Three Startups and a Social Technologist: How Ex-Microsofties Are Driving Seattle Innovation

Does Microsoft innovate? What impact is it having on the startup community these days? Say what you want about the company, but its ex-employees are on a tear.

In the past few months, we’ve seen a spike in the number of startups formed by ex-Microsofties who have recently left the company. With the specter of its first major layoff hanging in the air, and personal-computer sales plummeting, it seems like a reasonable time to take a closer look at what these new entrepreneurs are up to.

At least one expert observer thinks the current trend is unprecedented. “The innovation and activity around Microsoft people who have left in the last year or so has been 10 times what it’s been for the previous 10 years,” says Janis Machala of UW TechTransfer, whose finger is squarely on the pulse of local entrepreneurship. Machala was probably speaking figuratively, but our recent coverage seems to support her assertion.

Here’s a quick sample of activity from the past month (there’s more in the pipeline):

—Xconomy broke the news this week that Adam Sheppard from Microsoft Live Labs and William Lai from MSN have started a Seattle tech incubator and R&D lab called 8ninths. They are focusing on social media and Web development software. Their first startup, Lolligift, launched late last year and helps people organize and buy group gifts. 8ninths is still pretty stealthy, but we hope to hear more about its new projects soon.

—Praerit Garg and Bassam Tabbara, ex-Windows and Server and Tools managers, have started a company in Seattle called Symform, as Xconomy reported in an exclusive. Billed as “true cloud computing,” their software lets small businesses do offsite data storage and backup using a secure online network, without costly data centers. To sign up, you need to contribute some storage on your own machine to the network. Symform is planning to do public beta testing this month and next.

—Emmanuel Marot and Bruno Botvinik, who worked in mobile search after Microsoft bought their startup MotionBridge in 2006, are trying to do something fundamentally new with e-commerce. Their new Seattle startup, Valu Valu, brings “scientific pricing” to the masses via Web-based software that finds the right price for buyers and sellers of used goods, so as to eventually increase revenues for businesses. Last month, they launched a beta version of their site focused on used video games, a $2 billion market.

—Will Poole, former vice president of Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential Group, has transitioned to being a full-time social technologist and investor. Poole is the co-chairman of NComputing, a Silicon Valley company that provides software and computers to schools and businesses in developing markets. He says he is also working with a “stealth-mode green startup,” and looking to take local Web 2.0 companies to markets like India and China. He has also signed up to be a startup advisor at the University of Washington, through Machala’s LaunchPad team at UW TechTransfer.

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