washington Research Foundation, and Austral Capital, and, last month, an acquisition by Mentor Graphics. What prompted you to launch Nimbic (originally called Physware)?
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.