Category Archives: Alumni

Making a successful Korea change

Wander's "W" logo of a path around the world exemplifies the company vision.The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For the founders of YongoPal, a 6,000 mile step resulted in a dramatic shift for the better.

In the spring of 2010, Darien Brown and a team of software, political science and business students grabbed the $25,000 grand prize in the UW Business Plan Competition with YongoPal, a web service that connected university students in Korea with their American counterparts for on-line conversation to practice their English. On the heels of that win, the team received seed money from super angel Dave McClure’s 500 Startups and relocated to Silicon Valley to participate in its inaugural accelerator class. Then dark clouds rolled in from the West.

Disappointing reports from Korea showed that YongoPal was proving hard to use and not gaining the expected traction with students. After an intense UX workshop, one fact emerged. The program had huge potential but needed a complete redesign. So just before the make-or-break Demo Day, CEO Brown raced back to Korea and learned that the appeal of the service had nothing to do with learning English: students were actually only interested in its social value as a way to meet foreigners. With no time to create a prototype, and with money running out, the team pitched a new concept and scraped together enough seed money to build it. A better service and a new name were born.

YongoPal became Wander, a free iPhone app that pairs a user daily with a “local guide.” To jumpstart the new relationships, the app suggests daily “photo missions” to help users share their lives. For the armchair traveler, even the mundane is exotic: the street outside the house or the local food market. People can get to know somebody halfway around the world, “visit” places they’ve wanted to experience or study a language. Users find Wander to be simple and engaging, but its potential is even more exciting.

Brown says that, though Wander is something he feels they stumbled into, he believes they have an opportunity to define a new product category.  “We are giving people in digital isolation the ability to reach outside of what they know,” he says.  “China is a great example. We’re seeing users in that part of the world use our app to meet foreigners for the first time in their lives. And the fact that we let people interact through machine translation means that they can do it free of language barriers.”

Online marketing guru Dave Schappell of TeachStreet agrees. “I believe that the true power of the Internet to connect like-minded people is largely untapped. The first generation of social applications focused on connecting people who already know each other. Wander makes new connections a reality by matching individuals around the world so they can learn about one another.”

By any measure, Wander is making new friends around the world, serving users in more than 80 countries at a rate that doubles monthly and adding new meaning to the saying “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”

Go tech, young man

Chris Ruff, two-time Business Plan Competition award winner“If at first you don’t succeed…” is a mantra for many Business Plan Competition winners who learn their lessons and emerge with laurels at a later date. Chris Ruff made that commitment to win and returned a year later—with a better idea.

Themed retail was still riding high in 1999 when Ruff and his team pitched a chain of upscale barber shops. They won the “Best Retail” prize, but it was the comment of one judge that resonated with him: “Go into technology.” So in 2000 Ruff’s Aptelix team won the competition with a novel concept at that time: e-mail delivered through a mobile phone browser.

Aptelix was just a few years ahead of its time, and in 2000 Ruff joined an early-stage tech company that was gaining traction in the emerging mobile market – UIEvolution. Today Chris Ruff is president and CEO of UIEvolution, which designs platforms and apps to “help make your company a bigger part of customers connected lifestyle.” UIEvolution has more than 100 clients, including AT&T, Bing, Disney, ESPN, Samsung and Verizon Wireless.

Most recently the company is staking its position in automobile “info-tainment.” Today’s car buyers prefer on-board amenities to gas-guzzling muscle. Toyota has enthusiasts buzzing about a UIEvolution-powered, voice-activated, system platform that delivers an easy-to-use, in-car experience that includes personalized traffic, fuel prices, stocks, weather, sports results, movie tickets, restaurant reservations and Internet searches. The system keeps drivers from getting distracted while still offering a rich interactive experience.

In a career that has taken him from being one of the company’s first employees and director of business development to VP of marketing and finance to his current role as president and CEO, Ruff said, “My business degree taught me the value of critical thinking in running a business. Having lived through one tech bubble and two recessions, I would say you will succeed if you have a good vision with the money, time and energy to make it work.”

“You also need integrity, which Chris has in abundance,“ says Satoshi Nakajimi, the original founder of UIEvolution and a current board member. “Decisions affect shareholders, employees and the family of employees. When Chris makes the commitment, you know he will see it through.”

