Top 10 Lessons in Starting Companies and Commercializing Technologies, from UW Panel

A group of about 40 Taiwanese businessmen and scientists, who were in the U.S. to learn about how best to commercialize technologies from the lab, were treated last Thursday to a University of Washington panel of three veterans of the process, who shared their experiences and the lessons they’ve learned.

The panel consisted of serial entrepreneur and cleantech consultant Jeff Canin, neurological surgery and pediatric dentistry professor Pierre Mourad, and bioengineering professor Buddy Ratner. All three have been involved in several companies spun out of technology developed at UW, ranging from designing ultrasound toothbrushes to reprogramming skin cells into cells that can rebuild a heart after a heart attack, to improving how long beer can be stored without going bad (“one of the most important industries on this planet,” Ratner asserted).

Here were my Top 10 takeaways from the panel, which was moderated by Janis Machala of UW TechTransfer.

10. Bringing together money, talented managers, and good engineers is difficult.

9. Some of the stereotypes of scientists and business people have an unfortunate basis in truth. Ratner pointed out that many scientists can be tremendously naive, and often don’t realize that the technology they have is not a product—and that a lot has to be done to bridge that gap.

8. Mourad said (and the other panelists agreed) that the most important element to a successful company is the relationships between all the people involved. Citing the company that spun out of the ultrasound toothbrush technology, he said that even though the company raised about $23 million, infighting between management and the board destroyed the technologically very sound company.

7. Mourad cautioned that even though business people have all the money, “Treat tech people nicely,” to succeed.

6. Canin said that to be a good entrepreneur, a scientist or engineer must have a lot of enthusiasm about the commercialization process and be able to communicate about the technology at different levels of sophistication.

5. They also need to be willing to put their own money into it, and be willing to fight for success, Ratner said. “You need persistence and passion—then you can do it.”

4. When you have a technology and are taken out to a meal by a money person to discuss it, order good food, Mourad advised. Business people will respect you for it.

3. Biofuels will be important in the future, but not for a few more generations of technological progress, Canin said. Desalination of water, which is prohibitively expensive in energy right now, will also be a good bet for investment.

2. In biomedicine, Ratner and Mourad agreed that improved diagnostics, which can lower health care costs by finding problems earlier, is something to keep an eye on—much more so than extravagant bioengineering research programs.

1. Ultimately, a lot of success comes from just the right mixture of ideas, people, and timing. Mourad pointed out that Napoleon once said he’d rather have his generals be lucky than good, and that really applies to startups as well. “There’s so much luck in everything we do that it’s frightening,” he said.

Eric Hal Schwartz was an intern in Xconomy's Seattle office. Follow @

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