What's driving UW's new business boom?

The university is suddenly creating twice as many businesses - many of them more viable and high impact. What's their secret sauce?
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The university is suddenly creating twice as many businesses - many of them more viable and high impact. What's their secret sauce?

Whether they’re concocting anti-aging makeup, or creating the tools to fight deadly diseases, the crop of new start-up companies emerging from the University of Washington’s Center for Commercialization (C4C) have the potential to change how we live. They’ve already changed how the University of Washington is perceived in the academic world.

This year the University of Washington catapulted into the top five universities in the country for commercialization efforts, up from 15th place only two years ago. This puts the university on par with such colleges as MIT, UCLA and Columbia University in using research acumen to incubate new businesses within the school.

At a press conference attended by Congressional delegations, tech industry leaders and local luminaries like Bill Gates Sr., UW President Michael Young announced that this was the most productive year in UW’s history for forming new companies. Seventeen new companies were unveiled, more than double the average number created over the past five years. According to Fred B. Holt, director of strategic initiatives at the C4C, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“In previous years, the survival rates of these UW start-ups was roughly 50-50,” Holt said. “Now it’s closer to 80 percent surviving. Not only are we getting more start-ups going now, but we’re launching ones that will last, and have a greater chance of success.”

Holt attributes the dramatic jump in both start-up quantity and quality to the C4C bringing more outside, non-academic voices into the fray. The C4C is designed to help UW researchers commercialize their work, and recently the center has prioritized exposing researchers to entrepreneurs-in-residence and angel investor groups. Holt said these provide “tough but friendly voices” to push along the business pitches and prospects of worthy projects.

While he believes some of these start-ups have the potential to make their creators rich, Holt said that’s less of a priority for the university. Instead, he believes the achievement will help position the university to attract top talent, and to justify its status as the top federally funded public research university.

“When the world’s best researchers are looking into where they want to continue their career, they often ask what does a university’s incubator program look like, and how is it nurturing success?” said Holt. “The success of the C4C makes us competitive with colleges like Stanford, MIT and Carnegie Melon. Further, with increased federal focus on innovation research, the question is always 'Where are the results? How does this fit into real life?' These startups demonstrate and can deliver real-world impact.”

So what are these start-ups? We profile three of the most interesting below, dealing in cancer treatment, medical testing and energy efficiency:


The problems with animal testing extend beyond the ethical. According to Dr. Thomas Neumann, UW post-doc and CEO of biotech startup Nortis, the results often don’t translate into humans. What’s okay for a monkey can be toxic for people, and that can lead to a lot of wasted money.

“When you’re developing a drug, it can take 15 years from the first findings to the product making it to the market,” said Neumann. “Most drugs, if they fail, fail right at the end of that process, in clinical trials. This means when the whole process of development they look good, including through animal testing. Then it turns out they’re poisonous.”

Rather than create better testing criteria, Neumann and his collegues developed a solution to the problem that cuts animals out of the equation altogether. Nortis has created silicon chips that are structured to emulate systems in the human body — such as the path chemicals take from the digestive system to the brain or heart — and can house specific human tissues. This new system means drugs can be tested on human-like systems early on in the process, instead of at the end.

While they planned to launch the product next year, Neumann says early demand has sped things up. They are now selling the chips to groups in Seattle and New York, who Neumann says are seeing promising results in their use. Next year they plan a national roll out.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at drew.atkins@crosscut.com.

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