Seattle’s Lifestyle Keeps Us Trailing the Bay Area, Says UW Startup Maven Janis Machala

Xconomy Seattle — 

Ed Lazowska, the University of Washington computer science professor, stirred the pot a couple months ago when he said Seattle is a “minor league” innovation town, far behind the big league of the San Francisco Bay Area, so people in the Northwest should quit being smug and start doing something to change that.

This week, Janis Machala, the champion of startup creation at UW’s TechTransfer shop, offered up some of her own insights on why it is that Seattle is so far behind, during a public forum on campus. The Northwest lifestyle is so laid-back, Machala said, that it discourages the kind of all-consuming passion and drive found in the leading entrepreneurs of the Bay Area. She used the example of Microsoft to illustrate the point.

“If Microsoft had been in Silicon Valley, it would have been completely different. When people leave Microsoft, they generally retire or take another safe job. They don’t create entrepreneurs,” Machala says. “There’s a lifestyle element here. People want balance. People in Silicon Valley don’t know what balance means.”

She added: “They work harder. They live and breathe the fundamentals of startups. They aren’t worried about their next bike ride.” Then the kicker: “We have a phenomenal place to live here, but we pay a price for it.”

Machala, who lived in both Boston and Silicon Valley before coming to the Northwest, made her comments on Wednesday at an event organized by the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association, held at the UW Law School. She was joined on the panel by moderator Stephen Graham of Fenwick & West, WRF Capital CEO Ron Howell, Insilicos president Erik Nilsson, and UW law professor Sean O’Connor.

The other panelists tended to talk more about symptoms of the problem rather than discuss why the innovation and entrepreneurship gap is so wide between San Francisco and Seattle. Nilsson pointed out that Seattle has a “shallow bench” in terms of executive management talent … Next Page »

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30 responses to “Seattle’s Lifestyle Keeps Us Trailing the Bay Area, Says UW Startup Maven Janis Machala”

  1. Tom says:

    Wish I could have responded sooner, but just got back from my bike ride, hot yoga class, and stop over at the bubble tea stand.

    These observations about the Seattle startup landscape are so dead on. Impressive. I mean, just yesterday I caught a fellow entrepreneur saying “screw the fundamentals of startups.”

    I’d like to write more, but it’s time to take my noon nap and dream of someday hitting it big, like getting a job at a university.

  2. CS says:

    What a clown. You should see the team at our SEATTLE area start-up before making a such a definitive declaration. We grind just like the valley, and I know because I’ve done both.

  3. April says:

    Firstly, could someone define the phrase “serious culture of innovation?” It reeks of Bohemian Bourgeoisie drivel.

    Perhaps Seattlites should start working synergistically, put their heads together, think outside the box and diversify their goals to produce a more favorable outcome.

    Or maybe Seattlites just need to wait until local waters are as polluted as the Bay Area’s to get in on some of that “innovation” that’s floating around. That is, if “innovation” means “toxic soup.”*

    This article sounds like it’s written for a school paper regarding a football turf battle. The Bay Area team is sooo much better, and they’re gonna kill those Northwesterners on Friday night! Give me a break. How is this news?


  4. I was sitting next to Janis when she said that. It was kind of funny that I was actually worrying about my next bike ride at that very moment, since this panel was the day before RAMROD. The next day, as I was grinding out the last two miles of a mountainous, 160-mile ride in 100+ degree weather, I thought to myself, “perhaps I’m not dedicated enough to my goals….”

    To me, endurance athletics is a better teacher for entrepreneurship than, oh, I dunno, golf. Whereever I go in biotech, in Seattle, SF, SD, or wherever, I disproportionately see Livestrong bracelets and marathon tees. (There are also a lot of motorcycle tourers, which seems to be a slightly different version of the same thing.) Such a hobby is clearly not a requirement for startup success, but if your idea of fun is a heady cocktail of fear, pain, and confusion, then there’s a good chance startups are for you.

    I do agree with most of what Janis said in answer to that question, but I see the situation a little differently. What the Bay Area has that Seattle doesn’t have is scale. A better question is, what did San Diego have ten years ago that Seattle didn’t (and doesn’t) have? Lifestyle has always been a big draw for SD (and especially UCSD), so I’m not convinced that’s the differentiator.

