Lacing together the business of NanoString

CIE proves the gateway to a winning business plan
Amber Ratcliffe (MBA 2003)—Seattle entrepreneur—arrived at the Foster School’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) with the high energy and laser focus of a creative student about to start something big, and by all accounts she had come to the right place.

CIE’s core mission is to inspire, inform and empower entrepreneurship for undergraduates and graduate students across the University of Washington through course work in finance, strategy and marketing as well as with internships and mentoring.

“She was engaged the whole way and she was a rock star the whole way,” said Connie Bourassa-Shaw, CIE’s director. “She was one of those students you knew would make things happen.”

The first thing Ratcliffe and fellow MBA student Aaron Coe made happen was to take first place in one of the Foster School’s premier and most rigorous events–CIE’s Business Plan Competition. The plan they submitted was to create a company called NanoString Technologies based on molecule tracking technology developed by Dr. Krassen Dimitrov.

The next thing Ratcliffe made happen was to secure $8 million to build a marketable prototype of that technology, which essentially barcodes an individual molecule in a biological sample so it can be tracked, characterized and counted.

Now, with $30 million in Series C venture capital financing added in June 2009 to $11 million in earlier total investments, it’s clear that Ratcliffe had, in fact, started something big.

Idea turns business + action plan
Ratcliffe recently shared her role in building NanoString at the CIE seminar series “From Invention to Start-up.”

In her lecture, she detailed NanoString’s evolution from a scientific idea, developed at Seattle’s seminal Institute for Systems Biology, into a complex business and how that success challenged her to grow into new responsibilities as well as to let go of many key company decisions.

The idea, she said, came to life in the lab. Ratcliffe, then a research scientist at the institute, realized that she simply didn’t know enough business for NanoString to survive in the turbulent waters of start-ups. So, she enrolled in the Foster MBA program looking for answers to one simple question: “What’s every single thing I’m going to need to know to run a small business?”

CIE was the key program she found at Foster for not only helping her build that fundamental business understanding, but also supercharge her ability to write an effect business plan, get that plan exposed to critical eyes and expand her network of go-to people.

Winning CIE’s Business Plan Competition was her first big break – the money NanoString won became the seed money for Ratcliffe to begin building the business. In fact, CIE has awarded $812,000 to student companies in the past 12 years as well as involved more than 300 judges, mentors, sponsors and supporters each year from the alumni and business community.

“I feel really fortunate because we had a lot of exposure during the Business Plan Competition,” she said. “So, I felt like I had people that I could call and ask questions. CIE is a very good resource for those kinds of things.”

Founder turns team member
In addition to the Business Plan Competition, the broad business education Ratcliffe sought at Foster paid off. From her role as a founder seeking friends and investors, she went on to file patents, spend time in the lab, write protocols that robots could follow, brand the company, market it and even write press releases.

As the company grew, she and her team had to bring in more people with more experience in each of these areas, including a CEO who had the A-level contacts to put them in front of A-level investors.

“As a founder,” she told a lecture hall nearly full of UW students, faculty and staff who were either interested in starting a company or simply curious about the process, “it can be really difficult to step back and let somebody else own those areas and to give up some decision-making ability.”

That is a necessary evolution of the company and the founder’s career because, Ratcliffe said, the company’s success comes before the founder’s own personal goals.

“Hiring those people really helped accelerate the rapid pace of decision making you have to have in order to get a product developed and out the door before you run out of money,” she said.

Exemplifying one of CIE’s key attributes – alumni coming back on campus, sharing their experience and dolling out healthy doses of advice – Ratcliffe ended her lecture with these thoughts:

“I’ve been working on this nine years and we have not all become millionaires and we might not ever have that happen,” she said. “My take away is that you should be really clear about what the opportunities are. … You really need to look at the market, the application of your technology, the freedom to operate.”

“Most importantly, I think you need to do it because you are passionate about the technology, you are passionate about your idea.”

Minority business economic challenges and opportunities

MichaelVerchotI opened today’s newspaper to yet more glum unemployment news. On October 22, the chairwoman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors told the Joint Economic Committee of Congress that “unemployment is likely to remain at severely elevated level” through the end of 2010. It appears that the only question now is how high the unemployment rate will go.

At the start of the recession in December 2007, the US unemployment rate was 5% and it grew to 9.7% in August 2009 (according to US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics). It’s now predicted that we’ll reach more than 10% before the end of this year. But we all know that unemployment is not evenly distributed among racial/ethnic groups and people with different levels of education.

