The Startup Hall Story—How it Could Transform Seattle’s U District
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“a little bit of a leap of faith” for all involved, he added.
“The U stretched themselves on how do they engage with a commercial tenant in a campus building. We stretched ourselves and our people, to be like, Hey, we’re going to go to the U District, and no, there’s not a center of gravity yet, but we’re going to make one, and we’re going to be founders of this new community,” DeVore said.
The lease agreement is modeled more on other urban co-working and startup spaces such as 1871 in Chicago and 1776 in Washington, D.C., than on past academic real estate partnerships, DeVore said. The UW, of course, is the owner and master lease-holder, and UW Real Estate manages the co-working space, with input from an advisory committee including DeVore and UP Global’s Dave Parker. “We are helping market and curate the companies that would be in the space, but it’s not our call. It’s up to UW Real Estate,” DeVore said, adding that it has to make economic sense for the university.
That said, there is no explicit focus on UW spinout companies or technologies at Startup Hall. “We were very careful and the U was very careful to not paint this thing purple and gold,” DeVore said. “They have their commercialization function. They have Fluke Hall, which is for university innovation. This is not that. We are in partnership with the university, but not in service to the university, other than we have an alignment of values and interests.”
DeVore is the first to acknowledge that the current collection of startups and startup supporters in a surplus building is a long way from a thriving innovation district, but he’s encouraged by the early response. Since Startup Hall officially opened for business last month, hundreds of visitors have come to open house events. Startups Wovn Energy, Stabilitas Ventures, and Pryvy—with a total of six people—are renting co-working space, Nathan Daum, startup manager with the UW, said via e-mail. And more want in. “Our early interest list outstrips the total 60 desks we have available,” he added. Groups including the Alliance of Angels and city of Seattle startup liason Rebecca Lovell are holding regular office hours. Dozens of meetups, lectures, workshops, and hackathons are filling Startup Hall’s event spaces this fall.
“Students are coming, department heads are coming, commercialization leadership is coming, as well as folks from the city—journalists are here and investors are here,” DeVore said. “So there is a palpable sense of enthusiasm and excitement about this potential new center of gravity for innovation activity in the city.”
And, he noted, the transition is helped by strong macro-economic forces, such as zoning changes as soon as next summer that could allow taller buildings and denser development if the city council approves. Also, the arrival of Link Light Rail service at Husky Stadium in 2016 will connect the UW to the rest of the city, with a second stop in the heart of the U District expected in 2021. “It’s hard to argue with the structural fundamentals,” DeVore said.
For the UW, which is embarking on a new effort to inject more innovation and entrepreneurship education into its curriculum, Startup Hall represents an important new asset.
“The fact that we have professional organizations coming in who can teach entrepreneurs and students how to actually run startups and make them professional, that’s fantastic,” said UW vice provost of innovation Vikram Jandhyala. “That’s the kind of learning and training we want students to be around, whether officially part of the program, or if they [just] get to walk through Startup Hall, talk to people, see the energy.”
Jandhyala plans to bring in students from his new experimental course on team software development “to see how it’s done in the real world,” he said.
DeVore said the strengths and needs of the startup community and the university complement each other well. “Talent is the most important ingredient for building an innovation company, and the U is the most open platform for pulling in and developing talent in the Northwest,” he said.
He added, “We are serving [Jandhyala’s innovation] agenda by finding ways to pull specific departments off campus—or to the edge of campus—and give them an open door that mixes academic innovation with commercial innovation, physically housed in Startup Hall.”