The success of local startups, especially in high-tech, has transformed the image of business from hidebound to hip for a whole new generation lured by the passion, creativity and potential wealth entrepreneurism represents, says Findley.

"Seattle is a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity," he says. "It doesn't matter what the field is. There's just an amazing amount of successful entrepreneurial companies that have come out of Seattle.

"I think the University of Washington saw a natural fit and made a correct decision in putting a lot of thought and emphasis on this program."

PEI grew in two phases, the first slow and serendipitous, the second rapid and planned. Ranked 46th in the nation two years ago and 12th last year by Success magazine, the UW's entrepreneurship program is climbing toward top-five status, says Hansen.

"I wanted to have a top 20 program right now," says Bradford. "It's probably done a little better than I anticipated."

Bud Saxberg, professor of management and innovation, got the ball rolling in 1990-91 when he used a $10,000 donation from an alumnus to build interest and momentum around the study of entrepreneurship, says Hansen.

Over the years, a handful of courses were offered, internships created and student organizations formed, but the program was not a department priority.

"There wasn't really a strong curriculum here and there wasn't a strong capstone event," says Hansen.

That began to change in 1996 after the business school completed a new strategic plan that identified entrepreneurship/innovation as one of three focal points for the future. The others are management of technology and international business.

Retiring Business School Dean William Bradford

"We teach the classic fundamentals," says Bradford, "then we offer our students the ability to get world-class education in those three areas."

Adopted after consultation with the local business community, the plan fits the region's profile well, says Bradford, especially PEI.

Bradford dismisses the notion that the current entrepreneurial fire will flicker as soon as the economy cools, snuffing the careers of students hoping to start their own businesses.

"No matter what the economic climate, entrepreneurship and innovation is going to be a strong educational concept," he says. "In a down time more than other times, firms need to be able to take risks and innovate to survive."

Besides, says Bradford, the sizzling pace of technology will likely keep the fire burning.

"I think there is a fundamental shift because we're always going to be coming up with new ideas," he says. "The issue is how do you change that idea into reality. That is always going to be a key issue and a fundamental one."

What's more, the skills PEI grads acquire also make them attractive to established companies, says Hansen. "What makes an employee valuable is the ability to create new business," he says.

Venture capitalist McAleer says the curriculum provides "a solid footing" and students are "well-trained to go into other entrepreneurial companies as employees as opposed to founders."

Hansen considers the program a resource for the entire University. Students from other disciplines such as biology or computer science can enroll in some or all of the courses and gain the skills and contacts necessary to turn their ideas into the next biotech or software "phenom."

"There are entrepreneurs all over the University of Washington campus," he says. One 1999 entry, Cakes OnLine, was created by two law students.

Hansen and Bourassa-Shaw are key elements in the success of the program.

"I took the risk that this would be an area of value, but the people who made this work are Gary and Connie," says Business Dean Bradford. Earlier this year, Ernst & Young gave Hansen a "Supporter of Entrepreneurship Award" for the state of Washington.

Although the University has hired two assistant professors specifically for PEI, faculty with other backgrounds and instructors from the private sector teach many of its courses. The formal study of entrepreneurship is so new that the pool of potential professors is shallow.

That's one reason an endowed chair for the program--created by Michael Darland's $1 million donation--sits vacant. Darland, '65, '69, is a PEI board member and local entrepreneur with several startups under his belt.

"We don't have a lot of faculty who have done the research or leadership (in entrepreneurism) fitting an endowed chair," says Bradford.

Another reason is that the University must compete with approximately 30 other schools around the country with entrepreneurship chairs. Most boast fatter endowments, says Bradford.

Bourassa-Shaw noted that not everyone at the University considers entrepreneurship worthy of academic emphasis, especially if it comes at the expense of support for other fields. "There is a group of people who think there is no intellectual content to entrepreneurship," she says.

Ultimately, says Bradford, PEI will be judged by the number of new companies its graduates create. But it also should be measured by how many students in established companies say PEI enhanced their careers, he says. Other yardsticks will include building a tenure-track faculty and grooming the Business Plan Competition into a star of the Pacific Northwest business scene, Bradford says.

Darland, itchy for the UW to fill the chair he endowed, hopes that happens sooner rather than later.

"I think they need to get it under way a little more aggressively," he says. Compared to entrepreneurship programs at other universities, the UW is "in the game. They're not on the sidelines. (But) they're not the leading team on the field."

Still, all of Bradford's goals appear within reach. Enrollment is climbing, alumni support spreading (grads of the program have formed Friends of PEI), private-sector recognition building and the Business Plan Competition, which is open to students from neighboring universities, improving.

Not only did the number of entries grow from 23 to 47 (12 were eliminated before the investment round), but the quality rose this year as well, says McAleer. The competition drew entries from students at Seattle University, Seattle Pacific University and Pacific Lutheran University as well.

"It was a bigger success in general," he says.

MIT's business plan competition is the gold standard for the 20 or so such contests held nationwide every year. According to Newsweek, it has generated three dozen startups in 10 years and regularly attracts venture capitalists--not just as judges, but as eager investors.

Hansen predicted similar status for the UW competition.

"In a couple of years, you won't want to give up the opportunity to come to the UW one," he says.

Brad Broberg is a longtime south King County journalist and current free-lance writer specializing in business.

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