The unemployment rate for African Americans, for example, has been above 9.7% since July 2008 and in August 2009 it was 15.1%. The Latino unemployment rate reached 9.7% in January and by August it was 13%.

The unemployment rate for people with less than high school degree has been over 9.7% since August 2008 and reached 15.6% in August 2009. For people with a bachelor’s degree, the unemployment rate peaked in May at 4.8%.

The fact that African American and Latino workers and all people without a college degree have high levels of unemployment are two of the reasons why we at the UW Business and Economic Development Center (BEDC) have a special emphasis on growing businesses that are owned by African Americans and Latinos and why we are excited about the impact that our BEDC Fellows are having on increasing the number of high school students who participate in the Foster School’s Young Executives of Color (YEOC) program run by the Foster School Undergraduate Diversity Services office.

Research over the last 20 years, largely conducted by Timothy Bates and Rob Fairlie, has found that, like white-owned businesses, companies that are owned by African Americans and Latinos tend to employ more people from these racial groups. (Both Bates and Fairlie presented papers at the 2006 and 2008 National Diversity in Business Research Conference hosted by the BEDC.) The BEDC’s success in growing highly successful businesses owned by people of color is helping to open job opportunities for Washington state residents from racial and ethnic groups that have historically high unemployment rates.

At our upcoming Minority Business of the Year Awards banquet we hope to raise at least $25,000 in scholarship funds that we can award to ten BEDC Fellows. I’ll talk more about the incredible work of our BEDC Fellows and the YEOC program in my next post.

By Michael Verchot, director of the UW Business and Economic Development Center

Evening MBA student and entrepreneur perspective

By guest blogger Daniel Rossi, Evening MBA Class of 2010

Daniel Rossi (UW MBA 2010) and Dustin Miller (UW PhD student), Nanocel founders
Daniel Rossi (UW MBA 2010) and Dustin Miller (UW PhD student), Nanocel founders

Over the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of immersing myself into many of the classes and programs that the UW Foster School of Business Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship offers students here at the University of Washington. I’m here to tell you what you can expect if you do the same.
First there is the entrepreneurship curriculum. It’s for UW business and technology students wondering what exactly entrepreneurs do and if they might want to be one someday. “Searchers” are exposed to the risks and rewards associated with starting their own companies. You’ll hear the good and the bad from myriad entrepreneurs that have started and sold many of their own companies. If you decide, like I did, that you dig it and want to learn more, there is an entrepreneurship certificate that will prepare you (in finance, accounting, marketing, networking, etc) to give it a shot. The teachers, speakers and subjects are excellent and give students a strong knowledge base.

Entrepreneurship competitions

There are three competitions that allow students to put what they have learned into practice: Venture Capital Investment Competition (VCIC), Environmental Innovation Challenge (EIC) and the Business Plan Competition (BPC). I’ve competed twice in the BPC and in last year’s inaugural EIC. These competitions are the perfect forum for business students and technology innovators (engineering/medical researchers) to partner up.  They’re great for academics looking to research an idea and write a business plan and for real start ups looking for their big break. The EIC focuses on “green” technologies and awards scholarship money so teams can research and actually build prototypes. The BPC is a virtual marathon of research, market validation, business plan writing and presenting. CIE brings in a virtual “who’s who” of local entrepreneurs and investors that act as judges throughout the competition. We’re talking SERIOUS networking people! And if you want, you can even apply for an internship (for credit) with UW’s Center for Commercialization office and be assigned to a technology and team that will compete. Last year, ALL of the teams that made the BPC finals had UW Center for Commercialization technologies, including mine. Any one of these competitions can be considered a capstone for your studies here at UW.

My own start-up, Nanocel

In 2009, I formed a team called Nanocel with Dustin Miller (mechanical engineering UW PhD candidate and Mad Scientist Extraordinaire). Dustin had an amazing technology and an even better idea of how to use it. I had competed in the previous BPC and knew how to write a business plan. We teamed up and got to work. Even with a brilliant technology, it took all the knowledge and experience we had accumulated in CIE classes to validate our technology and write our plan. We worked and competed very hard. We wrote our plan and presented it. Then we fixed it and changed it and kept presenting. The work was arduous but exhilarating. In the end, we were overjoyed with our results. We won the BPC and have had many opportunities to network with and present to the local business establishment, including investor groups. We’ve formed a start-up called Nanocel Inc. and are in the process of licensing our technology from UW’s Center for Commercialization. We’re really doing this thing!