Friends + baseball tickets = an epic idea

Scott Barrows and James Kimmel, co-founders of Epic Seats.
Scott Barrows and James Kimmel, co-founders of Epic Seats.

If you’re dying to go to the sold-out Lady Gaga concert or get a seat on the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl, a Seattle start-up has your back. Epic Seats helps clients buy and sell tickets to all major concert, sporting and theater events throughout North America, and specializes in hard to find tickets, premium locations and sold out events. But what’s more epic than the seats is the company’s commitment to providing exceptional service.

While living in Chicago, Scott Barrows (BA 2000) maintained his Cubs habit by buying extra game tickets and reselling them on eBay. As luck would have it, his longtime friend and fellow CIE alum James Kimmel (MBA 2005) was doing the same thing with Mariners tickets in Seattle. The two decided to pool their assets—two $10,000 credit cards—and started Epic Seats together in 2003. Two years later they competed in the UW Business Plan Competition, making it to the Sweet 16. In a marketplace that included hundreds of other companies selling the same product, Barrows and Kimmel knew they’d need to differentiate themselves early on and focus on their core competencies: customer service and innovation.

“Our number one goal has always been to be the most customer-centric company in our industry,” says Barrows. “Many companies choose profits over clients, and we’ll always do the opposite.” Kimmel echoes that sentiment. “Any brand equity we have as an organization is directly attributable to our customer base and what they say about us to their friends and associates. For seven years we have relied on referrals and positive word of mouth as our primary form of marketing,” says Kimmel. One need only do a quick search for Epic Seats online to see their strategy is working; customer after customer raves about what great customer service they’ve received.

Case in point: about a year after going into business, Epic Seats purchased 16 ticket packages through a travel company for the BCS title game between the Texas Longhorns and USC Trojans and resold 12 of them for a nice profit, holding on to four for themselves and a couple of friends. When they arrived at the hotel, they found the travel company had oversold the packages and was cancelling them, simply telling people they’d refund their purchase price. Rather than do the same to their clients who had brought their families to Pasadena for the game, Barrows and Kimmel scrambled to find new hotel rooms and plenty of tickets so their clients could all go to the game. “We ended up losing $20,000 and had to stay in a dumpy motel and watch the game at Hooters, but we just decided that was going to be who we are,” says Barrows.

Epic Seat’s other core value is to always be innovating and with two life-long entrepreneurs at the helm, it’s easy to see where that comes from. In recent years, the company expanded to include Epic Inventory Management, providing back-end operations—everything from customer service to order processing and shipping—to small and medium-sized ticket brokerages around the country. Epic is also gearing up to launch TicketsThatGive in June, a new venture that will allow charities and foundations to raise money via a promotional code for any ticket sales generated by their constituents.

Kimmel’s advice for young entrepreneurs is to “follow your passion and if you can make a living doing what you love, it’s well worth the risk of striking out on your own.” Barrows echoes that point, adding that entrepreneurs shouldn’t be afraid to fail. “I’ve had probably 11 start-ups, and this is the first one that’s been successful. I just knew that if I kept at it, eventually I’d be successful.”

Out to launch: great start-up stories from CIE alumni

In the 14 years that CIE has produced its annual Business Plan Competition, we’ve had 2,768 students (891 teams) participate in the spring event. We’ve awarded $1.08 million in seed funding to 95 winning teams. Many of them have gone on to make us proud. Here are updates on four of them.

Gravity Payments is the largest payment processor in Washington state. Dan Price, founder and CEO of Gravity Payments, started Gravity Payments in 2004 during his freshman year at Seattle Pacific University. The company has grown by focusing on customer service, transparency and low rates. The company won Second Prize and the Best Service/Retail Idea Prize in the 2007 UW Business Plan Competition.

