Category Archives: Alumni

Foster MBA alumnus lands crossword puzzles in LA and NY Times

What does it take to create a crossword puzzle of sufficient challenge and cleverness to be published in the New York Times? A bona fide polymath, well-read and widely-experienced. A serious student of popular culture, equally versed in history, sport, art, science, architecture, medicine, warfare, European languages—a renaissance man.

Jeff ChenFoster MBA alumnus Jeff Chen fits the bill. An entrepreneur, personal wealth manager, writer, rock climber and world traveler, Chen is also an avid puzzle-solver. A friend turned him on to the venerable New York Times daily crossword a couple of years ago. “It was love at first sight,” he says.

Last year he began composing his own. He’s already had four published in the Los Angeles Times and his first puzzle was recently accepted for the New York Times, a gold standard in the crossworld.

Chen says constructing crosswords is as much a test of strategy as vocabulary. He begins with a theme that ties together four or five long answers, and then builds around them. Devising appropriate, accurate, pithy clues is an art in and of itself.

Crossword puzzles are not a lucrative hobby. Each one takes Chen 15 to 20 hours to complete—before revisions. He has created 30-something puzzles and sold only five, each fetching between $85 and $200.

Entrepreneur, wealth manager, globe trotter, writer
It doesn’t threaten to supplant Chen’s day job. After earning his MBA from the University of Washington Foster School in 2002, Chen helped launch Acucela, developer of a novel treatment for degenerative eye disease. Since leaving Acucela last year, he has done private wealth management and is working on a new venture (currently undisclosed) with some friends. He has been an active board member with local non-profits Big Brothers & Big Sisters, Passages Northwest and Treehouse and recently traveled to Bolivia to examine microfinance operations for Global Partnerships.

Chen is also 90,000 words into his first novel, a story set at school in the mountains of Peru where kids learn how to be secret defenders of justice. “My brother and I were talking about how sad it was that there would never be another Harry Potter book,” he says. “So about two years ago I decided to write something that could start a similar kind of series. I’m not a published author, but I thought I’d give it a try.”

Chen still challenges himself daily with the puzzles of both newspapers (each escalates in difficulty from Monday forward), and says he can complete a New York Times Friday puzzle 75 percent of the time.

Match wits with Jeff Chen’s recent 2010 Monday and Tuesday Los Angeles Times puzzles.

Nanocel takes a novel approach to cooling electronics

Dustin Miller and Daniel Rossi show off their productThere are big problems and then there are BIG problems. Cooling electronics, for example. How do you keep large server farms from overheating and how can you extend the battery life of laptops and other portable electronics? “We are currently using over three percent of the nation’s energy on cooling the Internet,” says Dustin Miller, PhD candidate in mechanical engineering and the co-founder, with UW MBA Daniel Rossi, of Nanocel.  The company, which won the $25,000 grand prize at the UW’s Business Plan Competition in May 2009, is introducing affordable fluid-based cooling systems for computer chips.  “Industry calculations say that fluid-based cooling could cut energy use in half,” explained Miller. “That’s a staggering amount.”

Nanocel’s technology uses a combination of microfluidics and novel, moldable plastic materials to cool devices more cheaply than other liquid-based systems and more efficiently than cooling fans. The products use thousands to millions of very thin (between one and 100 micrometers wide) vessels to circulate tiny amounts of liquid in close contact with the computer chips or other device components prone to overheating.  The original process was developed at the University of Washington for food packaging.  “So, for the cost of a coffee cup, you can have a heat sink that used to be made out of copper,” Rossi added.

Rossi’s market research demonstrated that Nanocel wouldn’t have to look far for potential customers and partners. Computer chip manufacturers and designers are obvious candidates, but Nanocel is also talking with companies that make gaming consoles, servers and hardware. “There are tons of shelf-ready products that can’t go to market because they’re too hot,” Rossi says. Fans aren’t powerful enough to cool them down, and liquid technologies are too pricey.

Since the competition, the Nanocel founders have incorporated the company and are gearing up for their first angel funding round in early 2010.

(We’d like to thank Rachel Tompa, Xconomy Seattle, who wrote a longer version of this article. The full story is here.)

Calling all leaders

Guest blog post by Don Nielsen (BA 1960)

Neilsen-headshotNormally, I am a very optimistic person, but I am concerned with what I see taking place or, perhaps not taking place, in all facets of our government. Federal government programs are not working as predicted, and many of them have failed. Looking at the list of bankrupt programs—Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, the Post Office, Amtrak—is depressing. Most of our states are in serious debt—California could declare bankruptcy in the not too distant future—and finances at the city level are no better. Debt is piling up in all sectors.