    I think what San Diego had and has is a diverse group of people across the whole city that want startups and especially biotech startups to thrive there. I don’t think we yet have that in Seattle.

    My answer to the question on the positive side was, our biggest advantage is that the future is unusually uncertain. This gives us a chance to redefine Seattle role in the nation’s and world’s biotech community.

  5. Kim says:

    Ooh.. bubble tea…
    Seattle’s natural beauty is distracting, eh? Well, can you blame us?
    Maybe the heat wave will motivate more workers back into the office so we can startup something cool. :)

  6. Dave says:

    How is Janis qualified to comment on successful companies? She has been “associated” with a lot of companies over the years, but no successes that I know of. Didn’t she end up at UW because Paladin Partners wasn’t doing so well? Maybe I’m wrong though.

  7. My response to Janis’ comments:

  8. Anon says:

    Janis lost all her credibility years ago before Paladin failed. The angel and VC community stopped caring about her companies after they saw that she touted any company to them that was willing to pay her high fees, and entrepreneurs almost always talk of being bullied by her. She’s a pretender.

  9. It’s easy to launch personal attacks at Janis. It’s more persuasive to stick to the substance of what she was saying, whether you agree or disagree.

  10. @Luke: Yeah. It’s especially easy (cowardly) to launch anonymous attacks.

    Anyway, as I said, I’m not completely sold on the deathmarch approach to startups. You should be prepared to work very, very hard. But if you work as hard as you can every day and every week, pretty soon, you will lose your edge. You need to challenge your limits, back off, then do it again. That’s typically how top athletes do it, and I strongly suspect that’s the highest probability path to success in a startup.

    In my experience, for an extremely motivating goal, people can work 16 hours a day, six days a week for a while. Months, at least. But after even a few weeks of that effort level, the quality of their decisions will falter, and the time they spend at work will be less and less valuable as “work.” Sooner or later, you need to take a few days off, find out if you’re still married, do some laundry, etc.

    Sometimes, in a startup, what you really need to do is to crank. Very often though, what is most needed is for somebody to put their finger in the air and say, “guys, we’re making a critical mistake here, but there’s time to fix it.” The person with their finger in the air is probably the one who had a decent night’s sleep and didn’t have a snickers bar for lunch.

  11. Luke — Why did you remove my comment from earlier? I used my own name and URL, and posted a reply to her quote, that you posted, saying that Seattle entrepreneurs aren’t hard-working. The blog post/reply is on my site at:

    But, if you’d prefer that I post it here, my response is that I DO find that quote offensive — because I know how hard my team and I work to make our startup a success, and I know how hard teams such as Redfin, Picnik, RealSelf, Evoworx, Estately, BuddyTV, Foundry Interactive, EyeJot, WhatCounts, RescueTime, Delve, and many others do as well.

    To have an advisor quote that work ethic is an issue is ridiculous. And, it seems to undermine all the historic efforts at Amazon, Microsoft, Real, and others over the years.

    If you’re going to start deleting comments, please let us know — we’ll spend less time leaving them, and reading your posts.

    Founder and CEO, TeachStreet

  12. Hi Dave,

    Luke did not remove your comment, it was just caught in our spam filter (likely because it had very few words and an external link, which is true of many spam comments). In any case, your comment is now approved. Sorry for the delay.


  13. See, Rebecca/Luke… the heat gets to all of us. Sorry for assuming the worst. Now, go find something controversial and write about it, and I’m sure to react and comment and tweet about it!


  14. Larry S. says:

    We should not worry about what Janis said. This was probably in the line with what she is doing right now. She has to say something in order to be commented in press sometimes. There is nothing else probably she or her boss has to say or be proud of. And it is easy to blame someone else, whether or meltdown in Arctic.
    I will agree with someone’s comments about expensive fees that her previous firm charged.

  15. This is like commenting on what happens to the indie music scene… who cares, if you’re not happy go make something better happen!

  16. Adam says:

    Many of the startups in Seattle do work their tails off. I think the better way to think of it is that the NW lifestyle may shrink the pool of available talent willing to do so rather than take anything away from the people in the current startup community.

  17. I looked at these comments again on Sunday. There was something amusing about the disconnect between the different comments (and the article). That is, aside from the trolly hater comments, which are neither interesting nor funny.

