Startups, Jobs, Economic Impact: An Analysis of Commercialization at UW

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things like a maker space for students in Maple Hall, one of the new dorms being built along Campus Parkway; bringing more entrepreneurs to campus to provide training; a greater emphasis on experiential and project-based learning; and just-in-time education models.

Jandhyala sees C4C using its expertise and network for these and other initiatives—“disruptive experiments,” he called them—to supplement existing programs, and to fill gaps, particularly where multiple disciplines come together, such as in e-health and urban science and engineering.

“All the new ideas come at the intersection of old areas,” he said. “How do we get that mix going? And one way is certainly to have these cross-curriculum activities. So this is startups [that] students might do on their own time. If it’s in the dorm, they can go use that maker space. And the just-in-time education might be a two-hour online lecture followed by a day of hacking somewhere.”

Jandhyala

Jandhyala

There will be “alternate ways to support this enterprise,” he said. That could mean everything from different models for revenue sharing among departments to cultivating closer ties to alumni entrepreneurs and major technology companies including Google, Microsoft, and “hopefully Amazon as well,” Jandhyala said.

The UW is also likely to seek more state funding, not necessarily as a direct replacement for the Hall patent royalties to fund C4C, but for this broader set of goals, including ambitions for fostering an innovation district in the neighborhood west of the main Seattle campus. The neighborhood is being connected to the rest of the city by new light rail service due to be completed in the early 2020s, and has already seen the arrival of companies such as startup incubator Techstars Seattle in the former law school building now known as Startup Hall.

Young said that a tighter integration of commercialization and innovation with the university’s “foremost core value”—learning—will be a boon to technology transfer.

“I want to create an opportunity for every school around the university to have the resources: if they want to run innovation classes and entrepreneurial-oriented classes or curricula, if they want to have competitions, if they want to have ways in which business students link with engineering students, link with law students, link with students from the college of environment—I want to create resources that help that happen seamlessly, so the students become much more the centerpiece of this,” Young said, adding that this is “our next step.”

Focus on startups

Even before Young’s arrival, the C4C had begun to focus more on startups. In a 2010 strategic planning document, one of the unit’s stated goals was to spin out “significantly more high-value start-ups.” The plan offers this additional context (PDF): “Technology transfers offices traditionally focus on less resource-intensive, less economically risky licensing of technology to (often large, and out-of-state) existing companies. C4C focuses resources on attempting to increase the number of companies spinning-out of UW around UW innovations/IP. We see start-ups as having a greater potential for creating revenue, good will, and reputational gain [to] UW and WA.” The strategic plan adds that C4C’s contributions to the UW include increased gifts from “successful faculty founders,” research funding, and “increased political support resulting from UW generating jobs that stay in WA.”

Startups reported by UW

In February 2012, about six months after Young arrived from University of Utah (where he had made commercialization and startup formation a priority), he challenged the UW to double the number of startups it produced over the coming three years, from an average of 10 a year to 20, according to a UW news release. “We are today committing ourselves to over the next few years doubling the number of disclosures and companies that will be spun out of the technology of this university,” Young said at the opening of the New Ventures Facility.

So far, Young says he’s pleased with the C4C’s results. The 18 companies UW announced in fiscal 2014, ending June 30, follow a record 17 announced the year before.

The C4C has trumpeted other technology transfer wins—leading the nation in active technology licenses and doubling the number of patents filed on behalf of UW researchers—but the headlines have been all about the startups.

I asked Young why startup formation is such a high priority. After all, universities have several avenues for moving the knowledge they generate into practical use beyond campus, including the training of students, publication of research in academic journals, and industry-sponsored contract research and consulting. A 2010 National Research Council study of university tech transfer on the 30-year anniversary of the Bayh-Dole Act—which gave researchers, and ultimately universities, title to inventions made in the course of federally funded research and launched the modern tech transfer era—listed eight such mechanisms, including the licensing of university-owned intellectual property to startups and existing businesses. “All eight mechanisms, often operating in a complementary fashion, offer significant contributions to the economy,” the authors of the study, Managing Intellectual Property in the Public Interest, found. “The licensing of IP, although not the most important of these mechanisms, is more often discussed, measured, quantified, and debated than all other mechanisms combined.”

For Young, though, startups serve as a useful indicator to track the UW’s myriad commercialization activities.

“It’s as much as anything else a barometer of the way in which you are providing services to support the faculty and students who want to commercialize something,” Young said. “Are we linking our professors up with the venture community in an appropriate way? Are we helping our students develop the skill set they need to interact with the technology on the one hand and the business community on the other to get it out? Are we providing services that help with the IP protection? Are we creating a smooth enough glide-path out of the university that the transaction costs are not so debilitating that you can’t do it?”

The UW also uses startup formation as … Next Page »

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