With CoMotion Labs, UW Casts Wider Net For Innovation and Startups

The University of Washington is expanding its portfolio of startup incubation spaces and inviting in companies even if they don’t yet have an explicit connection to the university.

The new strategy is part of a broader rethinking of how the UW, consistently ranked in the upper echelons of research universities around the world, attempts to transfer the innovations happening inside its walls—be they in electrical engineering or social work—to the community.

The new startup incubation space focuses on virtual and augmented reality technology, and joins Startup Hall and Fluke Hall in the UW’s portfolio of incubators, which it has rebranded as CoMotion Labs. That name, says UW vice president for innovation strategy Vikram Jandhyala, is meant to signal that this is an ongoing experiment.

“We are definitely open to different models of how companies come together,” he says. “The idea of all these three incubators is we want to be open to companies from inside and outside the university.”

M3 Biotechnology, a startup housed at Fluke Hall, is commercializing technology from Washington State University. Mechanical Dreams, one of the first two tenants in the VR/AR space, is not a UW-affiliated startup either. (The other, MultiModal Health, is.)

Jandhyala. Photo by Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

Jandhyala.

That’s a marked change in tone and practice from past UW tech transfer efforts, which focused on fostering as many high-value UW startup companies based on university technologies as possible. UW startups will still be top of the pecking order when space is limited, Jandhyala says, but the emphasis now is less on where the company is coming from and more on what it’s trying to do.

The VR/AR lab, for example, is the first in the region focused specifically on this burgeoning area of technology.

The CoMotion Labs also represent front doors to the UW, which in the past has had a reputation for being difficult for outside collaborators to navigate, and to the changing U District neighborhood west of its main Seattle campus.

The new VR/AR lab—with 34 desks to rent for $350 a month, along with access to VR headsets, software, and other equipment—will occupy a floor of a new building the UW is leasing at 4545 Roosevelt Way NE.

CoMotion, the UW innovation office previously known as the Center for Commercialization, will have its headquarters on a different floor in the building, just completed by private developer Blume Company.

“The goal is to make this building another entrance for the innovation district,” Jandhyala says.

He’s referring to a vision for the U District as a dense, walkable neighborhood where people live and work in close proximity to the talent and technologies emanating from the university. The U District is getting a major upgrade to its transportation infrastructure, with one of two planned Link light rail stations opening earlier this year and the next due in 2021. Proposed zoning changes would allow for more development, including housing, retail, and commercial space.

Inside Startup Hall.

Inside Startup Hall.

Another “entrance” is Startup Hall, the repurposed former UW law school building that is home to Techstars Seattle and Techstars Community Programs (formerly UP Global), as well as a CoMotion Labs co-working space.

On the UW campus itself is Fluke Hall, the third of the CoMotion Labs. It features wet labs, a maker space, and facilities for “hard engineering,” Jandhyala says.

Leasing space to non-UW startup companies puts the university in competition with the growing number of startup incubators, co-working spaces, and accelerator programs in the Seattle area. Jandhyala says each of the CoMotion Labs offers something unique and complementary to other offerings in the area.

Rent in the CoMotion Labs spaces is not subsidized, and Jandhyala says the business model is to share personnel and programs, and find other efficiencies to help make them self-sustaining.

He sees the labs model as a way for CoMotion to extend university innovation beyond the U District. For example, the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX) is taking shape in nearby Bellevue, WA. That’s UW’s partnership on an innovation-focused international graduate program with Tsinghua University of China, supported by Microsoft. The program could potentially adopt a similar labs model to advance ideas and intellectual property developed in the GIX, Jandhyala says.

UW’s branch campuses in Tacoma and Bothell are other potential future expansion sites for CoMotion Labs. The Tacoma campus, for example, already has a partnership with the U.S. military’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and an incubator focused on veterans, Jandhyala says.

The UW School of Medicine’s new building in Spokane, WA, presents a similar potential.

“Certainly there’s interest in scaling out this model to other parts of the state, other cities, but also potentially internationally as well,” he says, mentioning China and Europe.

That’s for the future. This year, Jandhyala and the CoMotion Labs team will focus on the three U District locations.

The expanding CoMotion Labs experiment is one prominent way Jandhyala has transformed tech transfer at the UW. Jandhyala marked two years in charge of innovation strategy at UW last week. His title was tweaked subtly—from vice provost for innovation to vice president of innovation strategy—to signal that his work is less about the academic mission and more about working with industry and other outside constituencies.

The course charted by Jandhyala seems to be placing a greater emphasis on expanding and redefining innovation at UW—he prefers the term “inclusive innovation”—and less on the statistics of how many startups and licensing deals the UW spins out.

Inslee at the UW startup celebration in 2014.

Inslee at the UW startup celebration in 2014.

That’s in contrast to the prior regime, which was given an assignment in 2012 by then-UW President Michael Young to double startup production. It “launched” 17 and 18 startups in 2013 and 2014, respectively—record levels for the university—and held large public events with lawmakers including Gov. Jay Inslee to tout the success.

A closer look at the numbers revealed that not all of the companies were actually formed in the years that the UW counted them, and the UW could provide nothing to substantiate the local economic impact Young said these companies deliver.

Jandhyala said recently that the UW produces “between 10 to 20 startups every year. That’s growing. That will keep happening, and that’s a great thing.”

But Jandhyala, with the support of new UW President Ana Mari Cauce, is taking a wider view of innovation. Echoing Cauce’s words, Jandhyala says the mandate includes encouraging disruptive innovation, “but managing what happens with the disrupted as well.”

UW President Ana Mari Cauce. Photo via UW

UW President Ana Mari Cauce. Photo via UW

UW students and faculty—and new tech denizens of the U District—are confronting the complex issues facing the city at large, magnified by an unprecedented tech boom: housing affordability, youth unemployment, homelessness, transportation, and more. The UW will host a tent city homeless encampment in 2017. CoMotion’s new headquarters is a few blocks from the new location of the University District Food Bank, which is moving to a larger space on Roosevelt Way to accommodate increasing demand from people who can’t afford enough to eat.

CoMotion, among other UW programs, has a role to play in helping find technology solutions to social problems, Jandhyala says.

“I think that could benefit the University District,” he says, “and if we do this right, it could become an example of how to build an innovation district which is broader and more inclusive than pure technology.”

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