    Janis was making two points. Her first and most important point is that few successful Seattle technologists are willing to take on the risk of a startup. The second is that Seattlites are too worried about “balance” in their life.

    Most of the comments were of the variety, “no way, we work stupid-hard just like they do in the Bay Area.”

    This ignores Janis’ important point, which I agree with, that Seattle’s biggest problem is a lack, in absolute terms, of a sufficient number of people willing to undertake the substantial risks of a startup.

    Instead, people seemed very excited by Janis’ other point, an unquantifiable (and IMHO snarky) comment about “balance.”

    These comments depend upon two logical premises, both of which I strongly suspect are false, and neither of which should be presumed true in the absence of data. The unproven premises are:

    1. How many hours people work is strongly and positively correlated with startup success. In the timeless words of Baseball Prospectus (and elsewhere), “In God we trust; all others bring data.” It seems plausible that there’s a Laffer curve for startup effort: below some level of effort, you’ll almost certainly fail. (And that level may be pretty high compared to what most people are used to.) But, above some maximum effort level, success also becomes less certain. Just like the economic Laffer curve, there’s likely a big zone in the middle where incremental changes in effort level have little if any effect.

    2. Commenters assume they have realistic estimates for how hard Bay Area and Seattle startups actually work. Two words, kids: sampling bias. Nobody has worked at enough startups or been on enough boards for their personal experience to overwhelm the noise in this system.

    We lack the data to know if startups in Seattle work as “hard” as those in SF. Furthermore, we lack the data to tell if such a difference would matter if it existed. (If anybody has the data, I would very much like to see it.)

    And, again, this is the uninteresting end of the stick. The more interesting problem is, where are people willing to take risks going to come from? You can fill rooms with green Java programmers with nothing to lose and get nowhere. What you want is five people who know what the hell they’re doing and know how to get a big company to pay them well into six figures to do it, but choose to do a startup anyway.

  18. An intriguing discussion. First, while there is an overlap between innovation and entrepreneurship it is not strictly necessary that both reside in the same person.

    I think there is some worth in examining another area where creativity overlaps with capitalism – artists and art dealers.

    Artists are as innovative as they come but few of them are also really great at creating a corporation around themselves (Chiluly notwithstanding). They need help for their innovation to be seen or heard.

    Simlarly with science and technology. Seattle has no problem with innovation in high tech or biotech. It has a problem with the innovation getting seen.

    For example, as stated in the article, someone may have a great idea for an immunology company, but because they are not the ‘right’ sort of person, they will not get any funding for a company, no matter how creative the idea is.

    It is not a culture of innovation that is the problem here but a culture of entrepreneurship, which includes a lot more than innovation. In fact, innovation may not even be the most important thing for an entrepreneur.

    Perhaps they are more like the owner of an art studio. They know who the buyers are, what they want and how much they will pay. They constantly find new and innovative people to fill up the studio with creative works. They are practitioners of an important process. Some like Chiluly are both artists and entrepreneurs. But it is not a requirement.

    I think Seattle has many artists and not enough ‘studios.’ And an artist without a studio may have little impact at all.

    How do we create better ‘studios’ in Seattle and do they have to look the same as in San Francisco or San Diego?

  19. These last points by Erik are especially good and track back to where Ed Lazowska starts the piece. This shouldn’t be a discussion about comparative lifestyles. Talk about creative rather than safe vision, the structure of scale not merely size, big-time smart determination by leaders that gets things done, and disrupting bozonets with their complacency and survival incompetence.

    That said, 47 states now have identified biotech as their next savior industry. Biotech as an industry has lost money in every year of its existence but one. Is that really where we are going to hang our hats on innovation? Could be, but the world of opportunity is a lot bigger place than that, and it’s pretty tired when 47 states are barking up the same old tree. How many squirrels are really up there?

    In the Bay Area, you’ve got huge venture capital, two world ace research universities in Stanford and Berkeley (top 5, not top 50), a top research/medical school in UCSF, a solid undergraduate engineering school in SJSU, plus the UC Davis campus only 60 mi away, with its $400+m in research. There’s PARC, IBM Almaden, SRI, HP Labs, NASA Ames, LLNL and LBNL…. and that’s just some of the research base….