All of this began with a simple introductory class offered by CIE at the UW Foster School of Business called ENTRE 509 (and with a mad scientist with an entrepreneurial bent).

To those of you—niche carvers, franchisers, industrialists, capitalists and social entrepreneurs—who wonder if you have what it takes to make a calculated leap—to strike out on your own and start something. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. It’s not even for most of us. Is it for you? That can be a very tough and expensive question to answer alone. So don’t do it alone. Let the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship help you begin to answer that question. I did.

Keynote speaker: Carrie Pederson

Carrie PedersonMcGowan Scholar Stands Out in Almost Any Crowd

You could say Carrie Pederson has a way of standing out in a crowd, but not simply because she’s 6-foot-3. The 31-year-old already has nearly a decade of international business experience under her belt and speaks Mandarin fluently thanks to the time she’s spent working with Chinese and Taiwanese businesses.

After spending her junior year of college in Taiwan and China as an exchange student, she returned after graduation to develop her Chinese language skills. Pederson says that living and interacting with the locals for so long made a huge difference in how quickly she was able to assimilate into the local lifestyle and business culture.

“I always knew I wanted to work abroad after experiencing life overseas,” she recalls. “But I also knew that if I wanted to continue in the business world, I’d need to get an MBA.”

Taiwan business ventures

That notion became apparent through her business experience in Taiwan. Starting in 2001, Pederson worked as a special consultant for the Council of Forest Industries where she helped facilitate business development for the Canadian lumber industry, including regulatory issues, training and promotion. At the same time she helped establish “Language Canada,” a Taipei company providing North American-style ESL classes. She led the expansion of operations—including administration, marketing, customer service, human resources and program development. These experiences spurred her back to academia to further her professional growth.

“Because I have spent most of my adult life in Taiwan, I often process things from more of a Chinese perspective without realizing it,” Pederson explains. “After being away for nine years, adjusting to life here and going through ‘reverse culture shock’ took much more energy and time then I anticipated!”

From Chinese life to student life

Working to get the most of her education leaves her little time for hobbies outside of trying to find the best Chinese restaurants in the Emerald City. But she does pack her days with extra-curriculars that enhance her classroom learning. Pederson served as co-chair of last year’s UW Business Plan Competition and attends internationally focused events and conferences as often as possible. She’s currently working with the Seattle School District and community business leaders to help expand international education in local schools.

So it comes as no surprise that she was named a 2007-08 McGowan Scholar. Pederson is the third-straight UW MBA to receive this prestigious bursary named after and funded by William G. McGowan, the late founder of MCI Communications and catalyst of telecommunications deregulation. Each year, the McGowan Charitable Fund awards scholarships to a select group of management students who exhibit extraordinary leadership, academic achievement, character, entrepreneurship and commitment to the community.

Pederson and her MBA teammates recently won the first-ever Chinese international case competition on January 5, 2008 in Beijing for creating a re-branding strategy for Tsingtao Beer to increase its American market share by targeting Generation Y consumers.

Upon graduating in 2008, Pederson says she’d like to focus on helping companies enter the China market, and is confident that her time spent living there, coupled with the knowledge she is acquiring in the Foster MBA Program, will pay dividends. “I not only plan to help facilitate more trade and business between Seattle and China but also hope to help create an even stronger global awareness and mind-set in Seattle and Washington state, where our economy is so dependent on international trade.”

A summer fellowship well spent: taking Epo receptor testing to market

Summer fellowsThis past summer, CIE funded five Tech Commercialization Fellowships for graduate students in entrepreneurship. For 10 weeks each Fellow works with a University of Washington inventor and TechTransfer manager to do a deep dive into the feasibility of commercializing specific research. The qualifications to be a Fellow are rigorous—you have to have a relevant background, be highly analytical, and fearless in asking questions, talking with potential customers, and networking your way to industry experts. 

Look at the diagnostics test on Epo receptors, for example. Tony Blau, UW professor of hematology and medicine, is investigating the current use of Epo ($12 billion in sales in 2006) to treat anemia, a common side effect of cancer. Recent research has shown that Epo could actually have an adverse effect on cancer survival. Blau is working on a new test to measure Epo receptors to predict which patients are susceptible to the adverse effects.

Kirk Rorrer, MBA 2010, whose background includes degrees in biochemistry and pharmacology, applied for the Epo project because it was “a great opportunity to help determine the potential of a new pathway for cancer treatment.”