Dan Price, Gravity Payments CEO, with President Obama

  • Dan Price named Small Business Administration Young Entrepreneur of the Year for 2010 by President Obama
  • Increased revenue by 70% in 2010
  • Has grown from 45 to 65 employees in the first five months of 2011
  • Serves nearly 10,000 customers around the United States
  • Donated over $100,000 in 2010 to non-profits focused on alleviating global poverty, local poverty, local disease research and prevention and other local community needs

Cadence Biomedical (formerly Empowering Engineering Technologies) is developing a new class of kinetic orthotic products based on proprietary technologies that utilize long springs and a series of cams to amplify muscular strength for people with disabilities. Cadence’s products provide therapeutic rehabilitation for people who would otherwise require wheelchairs for mobility. The company won Second Prize and the Best Technology Idea Prize in the 2010 UW Business Plan Competition.

  • Helped a woman with Lou Gehrig’s Disease take her first steps on her own since 2005
  • Secured $310,000 in equity financing and $280,000 in non-dilutive grants from the US Army
  • Received regulatory approval to begin a scientific study investigating the benefits of the device and is seeking research subjects with severe mobility impairments in the greater Seattle area to test the prototype device
  • Changed the company name to better describe its mission and establish the company’s brand as it moves forward to product launch
  • Was one of six technology start-ups chosen as finalists by the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Northwest and presented the device at the Northwest Start-up DEMO event in May

Krochet Kidz is a non-profit that exists to empower people to rise above poverty. Their slogan is “Buy a Hat, Change a Life.” They won the Best Non-Profit/Socially Responsible Prize in the 2008 UW Business Plan Competition.

Children working with Krochet Kidz

  • Sells its products in Active Ride Shops, Zebra Club Stores and Nordstrom’s department stores across the United States, as well as online
  • Has grown from employing 10 women to over 100 people in Northern Uganda, enabling more than 600 people to have the food, water, clothing and education necessary to lead healthy, productive lives
  • Plans to launch a similar program in Peru in 2011
  • Featured in a Bing commercial

Emergent Detection created a patent-pending optical sensor technology that has a variety of applications within the health space. The company’s initial product, BodyKey, gives weight-loss seekers an immediate reading of how much fat they have burned from their diet and fitness efforts. Additionally, the accompanying web-based application provides useful tools that allow users to track their daily progress, helps them select foods and exercise programs that are ideal for their body and provides accurate forecasting so they know how long it will take to reach their weight loss goal. The company won a Finalist Prize in the 2010 UW Business Plan Competition.

Emergent Detection founders with prototype sensor

  • Secured $330,000 in funding, both angel investors and non-dilutive capital from grants and awards
  • Produced functional engineering prototypes of the BodyKey™ device. Over the last eight months co-founder Eric Fogel, as “Exhibit A” for the company, has lost more than 60 pounds using the device
  • Working with a product development firm to produce the next generation units, which will deploy into a field beta test with users later this summer
  • Attended the first Quantified Self Conference in Silicon Valley in May, where technology enthusiasts and early adopters gave the start-up great feedback and opportunities for partnering

Economic impact of UW Business Plan Competition

Failure rates for start-ups are notoriously high, and college-aged entrepreneurs face even higher hurdles. At the University of Washington, we’ve been running our Business Plan Competition for 14 years. While 891 teams have participated, many never launched their companies or did not survive for long. However, 37 companies do still exist. How are they doing?

In May 2011, UW Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship conducted a survey of the BPC companies still in business, asking them to answer six questions about their growth since the event. 28 of 37 responded, including companies from as recent as the 2010 competition that are only a year old. We also asked each founder for an update of their company’s story.

Of the 28 companies that responded, there were 15 consumer product/retail, 5 technology, 4 life-science and 4 clean-tech companies.

Survey Highlights of Economic Impact:

  • 640+ current employees (with 220 of those at an average salary greater than $75,000)
  • 12 companies raised more than $500,000 (over $60 million in venture capital raised)
  • $92.7 million estimated combined revenue for 2011
  • 3 companies made the Inc 500 list of fastest growing private companies in the US for 2010
  • 8 companies are boot-strapped by choice

Start-Up Founder Comments:

“We’re most excited to be living the start-up dream: building jobs, solving a pain point and taking our place in the local start-up ecosystem, all of which are crucial elements in building a thriving innovation environment and giving back to the community that helped us get our start.”

“We intend to double the number of FTE in 2011 and employ approximately 20 people in well-paying life science research and business operations jobs by 2014. None of this would have been possible without the start we received from CIE and their network of advisors.”