    The scale of research investment is tremendous. The BP deal at Berkeley is $500m. The UCSC-Ames deal is $330m. The GCEP program at Stanford is around $250m. CIRM for stem cell research is funded at $3b over 10 years, $2b in direct funds. Compare Washington Life Sciences Discovery Fund at $20m/year… Top consortium memberships at Berkeley can run a $1m commitment, not $50K… VC investments, Bay Area, Q2 2009, 180 deals, $1.8b. Washington state as a whole, 40 deals, $270m. UC Discovery grants were funded at $60m, compare WTC at, what, $3m? NASA SBIRs to Bay Area in 2008, by my count 28; to Seattle area, 4.

    It is not so much a matter of taking risk, it’s the context in which risk is worth taking. That’s where we could use some help from our civic leaders and the organizations and resources they represent, both public and private. Private world class research university in Redmond. We could do that for $1b. How about a couple of $500m/year federal labs. Yeah, where’s the delegation on that? Build out new transportation and broadband infrastructures. Define the next century of flight or energy or art glass.

    Entrepreneurs need something more than clever ideas to shop to status quo investors. They prosper around something big that echoes for 50 years and changes things, makes a platform for talent, opens up opportunities worth jumping to. That’s the bell Seattle hasn’t rung for a while.

  20. I’m glad to see Janis’s comments have ignited another interesting discussion on Xconomy. I suspect that there is an element of truth in her assertion that a desire to live a balanced life may be inhibiting some people in our area from starting companies. However, as Erik Nilsson points out above, it is extremely difficult to quantify issues of how hard people work in Seattle vs. Silicon Valley or San Diego, and how they differ in their desire and efforts to achieve “work life balance”. Anecdotal stories are not a substitute for hard data. Is this desire for “work life balance” new, or has this been a part of the Seattle culture for decades? What can be quantified is how Seattle ranks relative to these other regions as a function of time for different industry groups, such as software, biotechnology, and green technology. I believe that there are multiple causes of the relative number of entrepreneurs and start-ups (or lack thereof) in Seattle compared to Silicon Valley and San Diego, as Gerald Barnett’s numbers illustrate. These would include a smaller number of core companies headquartered here, a smaller VC community, fewer and less effective business promoting organizations, a lack of coordination between business promoting groups, CEOs that preferred to establish companies in these other regions when given the choice (e.g. Fate Therapeutics), more resources (i.e. experienced employees) in other areas that facilitates rapid hiring, and a (previous) lack of organizations such as Janis’s Launchpad that serve as a one-stop shopping source for entrepreneurs looking to put together a new company. Unless most of these issues are addressed, it is likely that the Seattle area will continue to trail these other regions in starting new companies. Maybe we can take some solace in the fact that Seattle outranks other regions in these same criteria, and that has led some companies to relocate here (e.g. AVI Biopharma is moving it’s headquarters from Corvallis to Bothell to tap into our bigger biotech talent pool, as Luke reported last week).

  21. Rick LeFaivre says:

    Interesting discussion. A few observations, having now spent 5 years in Seattle, preceded by 5 in San Diego and 10 in the Valley: there are successful entrepreneurs in all three regions who manage a reasonable life balance, and people in all three regions who have no life outside of work. I personally believe that people benefit from a reasonable work/life balance, but different strokes for different folks.

    Regarding regional comparisons, *no* place compares successfully with the Valley; it’s just a unique place on Earth. However, Seattle can compete successfully with other regions: San Diego has a richer base of established biotech companies, but Seattle has a more robust venture scene, and Accelerator here in town is the envy of many biotech leaders in San Diego. Every region has strengths and challenges, and I remain optimistic about Seattle/UW vs. San Diego/UCSD and other regions trying to approach the success of Silicon Valley.

  22. Janis Machala says:

    It is always hard to get in all of one’s points in a 90 minute panel with 4 panelists and the press always love to pick up on the controversial points. There are many reasons that Seattle has not reached higher than we have. Work/life balance may be the case for some employees who don’t want to work at startups (those who do choose to likely work incredibly hard and are totally driven) or for those executives who don’t start companies after leaving BigCo but instead choose to retire or advise from the sidelines. We would have a lot more startups if we had more universities to secure talent from, a deeper broader VC community, and more serial entrepreneurs who dive in after they exit their 1st or 2nd company. It would be interesting to see data on # of serial entrepreneurs by region as one measure of productivity and leveraging innovation. We have at UW a lot of interesting technology but what we lack are enough business minded entrepreneurs willing to take on a long term commitment to realize the value from the IP. And enough seed stage funding to get it to a commercializable state.