One striking statistic, which I think contributes to these failures, is the fact that many of our top-level national and local government officials have never worked in the private sector. Today, we have developed an entirely different occupation—career elected official—that is the norm for those in most of our elected offices.

However, our founders never anticipated that serving in an elected position would be a career choice. It was intended to be a public service. It was something you did to make your contribution to the society in which you lived.

How many times have you heard someone compare the voting process to deciding between the lesser of two evils? Would this be acceptable if you were recruiting a new CEO to run your company? I think not—and it shouldn’t be acceptable for recruiting people to run our government.

This country needs leaders who understand our economic system. The Foster School has recently initiated a major effort in leadership development. Foster students, already considered A-list hires, are being asked to take academic rigor and real world relevance even further. While most of our graduates will go into business, I hope some will think about public service, if not at the outset, then later in their careers. And while many of our alumni are doing great things in the world of business, I hope they too will consider lending their expertise to righting the “ship of state.”

We need leaders who run for office as a public service and who run for office to preserve this wonderful republic that we all love. Leaders, not politicians, will make sure that happens. Please consider running for public office and serving a few years in a public service position as a part of your career plans. Give voters the chance to choose the best officials who can help make the tough decisions needed to solve this nation’s problems.

Don Nielsen is a member of the Foster School Advisory Board and chairman and CEO of Light Doctor, LLC.

This alumnus opinion post is not intended to represent the views of the Michael G. Foster School of Business.

The rebirth of cool

Marcus Charles resurrects one of Seattle’s cultural icons

To some, the old Crocodile Café was as essential a Seattle icon as Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, Safeco Field or the Ballard Locks. The venerable rock club gave rise to “Grunge” and helped put Seattle on the map, then became the local music scene’s living room for nearly two decades.

And then, in late 2007, the Croc closed—abruptly and without ceremony. There were no takers to resurrect the cultural landmark. Until the former owner approached one last candidate.

Marcus Charles (MBA 2008) had been in the entertainment business since high school, when he would organize massive parties. While earning a degree in communications at the UW he created and test-piloted a management internship at Anthony’s Homeport, learning the ins and outs of the restaurant trade. When he was 23, he opened Marcus’ Martini Heaven, a Pioneer Square club that cashed in on the retro swing craze of the mid-1990s. He opened the Bad Juju Lounge, then Jack’s Roadhouse, then Neumos, then Spitfire. With a partner in 2000 he took on the nascent Capitol Hill Block Party, turning a little DIY event into a full-on music festival, drawing 20,000 fans to hear 50 bands last summer.

But the life of an impresario is not without its downside. “Ten years is a long time in the rock and roll business,” Charles says. “I was (and am) still married, collaborating with longtime partners, and no stints in rehab—monumental achievements in our world. But I was ready to change directions.”

He sold all of his properties except the Block Party, and enrolled in the Foster School’s Executive MBA Program. Despite being one of the least corporate types in the room, he flourished and graduated adept at checking his shrewd intuition through a formal, strategic framework.

But the nightclub business called him back. A terrible job market in 2008 made a small property for sale in Belltown look pretty attractive. Charles recalls, “I told myself, ‘You can do one little bar and the Block Party and still get a job.’”

He opened a bar called Juju. But before the job search could continue came the irresistible offer to buy another languishing property just up the street. Charles negotiated down the Crocodile Café’s selling price, assembled ten investors to finance the renovation, then spent months overhauling systems, reconfiguring the space, hiring the right “taste makers” to bring back the crowds. He cleaned up the place, but not too much. “It had to be a rock club,” he says.

Now, past the one-year anniversary of its rebirth, the Croc is solvent and as popular as ever. “We’ve re-energized the brand, as they like to say in business school,” says Charles

“We’ve lost so many Seattle institutions in the past few years and acted too late to salvage them (think the Sonics). A lot of people didn’t want the Crocodile to go away. And sure, I felt the pull of nostalgia, too, a sense that this was a place worth preserving. But I also knew that its history was also the thing that would make the new business viable.”

NanoString: a big idea turns counting molecules into a thriving business

NanoString founder Amber RatcliffAmber Ratcliffe was close to graduating with her MBA in 2003 and had accepted a job offer at an established Seattle biotech firm when she submitted her plan for NanoString to the UW Business Plan Competition. To her amazement, her plan for the life sciences start-up won the grand prize, the “Best High-Tech Idea” award and $31,000 in start-up capital, leaving Ratcliffe with a big decision to make.  