Blau’s reaction to having Rorrer work with him for the summer was equally positive. “Working with Kirk was both tremendously informative and a lot of fun,” he said. “Kirk’s extensive evaluation of our project as a potential business opportunity significantly enhanced my understanding of our challenges and opportunities.”

Other projects included transparent electrodes that are flexible and durable, broad-based diagnostic tests for Alzheimer’s and mad cow disease, a rapid clinical diagnostics test for identifying tuberculosis, and high-intensity ultrasound for nerve disorders. Funding for summer fellows is provided by the Washington Research Foundation, the Institute for Translational Heath Sciences, and the Coulter Foundation.

UW CIE Named #7 in Princeton Review/Entrepreneur Magazine Top 25 Graduate Entrepreneur Programs

The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Foster Business School) was just ranked #7 in the 2009 Top 25 Graduate Programs in Entrepreneurship by the Princeton Review/Entrepreneur Magazine. The ranking surveyed data from more than 2,300 programs, focusing on academic offerings, students and faculty, companies launched, cross-campus partnerships, competitions and other activities outside the classroom. PR/EM cited the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge, the Technology Entrepreneurship Certificate for MBA and engineering students, and market research internships with UW Tech Transfer’s LaunchPad among the innovations that differentiated the Center from its peers.

“Validation is sweet,” said Connie Bourassa-Shaw, CIE’s director. “We know we have the courses, faculty, students, activities, and cross-campus and community relationships that turn ‘entrepreneurship education’ into ‘entrepreneurial reality.’ What drives us is the absolute conviction that our entrepreneurial students—and research faculty as well!—can use the resources of the Center, the UW, and Seattle to get their next companies up and running.”

CIE is grateful to the Foster faculty, board members, sponsors, coaches and mentors, TechTransfer, and our stellar students for helping us create the roadmap for such a well-recognized program.

It’s in the cards

Connie Bourassa-ShawWho doesn’t remember Topps baseball trading cards? The Foster School of Business has applied the same concept to its “all-star” faculty, “rookie” new hires, “skipper” Dean James Jiambalvo, and new “stadium” (now under construction). The first Foster staff to earn a trading card is “pitching coach” Connie Bourassa-Shaw, CIE’s director who was also recently named to Seattle’s “100 Top Women in Tech” list.

Foster MBA reunion speakers: Howard Behar and Allan Golston

Over 350 – a record number – Foster MBA grads returned to business school in September for the annual UW Foster School MBA reunion weekend. MBA grads from six different years (1984, 1989, 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009) gathered to reconnect with classmates, tailgate at a UW Husky football game, and listen to guest speakers talk about leadership issues. Guest speakers included:

Howard Behar, past president of Starbucks and former Foster School Fritzky leadership chair, talked about why people are not corporate assets, the value of the human spirit in the workplace, and how to encourage creativity and innovation.


Click image above to play video.

Allan Golston, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation president of United States programs, shared insights about new and upcoming research on education, the minority access gap, and discussed “talent lottery” luck.

Click image above to play video.

Mentor program connects students to work world

Repurposed from a 2007 newsletter from the Certificate of International Studies in Business

CISB 2007 mentor photoFifteen Certificate of International Studies in Business (CISB) students received support and advice from professionals in the business world this year through the pilot Business Mentoring Connections Program. Mentors from Microsoft, Boeing, SanMar, Deloitte Consulting, KPMG, Accenture, Expeditors, Washington Mutual, Tran Law Firm, Ballard Travel and Cruise Consultants, and Lowell Elementary School shared their expertise and offered career guidance while benefiting from the chance to practice their coaching skills.

“The program does a great job of connecting education to the work world,” according to one student. Mentors were equally enthusiastic, saying, “this kind of program develops skills that are crucial to managers: listening, patience and developing the overall person rather than just focusing on their potential job”, and “we have worked a lot on professionalism, networking and communication skills; these are key aspects of transitioning successfully into the business world.”

Business School alumna Margaret Xu, ’03, will join Nishika de Rosairo in co-managing the program in 2008. CISB alumna and co-founder of BMeC, Anne Sackville-West, ‘03, will be moving to the San Francisco Bay Area and will stay involved with the program in an advisory capacity.

Associate Dean Steve Sefcik says, “we’re thrilled to have the involvement of dedicated mentors who care so much about helping our CISB students succeed.” The program will continue in 2007-2008, thanks to the support of the UW Business School Undergraduate Program office.

Learn more about the Certificate of International Studies in Business.