The University of Washington is planning to create a Technology Enterprise Institute, with the goal of aiding the creation of high-technology businesses while advancing the academic disciplines that relate to enterprise creation.
The proposal was unveiled today by UW Provost Lee Huntsman at the meeting of the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County.
The institute will be unique within the higher education community. It will combine many activities and disciplines that already exist on campus in a structure that will integrate all the elements necessary for creation, development and study of new commercial enterprises.
Among the institute’s functions, it will specialize in helping to form startup companies that are too small to attract attention from venture capitalists. The companies would be at a very early stage of development, when their products or processes are at a concept stage, but they have consolidated their rights to key intellectual property. Most of the companies would be based upon ideas of UW faculty and students. Refinement of the ideas would occur in a facility managed by the institute, with students working as interns in the companies.
Meanwhile, students from a variety of disciplines would be engaged in helping the fledgling company — with market analyses, business plans and intellectual property issues.
As a company developed, it would attract venture capital. As a company outgrew its space, it would move out of the facility and the space would be reconfigured for the next startup company.
“There is nothing that the University will be doing in the institute that it isn’t already doing, albeit in a less coordinated way,” says Huntsman. “We have classes in entrepreneurship, where students develop business plans for companies that exist only on paper — but this does not involve companies built around technologies developed here. UW students work as interns in variety of small high technology companies throughout the region, some of which owe their origins to UW research.
“The University has equity positions in many startup companies. We currently have more than $50 million each year in industry-sponsored research, in which we negotiate matters of intellectual property — sometimes involving companies in which the UW has an equity interest. So many of the issues involved in creating the institute, especially potential conflicts of interest, are ones we’ve dealt with in a variety of circumstances,” Huntsman says.
“But what will be different here is the linkage between forming new enterprises and the academic disciplines that seek to learn more about enterprise formation. An apt analogy is the teaching hospital and medical school. Research that improves human health takes place in the medical school and is applied through the hospital. When the private or public sector builds a technology park, they have created an analog to the hospital, but without the medical school. What we intend to do is build an institution that not only helps to create new technology enterprises, but also seeks to understand more about those enterprises, which are the cornerstone of the 21st century economy.”
The institute will be housed in its own building, containing some 40,000 square feet, within a 10-minute drive from campus. The building itself will be a shell that can be divided into 500-square-foot units designed to be finished on demand as homes for a variety of businesses, including biotechnology, instrumentation, information technology and advanced materials.
About 15 percent of the space will be for academic programs in business and law, including such areas as intellectual property, finance and accounting, and operations and management. The intent is to make these academic offerings available both to the UW community and to the broader community.
The institute is intended to make the formation of startup companies easier. “Will we get the same rate of success as we have in the past, without the institute?” asks Huntsman. “We really don’t know. That’s one of the things we’ll be studying. But we do not intend for the institute to be a ‘cash cow,’ earning substantial sums for the University. If it simply breaks even, we’ll consider it a success. It is intended to be an integral part of our academic mission.”
Over time, the institute’s effect on education could be substantial. “Imagine someone graduating with a Ph.D. in microbiology, with two years’ experience working in a high-technology startup company,” says Huntsman. “That kind of individual will have many career options. People with a background like that will be an important part of the knowledge economy.
“We believe that well-educated students in engineering, the sciences, and health sciences — at a minimum — should have access to more courses that deal with issues of intellectual property and courses that relate to the formation of new companies. To meet the expected demand for this kind of training, we need to hire new faculty in these areas, and an appropriate way to integrate them into the array of larger programs is to involve some of them, to everyone’s benefit, in this new institute. This will provide students and faculty with real-world experience.”
The institute will be started with $4 million in seed money from the sale of UW property in West Seattle. Additional public and private funds will be sought. The institute is expected to begin operation in a year. The first step in its formation will be the designation of a working group of faculty who will write the institute’s functional plan.
For more information, call Provost Lee Huntsman, 206-543-7632, or Robert C. Miller, director and associate vice provost for research, Office of Technology Transfer, 206-543-3970.