“I wasn’t going to live my life wondering what might have been,” she said. So she changed course, put the entrepreneurial strategies she’d learned at Foster into practice, and co-founded NanoString Technologies in June 2003. NanoString commercialized an innovative technology invented at the Institute for Systems Biology to use DNA barcodes to detect and count molecules in biological samples. It might sound like science fiction, but the technology is now helping researchers at organizations like the National Cancer Institute gain a better understanding of how to battle cancer.

“Researchers, like entrepreneurs, want to solve the problems that no one else has been able to crack,” said Ratcliffe, who is now the company’s director of marketing.  “Foster gave me the tools to be an entrepreneur and now NanoString is giving scientists the tools to conduct studies that were previously inconceivable. It’s an exciting and rewarding combination.”

Her decision to take a chance on NanoString has been validated: the company has been shipping products internationally since 2008 and has raised over $47 million in venture capital. The next big challenge for NanoString is the competitive clinical diagnostic market. “NanoString’s combination of features are very well suited for this new market,” Ratcliffe said. “We believe this technology has the potential to make a significant contribution to the practice of medicine.”

Hear Amber’s story and check out:

MicroGREEN wins angel investment prize for its “enlightened plastic”

When Krishna Nadella was a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the University of Washington in 2002, he made that leap of faith that technology entrepreneurs are famous for—he saw that the technology he was conducting his Master’s research on was perfect for a start-up.  Employing that UW technology for microcellular expansion, Nadella and his team described the potential for a new line of plastic cups and food trays that were lighter, held heat better and reduced material costs by as much as 30 percent. The judges at the 2003 Business Plan Competition agreed, and MicroGREEN Polymers took second place honors, winning $15,000 in seed funding and the “Best Technology Idea” prize. The following year, the nascent company was awarded $250,000 in research grants and began negotiating a license with the University of Washington.

By early 2006, MicroGREEN had raised a $2.5 million venture round to establish a scale-up manufacturing facility. But, as Krishna explained to an audience of mechanical engineering students at a February 9 seminar on the UW campus, “we had the right people on the right bus, but in all the wrong places.” The result was predictable, and MicroGREEN scrambled to refocus its technology and reengineer the business model. By the end of 2006, the company hired a seasoned startup CEO, Tom Malone, who put the right people in the right places.

It’s paying off. Last October, MicroGREEN won a $60,000 ZINO Zillionaire investment prize and is in the process of closing their Series B round. The company is using the funds from this round to expand its staff and build its first pilot production facility in Arlington, WA with the capacity to transform 16 million pounds of recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate), made from discarded plastic water and soda bottles, into a broad spectrum of thermoformed products. At the top of the list are food packaging, general packaging and building materials such as insulated wall and ceiling panels.

Nadella, who is now the chief technology officer of the firm, is determined to make MicroGREEN a success. “In the Northwest, software and biotech companies get all the attention,” he said. “I want to prove that there’s good reason to shine an equally strong spotlight on materials technology companies like ours.”

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The CIE Alumni Network is for working entrepreneurs

“What I need is a group of people who are like me—in the throes of growing their start-ups,” said Tom Seery, the CEO of RealSelf and a 1999 MBA graduate. “I’ll make time for a peer group I can count on for advice, shared experiences and empathy.” And that’s how the CIE Alumni Network, whose goal is to create a cohesive community of University of Washington alumni who share a passion for entrepreneurship and innovation, was born.

Sara Weaver, the owner of Ogborn Investments and a 2001 MBA, is the president of the network (with co-founders and fellow MBA alumni Chris Howard, Ben Lower, and Elizabeth Morgan). “Most of our members were actively involved in CIE during our time at the UW, whether it was through the Business Plan Competition or the entrepreneurship classes,” she said.  “We’re fervent supporters of the program. We want to stay connected to each other and to CIE, and we believe there’s tremendous value in the collective knowledge of our members.”

In addition to staying connected with an entrepreneurial peer group, network members have access to CIE Advisory Board members and other contacts in the larger entrepreneurial community, invitations to hear UW entrepreneurship faculty talk about their latest research, intimate dinners with Seattle’s entrepreneurial icons, the opportunity to mentor student entrepreneurs and of course the ability to give back to what Weaver calls, “the entrepreneurship program that helped us get started.”

To apply for membership in the CIE Alumni Network, email Weaver at You must be a UW alumnus who has started a company, is engaged in a start-up or is working in an entrepreneurial role in a larger firm to join the network.  Dues are $50 a year.