“We have gained a breadth of contacts that we would have been hard-pressed to meet had it not been for our experience in the Business Plan Competition. I cannot express my gratitude enough for all the support that we have received as former students.”

“None of this [success] would have been possible without CIE and the UW Business Plan Competition. Because of the competition we were able to make a lot of our mistakes before they counted and could derail our business.”

“If it weren’t for all we got from the Business Plan Competition, we would have never gotten off of the ground and I would probably be working for someone else’s start-up in Minneapolis or the Bay Area. Instead, I have people working for me here in Seattle.”

Learn more about some of the companies that have launched from the UW Business Plan Competition.

Video of Lululemon CEO Christine Day

Former Starbucks executive Christine Day became Lululemon Athletica CEO in 2008 and has turned the under-performing athletic clothing retailer into a near-billion-dollar company. Lululemon’s business is as healthy as the lifestyle the brand supports and customers who buy its yoga and exercise gear. Aside from clothing quality, Day believes in sharing profits, supporting employee life goals, partnering with communities and providing a unique store experience for guests.

At a sold-out lecture on University of Washington campus in spring 2011, Day shared insights of her Lululemon leadership philosophy and strategy with Foster School of Business alumni, faculty and students. Lululemon is bucking the recession using a steady growth model centered on customers, community and staff.

Watch video highlights of her lecture.

Christine Day was one of UW Foster School of Business Dean Jim Jiambalvo’s guest speakers at the annual Leaders to Legends Breakfast Lecture Series, which include notable leaders in an array of industries from greater Seattle and around the country.

Study Abroad: Personal Transformation

Foster alum Benjamin Wood participated in the UW Exchange program in Germany in 2007. This is his personal testimony.

Studying abroad in Germany in the spring of 2007 stands out as the most defining and life-transforming period that I have experienced during my time at the University of Washington.  From this experience I learned a lot about myself and about the people and cultures that I came in contact with. The lessons and life experiences that occurred during that time have played a pivotal role in making me into who I have become. Three specific areas that I grew in, and that I believe are of key importance for anyone who desires to achieve success in business or in any realm of life, were my interpersonal skills, my confidence and my problem-solving ability.

Regardless of one’s career goals, possessing strong interpersonal skills are essential to success in business and even happiness in life. Whether it involves communicating to co-workers or customers in the workplace or building relationships with people outside of work, being able to relate to others, understand their perspectives, and communicate one’s ideas is essential to successful interactions. Studying abroad provided me with the opportunity to meet other people from cultures that I had no previous interactions with and forced me to learn to adapt to these cultures and personalities. While in Germany I became good friends with students from all over the world, ranging from England, to Russia, to Palestine and Israel. Living in such a diverse environment changed the way I interacted with people and made me a much more effective communicator.

Probably the single greatest area of transformation in my life while studying abroad concerns how much confidence I gained from the experience. Living on my own in a foreign country, with no safety-net of people around me to help me make decisions forced me make tough choices and then live with whatever happened. Even when things did not turn out the way I would have hoped, this process taught me so much about myself and about what I truly value. Through this experience I became much more confident in myself and, consequently, much more confident in the way I interact with others and make every day decisions.

Somewhat as a result of the other two areas, my ability to problem-solve and look at issues from different angles increased dramatically. By interacting with people from all over the world I received fresh perspectives every day on how problems can be approached and solutions can be discovered. Furthermore, because I was living on my own, I had the opportunity to frequently practice the new problem solving methods that I observed. Overall, I became much more adept at facing complex problems and making confident decisions based on whatever information was available.

Going abroad has given me skills that I will carry with me and build upon for the rest of my life. Studying abroad, more than any other factor in college, has set me up for future success in business and in life. Not only that, but in addition to the great skills it gave me, studying abroad has provided me with an amazing global network of friends and future business associates who I continue to remain in contact with and visit. These relationships alone made the whole experience incredibly rewarding and worthwhile.

Wiring the future of health care

Guest post by Barbara W. Cosgriff, Foster School alumna

As the debate over health care reform continues to swirl inside and outside Washington, DC, policymakers and regulators at the federal, state and local levels have proposed myriad solutions to fix what many commentators describe as an inherently broken system. In this process, many solutions have been popularized and, unfortunately, politicized.

