University of Washington Tech Transfer Group, LaunchPad, Is Looking for the Next Big Startup

The University of Washington’s commencement ceremony may have been last weekend, but Jim Roberts and his team at UW TechTransfer aren’t winding things down—they’re gearing up for the high season. “During the summer it doesn’t drop off,” Roberts says.

Roberts is the head business development officer at LaunchPad, a two-year-old initiative within the university’s tech transfer office, formed specifically to identify and help along startup opportunities from UW technologies. As he points out, over the last three or four years, the numbers of UW patents filed and licensing deals have gone up—and so has the number of spinoffs. Those spinoffs typically need a fair bit of support in their early stages.

LaunchPad provides several concrete resources. It partners with UW’s Foster School of Business and Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) to get MBA students to do marketing and commercialization assessments on new companies (e.g., is this really a startup or a licensing deal?). It also brings in law students to work with the companies. In terms of outreach to the business community, LaunchPad has experienced entrepreneurs serve as advisors to its startups, and initially they act as the companies’ strategic advisory board. Roberts’s group also helps startups find business partners. “Whenever we have a startup team, we tap into different angel organizations and venture groups,” he says. “We get the word out about the types of people we’re looking for.”

It seems to be paying off. Last month, four LaunchPad startups (out of a total of 89 teams) placed in the sweet 16 of the CIE Business Plan Competition at UW, which awards $45,000 in prizes. The LaunchPad companies were Impel NeuroPharma (nose-to-brain drug delivery system), Hybiscus Technologies (optical chip-making), Voltan Biofuel (oil-producing algae), and LiteTouch (force-sensing glove for clinicians). Impel went on to win the grand prize ($25K) as well as “best innovation idea.” The next step for Impel, says Roberts, is to bring on an attorney to help negotiate the tech license, and to look for funding.

I asked Roberts what mistakes university entrepreneurs tend to make in setting up companies. “The classic mistake is they’re unwilling to give up control,” he says. “They want to be CEO, but they’d be a better CTO. If you’re going to build this as a company, you have to bring on a team and use their skill sets.”

Roberts says his group is currently looking at possible startups in robotics, alternative fuels, nanotech, Internet, and social networks—it’s a busy time. I also asked him what he thinks about the general state of investments in startups these days. “The funding climate is pretty good in this town,” Roberts says. “It’s very active. If you really have a compelling idea and a strong management team, the funding will be there.”

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