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Athleon: the team that keeps on pitching

Brent Lamphier, member of the Athleon teamWhen Brent Lamphier and the Athleon team pitched at the Investment Round of the 2008 Business Plan Competition, there was a collective moment of surprise from the judges. In a room filled with high-energy teams, Athleon was over the top—immediately riveting and undeniably compelling. Throughout the competition, Athleon, which provides an internet platform taking professional-level sports software to the mass market of competitive amateur sports teams, was the bulldog team that wouldn’t let go.

Less than two years after the event that won them second place and a “Best Consumer Product Idea” award, Athleon is picking up speed. In a tough year, the company signed up over 500 teams across the country, bringing its total to 800 paying teams in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe. It also launched its subscription-based business model—a unique element in the amateur sports market—which allows teams to fund their site themselves or solicit team sponsors, either from their local business community or Athleon’s ecosystem of national brands.

At Athleon, every high school or amateur sports team has its own private hub that can be accessed by coaches, players, parents and others.  Workout schedule? On Athleon. Moving playbooks, game film, practice plans, event alerts, stats tracking and analysis, group text messaging and photo albums? All through Athleon.

Lamphier, the firm’s CEO, just opened the San Francisco office of Athleon to raise a $2M venture round and says that he’s seeing substantial growth in the first few months of 2010, as spring sports teams ramp up and prepare for their seasons. “In July the 2010 World Lacrosse Championships in Manchester (the Olympics of the Lacrosse world) will feature at least four teams who are using Athleon,” he said. “England, Wales, Finland and Austria are customers, and that brings us huge international credibility.”

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Jeff Becker

Jeff’s early flair for business launches start-ups

Jeff Becker (BA 2003) has come a long way since selling Laffy Taffy from his middle school locker during class breaks. In 2009, for the second year in a row, his company Kotis was on the Puget Sound Business Journal’s 100 Fastest Growing Private Companies list, jumping from 29th to 21st place.

His flair for business made him an early competitor in the consumer economy. Not only was there the taffy initiative, but Jeff and his brother bought a used hotdog machine and started selling concessions at the elementary school baseball field.

“It was in my blood, running these businesses,” he said.

Following that passion (and his dad’s footsteps), Jeff attended the business school at UW. With his eye for capitalizing on what people wanted, it wasn’t long before he recognized new business opportunities among his college peers. In his freshman year, the organizers of his fraternity’s fall dance needed someone to make T-shirts, and, as an “overly active freshman,” Jeff put his hand up. He figured his mother, who ran a tennis store that sold custom apparel for a country club, would help him. The next year a buddy’s girlfriend approached Jeff to make cool custom T-shirts for her sorority. Jeff said that T-shirt job was where the roots of Kotis first germinated.

Then he had a failure: One of his T-shirt customers was unhappy with a design and sent the T-shirts back. The customer then introduced him to Nic Thomassen, telling him “Nic is the designer you should have used.” The customer was right, and Jeff had found his first partner. Together they decided to name their fledgling company after a Greek word meaning “the act of creating.” Jeff and Nic, both fraternity members, decided they were “the Greeks who create” and adopted the name Kotis.

Most students would be happy running one company. But Jeff’s entrepreneurial acumen continued to develop. When he took John Castle’s class Creating a Company, he inspired  his team to collaborate with Stevens Pass, The Ram, and Helly Hansen to create huSKIbus. This project was the highest grossing revenue the class ever had and held the title for five years.

“You form a team, build an idea, write a business plan, and actually ask people for money,” he said. “I think it should be mandatory in the business school.”

Jeff entered both huSKIbus and Kotis in annual Business Plan Competition run by Foster’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, making it to the sweet sixteen with each company. He received great feedback from the judges on his business plans, but Jeff eventually learned he probably would never win. “My business wasn’t sexy enough.”

He didn’t let that slow him down, but after graduation he did take some time off to backpack around Europe. At one point, Jeff thought he’d move to San Francisco and become an investment banker. But he and partners Nic and James Upchurch were still making money with Kotis, and he realized his best business opportunity was right in front of him. So he and the others decided to go for it. Soon, their company had graduated from a little fraternity room, to a small office in Nic’s uncle’s basement, and then to offices in Lynnwood and Seattle and 36 employees – 25 percent of which are Foster alumni or students.

Jeff remembers the quarter he created Kotis, huSKIbus, took 20 credits, was his fraternity’s social chair, coached little league baseball, and carried a 3.9 GPA as “the craziest quarter by far” in his college career.

“My roommate and I, for ten weeks in a row, there was always someone up at four in the morning, every single day…and not partying, doing work.”