University of Washington's quest to spin off clean-tech startups
The University of Washington has been ramping up its efforts to spin more laboratory breakthroughs into startup companies. Now it’s scored the help of one more leader from Seattle’s clean tech scene.
Lars Johansson – an investor and co-chair of the early-stage funding group Northwest Energy Angels – will be the newest “entrepreneur in residence” at the Center for Commercialization, joining smart-grid honcho David Kaplan and venture capitalist Rick LeFaivre as the Center’s clean tech specialists.
Entrepreneurs in residence take temporary positions mentoring students and faculty inventors, linking them with potential business partners and funders and – if a venture really strikes their fancy – joining it as a business partner.
“What’s really interesting to me is how inventions and research at UW can be applied in the clean energy space,” says Johansson. “We’ve seen some good examples of that already and I hope to be able to coach others to get some more of those.”
The hire is part of a much broader push to invigorate startup culture at UW. The school receives more federal research funding than any other public university, and its students and faculty have earned millions licensing their technology to outside companies. But business leaders have long considered it sub-par in launching startups of their own, lagging behind other research heavyweights like MIT and Stanford.
In 2008 the school brought on serial entrepreneur Linden Rhoads to improve that record. She set about overhauling the school’s technology transfer office – traditionally the office that helps researchers file patent and intellectual property claims. She rebranded it as the Center for Commercialization and gave it the added mission of connecting researchers with investors and business managers.
She recruited Rick LeFaivre of OVP Venture Partners – one of the Northwest’s only venture capitalists with clean tech experience – to work half-time as director of new technology ventures, looking for the business potential among the school’s myriad research projects.
“Now a lot of that is studying the life cycle of fruit flies or something,” says LeFaivre. “ But a lot of it has commercial potential. Our job is to tease out that potential.”
The Center manages a Commercialization Gap Fund that can dole out $50,000 or so to researchers with promising work who need to build a prototype or conduct market research (in areas like life sciences along with energy tech). It’s in the process of raising a $20 million Husky Bridge Investment Fund to help researchers with larger capital needs who still aren’t ready for angel or venture investors, LeFaivre says.
He’s helped recruit a series of entrepreneurs in residence, who take six-month positions (which can be renewed), essentially to roam the halls of research labs looking for investment-worthy projects.
Johansson starts in that role next month. He broke into the IT space in 1987 in his native Sweden, selling software for a little-known Washington company called Microsoft. That work eventually brought him to Seattle. He’s spent the last several years helping the Northwest Energy Angels link up entrepreneurs and potential investors, teaching both sides about angel investing.
As an early-stage investor, he says he’s less interested in the most capital-intensive clean tech sectors – like biofuels and commercial-scale wind and solar. He’ll be looking especially closely at energy storage, advanced materials and software ventures.
“Although it’s an overused buzzword, I think the smart grid is very interesting,” he says. “It’s where we in the Northwest really should be leading, given all the IT refugees here.”