What Should Be on the Next UW President’s Commercialization Agenda?

The University of Washington hired Michael Young as president nearly four years ago in large part because of his reputation as a leader in university commercialization and innovation—and these issues gained unprecedented visibility during his tenure.

With Young’s abrupt departure to lead Texas A&M University, the UW now faces the challenge of maintaining the momentum built under Young as it seeks a new leader. There is widespread agreement that commercialization initiatives endorsed by Young, in addition to his consistent focus, have begun to address cultural and systemic barriers in place when he arrived—even if his and the university’s rhetoric sometimes overstated the case.

But cultural change takes time in a big institution. Xconomy interviewed a half-dozen close observers of UW’s commercialization efforts to identify the work that will fall to his successor. For now, that’s Provost Ana Mari Cauce, appointed interim president by the UW Board of Regents last week, effective March 2.

Neal Dempsey, a top-donating UW alumnus and venture capitalist who was on the search committee that selected Young, is pleased with the progress so far. “He’s delivered to the best he can, given a bit of resistance when he first showed up,” Dempsey says. “The inertia in a big organization such as the UW was tough. … There’s a ton of work to do, but we have a good start, and if we don’t have a president that drives this bus, we’ll lose momentum and we’ll have to start over again.”

Dempsey was on an advisory committee that reported to Young in 2013 that the UW’s culture and systems were inhibiting, rather than encouraging commercialization.

Bioengineering professor Matthew O’Donnell, another member of Young’s commercialization committee, says the next UW president needs to continue changing the UW culture to “make innovation and commercialization as important to our mission as independent scholarship.”

“Commercialization should never replace scholarship, but it should be promoted equally because in many areas it is the most effective way to translate the amazing ideas of UW faculty and students into benefits for society,” says O’Donnell, the UW’s former dean of engineering. He adds, “I don’t think anybody undervalues the core academic values of teaching and scholarship at Stanford and MIT, yet they have grown into two of the truly premier institutions on the planet by equally valuing innovation and commercialization as the best way to translate creative ideas into benefits for society.”

So far, the regents appear to be staying the commercialization and innovation course.

“The key thing to remember is that Mike Young was recruited specifically to flesh out and enact an existing university leadership agenda on innovation—he didn’t bring that idea to the university, and it won’t leave when he does,” says Chris DeVore, an investor in early-stage Northwest startup companies through Founders’ Co-op and managing director of Techstars Seattle, both of which moved to the UW’s new Startup Hall last year.

UW Faculty Senate chair Kate O’Neill says she sees no signs of change with the appointment of Cauce (pictured at top).

In announcing her appointment, UW Board of Regents chair Bill Ayer said Young and Cauce “have acknowledged there hasn’t been a major decision over the past three years that she hasn’t been a part of.”

Among the most important changes during Young’s tenure was the creation of a new position, vice provost of innovation, and the broadened mission of the UW technology transfer office. Formerly known as the Center for Commercialization (C4C), it was rebranded earlier this year as CoMotion.

Young made startup formation a priority, challenging the UW in 2012 to double the number of startups it produces. In an interview last fall, Young described university startup formation as a “barometer” of how the institution is doing on a wide array of technology transfer activities. It is also a matter of prestige and score-keeping among top research universities.

With several startup initiatives already under way, C4C responded to Young’s challenge, announcing headline-grabbing startup counts in 2013 and 2014 that on closer examination included some companies formed in prior years, and others with tenuous claims of local economic impact. Young also overstated the number of jobs created by UW startup companies, claiming the average was about 60, a number the UW later said was actually based on a 2012 analysis by the University of Utah, where Young was president prior to the UW.

While startup incubation and technology licensing remain core functions of CoMotion, vice provost of innovation Vikram Jandhyala is also leading an effort to expand innovation and entrepreneurship education across campus. DeVore calls this “a more humanistic innovation agenda versus the narrowly defined IP-monetization focus of prior years.”

“Where the previous C4C was agenda was a one-sided, ‘IP out, money in’ formulation, the current approach is based on a longer-term and more strategic alignment of interests and organic interchange opportunities between academic researchers and commercial innovators, with clear benefits for both sides,” DeVore says.

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