    My comments are a small fraction of what I see as differences and similarities between regions more successful than we are in given sectors but as a necessary outcome Luke took the thing from my talk sure to capture a lot of dialogue. Dialogue is great but outcomes and change is even better.

    The reason I signed on to help out at UW is NOT because Paladin Partners was failing (I still get more entrepreneurs wanting to work with me than I can take on and I do select my clients carefully for what I see as successful plays with great people and not for who can pay my fees-that is not why I do this mentoring work with founders) but because I so strongly believe in the need to create a strong innovation ecosystem for WA state tied to entrepreneurship and what better place at which to do it.

  23. Jason Alcock says:

    I’ve lived and worked at startups in both Seattle and the Bay Area and I have a strong preference for the Seattle way of life. It isn’t just a different work/life balance or work ethic. It’s very specifically a cultural decision to take life and all it offers just a little bit slower and a little easier. That includes entrepreneurial risk-tasking.

    I was nodding my head in agreement the entire time while reading this article. If this is truly a negative perception to some people, perhaps they’d be happier living the Bay Area.

  24. Janis,

    I’m glad that you added some commentary to what I’m sure was a sound-bite from a more lengthy discussion. So, are you both working at UW, and also continuing the work at Paladin Partners? How do you separate the two?

    What goals does UW have for increasing entrepreneurial investment in university-incubated technologies? How will the UW efforts accelerate that?

    I’m sure that a lot has been written, that I’m not aware of, but I think that the startup community would benefit from learning the more specific/tactical goals & methods that your team will be pursuing to exceed them.


  25. Janis–thanks for elaborating on your earlier comments that I quoted above.

    I think there’s potentially another valuable conversation to be had here about work/life balance for entrepreneurs, as in how much work is too much? Erik Nilsson raised this idea in his comments, about how productivity likely tails off after a certain number of hours anyway. So maybe people feel more productive the next day if you have the occasional relaxing bike ride. I know I feel fired up for my workdays after I take 30 minutes for my morning run.

    Like Erik, I haven’t seen serious data on this question either, but if anybody has any thoughts on the best balance between work and personal life, in order to get max productivity for your startup, this could be some thought-provoking material for a guest editorial in the Xconomy Forum. We welcome submissions from people all over the Seattle innovation community.


  26. This was an honest observation.
    She did not say that people in Seattle do not work hard.
    She did not say that there is no startup where people work hard. So there is no need for commenters to show their insecurity and get defensive “well, MY startup works hard (whine, whine)” and shockingly insulting.

    She merely commented, rather positively, that we have balance in our lives and that’s what makes Seattle a better place to live than Silicon Valley.

    I think the tone of Luke’s writing sensationalized her comment. He paraphrased her at first, before going into an actual quote. Then, he made it a total editorial by using the word “kicker.” I’m sure Luke did not mean to attack her comment but that’s the result of his choice of words, and it set off a mini-firestorm.

    She’s right. If we collectively, on average, display differently, she’d be happy to observe some other trend.

  27. Ron Burk says:

    It’s interesting how quickly people accepted the framing of the issue in terms of us versus them. If one were to take the question seriously, how would even go about measuring “innovation”? Would Lazowska’s CS department taking on a shipment of Kindles count more as a stifling of innovation, since it certainly reduces the motivation to seek less Amazon-conformant technological improvements to education? And how many startups in this area are completely unknown to anyone commenting on this topic? Surely some part of Silicon Valley “innovation” is appearance only, driven by a PR system vastly more focused on the (often useless) churn of tiny new companies. And, of course, the IPO-mad view of innovation ignores the vast amount of innovation taking place without IPOs — such as the lonely UW researcher working on detailed cell manipulation that may actually save some lives down the road.

