Michelangelo, the UW Innovation Emerging From an Unusual Place
There’s a new product emerging from the University of Washington. It was just granted a patent. It is being adopted by other high-profile institutions. And it’s showing promise as the core of a startup company or licensing deal.
“Ironically, it’s not from an engineering lab or some chaired faculty position,” said David Bluhm, who was introduced to the cloud-based, self-service reporting tool called Michelangelo as an entrepreneur in residence at the UW Center for Commercialization (C4C). “It’s a guy in Advancement that came in and saw that we at the university could not understand all the touch points of our alumni and supporters and donors. Everybody had separate databases and there was a lack of tools to build quality relationships with them.”
That guy is Chris Sorensen, who has worked for UW Advancement for more than a decade and is currently associate director for reporting. The group has raised, on average, $319 million a year from upwards of 111,000 donors during the last five years.
Michelangelo helps a UW fundraising staff of more than 300 people charged with cultivating donations through regular communications, alumni events, newsletters, and giving campaigns, and the technology has now been licensed to 11 other universities and nonprofit groups. It allows non-technical users to quickly sift through multiple, diverse databases with attributes on their potential donors—more than 1 million different entities in the UW’s case—to find the perfect target audience for a particular event or fundraising pitch.
Sorensen, a self-taught programmer, joined with colleagues to develop the software. They have sought to spread the word and show it off, along with other products and approaches from partners and competitors, at a conference called DRIVE (Data Reporting Information and Visualization Exchange). More than 450 people are expected in Bellevue this week for the UW-hosted event, now in its third year.
This spring, the Michelangelo team, UW commercialization staff, and other advisors will meet to determine the next steps for an innovation that has followed an unusual, if not unprecedented, path within the university from idea to commercial product.
Not surprisingly, UW Advancement and alumni relations professionals in individual departments across campus have access to lots of data about donors, from basic contact information, to details about degrees, accomplishments on and off campus, interests, and past events they’ve attended or supported. Also not surprisingly, that data is stored in a hodgepodge of places and formats from Excel spreadsheets to SQL Server and Oracle databases.
Say UW Advancement was planning an event in southern California and wanted to invite all the College of Arts and Sciences graduates who made their first donation to the university more than 20 years ago and are now living in the Los Angeles area. Previously, someone would put in a request to the department’s database programmers, who would then spend the better part of an hour pulling together a report. Because there were so many reports being requested it could take more than a week for the programmers to get to each request, Sorensen says.
“But opportunities present themselves to a university as large and as diverse as ours in real time,” he says.
Using Michelangelo, Sorensen came up with a list of 252 Arts and Sciences graduates who meet the above the criteria in less than a minute.
In 2008, Sorensen began looking for self-service reporting software that would do what Michelangelo does, but the tools he found at that time were too expensive, too broad, or required too much technical expertise to be useful to most of the advancement professionals, he said.
The department decided to build its own niche solution.
Sorensen, a 36-year-old native of Prosser, WA, where his family has been growing Concord grapes for three generations, led the way. Prior to joining the UW, he worked in a product and marketing management role at a startup, but had no formal training as a programmer. “Only semi-formal, over Mountain Dew and pizza till 2 in the morning writing database code to get better at it,” he says, adding that he benefitted from online training resources and the mentoring of generous experts in the UW IT department’s Information Management division.
Michelangelo, using a proprietary in-memory data engine that was granted a U.S. patent Dec. 31, pulls in data from all those different databases and maps them in a consistent way so that they can be quickly queried. The Web-based user interface is designed to be familiar for people used to sites like eBay and Amazon. “It was crucial to meet users where they’re at,” Sorensen says. For security, the software integrates easily with existing campus-wide credential and access control systems.
UW Advancement began using a version of the software in 2009 and it has become a central tool in the years since, handling more than 7,500 report requests.
Sorensen says that Michelangelo queries are so easy and fast that people now use them for research and planning, in addition to traditional tasks like creating recipient lists for newsletters and donation requests. For example, an event planner, using something like the query Sorensen demonstrated, could quickly determine whether it might be worth putting on an event featuring a lecture by a UW English professor in Los Angeles. The tool also incorporates outside data sources, such as the Census and IRS data showing the most charitable neighborhoods in the country.
Bluhm was struck by how the software puts “incredibly powerful database tools” in the hands of common users. It frees them from dependence on database administrators, “much like Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel, and Aldus Pagemaker did respectively with powerful but easy to use spreadsheets and desktop publishing software,” Bluhm said.
In early 2010, Sorensen brought the technology to the UW C4C. Staff there evaluated Michelangelo, and agreed that there was value in the software and a potential market for it, and even some significant intellectual property, which has now been patented. In addition to professional resources, the C4C connected Michelangelo with entrepreneurs in residence including Bluhm and Ken Myer, and provided a $50,000 gap funding grant to help commercialize the product. (Myer came up with the name Michelangelo. It refers to the Renaissance master who said he created the David statue by starting with the stone and removing everything that was not David. That’s the logic behind the reporting software, which starts with a mass of data and removes everything until only the relevant results remain, Sorensen says.)
The next year, a UW fundraiser took a job with University of California, Davis. She told her new supervisor about Michelangelo. That was the seed from which this built-in-house tool began growing toward a stand-alone business.
Sorensen began to spread the word about the software to peers in the university advancement field. The UW sold its first license for Michelangelo in April 2012. UC Davis and North Carolina State University were the two earliest customers.
“Chris is really the prime mover behind this,” says Patrick Shelby, director of the C4C New Ventures group, which helps shepherd university innovations toward commercialization in the form of startup companies. “He’s a really high energy guy and, I think, an entrepreneur at heart.”
Sorensen bet on the cloud, migrating the software from an on-premises deployment to Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform, in 2011 as a way to scale it up for UW’s own use and for use by customers.
With the resources of UW Advancement and C4C, the software has been refined based on user feedback. Now, Sorensen and his advisers are evaluating the market and preparing a strategy for Michelangelo to exit the university.
“There’s still a tremendous opportunity to define how disparate data sources connect with one another,” he says. “No center of gravity has been established yet.”
Sorensen says Michelangelo is complementary to nonprofit-focused customer relationship management software such as Raiser’s Edge from Blackbaud.
He says it would be more of a direct competitor, at least in some respects, to IBM Cognos and Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services—software he evaluated and dismissed before the UW embarked on building Michelangelo. Another company focusing specifically on donor and alumni relations is Boston-based EverTrue.
Bluhm thinks the Michelangelo story has been overlooked, perhaps because it’s not some hot new nanomaterial or polymer, or because of its origin in an administrative unit.
Shelby said most of the innovations that come up for commercialization at the UW do indeed start in academic units. But other administrative and support units have developed technologies with commercial value. For example, PatientStream, which automates healthcare communications and information management, was developed by a medical informatics specialist working at Harborview Medical Center (which is managed by UW Medicine).
“It’s not the usual route, but it’s not unprecedented,” he said of Michelangelo.
The UW administration is generally supportive of commercializing good ideas, no matter where they come from in the university, Shelby added. Indeed, University President Michael Young has made it a priority and in the 2013 fiscal year the UW spun out a record 17 startup companies. Sorensen’s hope is that Michelango will be one of the innovations to spin out of UW in 2014.