    The pitting of one region against another makes a lot of sense when you are competing for hand-out dollars in a zero-sum game against other (e.g.) universities. If you really wanted to help our region, however, it seems like the effort would be better spent looking inward than outward at anecdotal regional comparisons. The tech industry has become a magpie obsessed with the glittering badges of startups and IPOs. Is the goal more dollars, more IPOs per capita, more PR froth? Or is the goal to produce ideas that actually improve people’s lives? The latter does not necessarily look that much like Silicon Valley, IMHO.

  28. Kevin Chow says:

    I’ve been up and down the west coast quite a bit. I grew up in Vancouver BC, worked in the Bay Area for a time in biotech consulting during the dot com era, lived and worked in San Diego for 3 years (Diversa Corp during the genomics heyday), moved up to Seattle (Corus Pharma) then found myself flying back and forth to the Bay Area dozens of times a year as a member of Gilead’s corporate development team the past 3 years. Now I am at Alder Biopharmaceuticals in Bothell, a venture-funded biotech. Having lived and worked in these cities and companies, my observations have been that yes, I agree that the Bay Area atmosphere tends to be more aggressive in general (there are always exceptions) but I have seen many cases of colleagues there with serious work/life imbalances that are probably unsustainable in the long run, especially with regards to growing a family. However, in San Diego I felt the *geographic proximity* of biotechs (UTC/UCSD/Carmel Valley/Sorrento Valley region) and not aggressive behavior was what really made a key difference in building up momentum and cross-fertilization of entrepreneurs and ideas leading to new venture proliferation. I have experienced the same geography effect on the 101 corridor between Palo Alto and South San Francisco in the Bay Area (for example, Gilead Foster City was in the middle of all this, and we found numerous potential partnering opportunities worth investigating within a short car ride up and down the freeway). I definitely don’t feel as much “biotech buzz” in Seattle, probably due to the geographic spread of companies in the region as well as the fact there are simply fewer companies here — and yet the innovation and science is world-class. It just seems to grow in a little more isolation up here, there is less networking overall, and things don’t spread as fast by word of mouth. However, having now worked with folks who started new bioventures after leaving their former Seattle companies (Pathogenesis, Celltech Seattle), I think the spirit of innovative entrepreneurship in Seattle biotech is alive and growing. As far as I know, there aren’t many biotech executives who get such massive Microsoft-like payoffs that they can afford to retire early these days.

  29. Kevin–thanks for the insights from up and down the West Coast. You’ve touched on one of the reasons why we started Xconomy, and why I was personally excited to open our bureau in Seattle last year.

    All markets need timely, accurate information to function. Seattle’s biotech cluster is no exception. We think there’s an opportunity here in the Northwest to provide high-quality information that investors and entrepreneurs can use to form all sorts of new connections that an innovation community needs to thrive. I would like to think we can do better than traditional word-of-mouth, if nothing else by adding a whole lot more transparency to the mix.

    This information exchange, as you all know, is seriously threatened by the collapse of traditional media. When I came back to Seattle last year to open the Xconomy bureau, both the P-I and Times still had people assigned to cover the industry—although the writing was certainly on the wall. Fast forward one year. Both of those jobs have disappeared, and Xconomy is now the only full-time journalistic outlet for life sciences, as far as I can tell.

    We think we can help with the networking that this region needs, through both our journalism, and our events. Thanks to everybody for reading, and contributing, to this relatively young online forum.


  30. Kevin Chow says:

    Hi Luke, Xconomy has been a great forum for keeping up with biotech news beyond the usual press release feeds. It’s definitely a refreshing source of information for me.

    Sometimes I think the “building a biotech region” debate is a little on the academic side – it is definitely an interesting discussion topic but it took decades for California to develop its clusters, and let’s not forget the IPO boom around 1999-2000 gave life to numerous California companies (some questionable) that have since gone bust but on the positive side spun out a new generation of startups and entrepreneurs. In terms of risk taking entrepreneurs, there are already many ex-ICOS and ex-Immunex folks hard at work around Seattle (in addition to my ex-Celltech colleagues at Alder), and I think we just need to have a little patience. People who can develop a balanced life and settle down tend to stay in the region and put down roots — people who stay in the region and don’t want to leave are the ones who will ultimately have the most interest in sticking around to create a new startup when the time comes versus going to California to create a newco there.