From this multitude of often controversial remedies, I would suggest distilling a viable solution with the potential for real reform. This idea posits a system that aligns disparate groups around a common goal: creating a wired health care system that empowers patients and payors alike to make informed decisions.

Imagine a world in which a central repository exists that enables a 360-degree view of every aspect of health care—including the data and results from the lab, from the health plan, from the pharmacy, from the hospital, and from the doctor or doctors—all organized around the patient. In this health care system, safeguards are in place that improve safety, raise the quality of care, increase access, and reduce waste—while delivering increased transparency to payors and patients.

This is—in short—a wired health care system.

But this is not some blue-sky theory, it is happening all over the country, today, through technology advances and leadership from the public and private sectors. Today’s “wired” health care system is based in large part on America’s longstanding pharmacy practice and a 1990 federal law enacted to wire pharmacies from end to end, nationwide—leveraging this system holds unleashed promise. Many companies today use this type of system to allow a pharmacist to cross-reference pharmacy data with medical data thereby providing more comprehensive treatment of chronic and complex conditions. The shift from the legacy health care system to a wired system that utilizes as its backbone the wired pharmacy coupled with tools and training, has proven to be effective in lowering costs, improving quality and increasing access.

All told, wiring health care creates a foundational opportunity to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our health care system—and minimize waste that arises from treatment and management of complex and chronic disease, to personalized medicine and beyond. In fact, studies have estimated that efficiencies stemming from wiring health care could save an estimated $680 billion annually. In an overburdened system, that represents significant cost savings.

Several health care companies are already harnessing the savings, efficiencies and quality of care associated with a wired health care system that leverages the wired pharmacy backbone. Patients and payors receive the benefits associated with a wired health care system when they are confident medication compliance monitoring is the norm, cost-saving generic medications are widely available and treatment regimens comply with national standards of quality care.

Today’s reform debate would do well —especially for the average American—to move beyond fractious and narrow partisanship and seriously consider the benefits of building upon an existing wired foundation as a model for tomorrow’s health care system. America’s payors and, most importantly, patients, deserve no less.

Barbara Cosgriff is the former senior vice president of public policy and external affairs for Medco Health Solutions, Inc. Cosgriff holds a BA in Business Administration and Accounting from the UW Foster School of Business and an MBA in International Business from George Washington University.

Red Lantern Journeys takes travelers off the beaten path

“Bhutan is the country that measures gross national happiness and while it has been a relatively closed country, tourism is possible there,” says Ambrose Bittner (MBA 2004), founder and CEO of Red Lantern Journeys. Red Lantern is a Seattle-based start-up that specializes in some of the more “off the beaten path” travel destinations in Asia such as Bhutan and Myanmar. “Myanmar is really a unique country—undeveloped and untouched—and now’s a good time to go there. But we make sure to go over the risks and political situations in these countries so our clients are well informed before they arrive.”

As he was finishing up his MBA at the University of Washington in 2004, Bittner met a friend of a friend who had started a travel company focused on Africa. He realized that his own extensive experience traveling throughout Asia was an asset he could market. “I felt this was my strong suit so I decided to just go for it,” says Bittner.

What differentiates Red Lantern from other travel companies is the high level of customer service given to each client in planning their trip. Focused primarily on private tours, Bittner and three other travel consultants work with each client to develop customized itineraries that meet their specific needs in terms of timeframe, budget, and the types of activities and sights clients wish to experience during their travels. “All of our consultants have either lived or traveled extensively in the countries they focus on,” says Bittner. “We don’t sell other companies’ travel packages. We’re destination specialists and know logistically how to get around countries in Asia, all the unique sites and activities, and we have local guides in each country. It’s a very independent way to travel but still be ‘on a tour.’”

Dedication and perseverance have served Bittner well as an entrepreneur and helped him shepherd the company through the recent economic downturn. “Being an entrepreneur means having the vision and working toward it, being dedicated and not getting too discouraged along the way when things happen,” he says. And as if running a company weren’t challenging enough, Bittner also leads an annual charity climb on Mt. Rainier to raise money for Mitrata Nepal Foundation for Children, an orphanage and school in Kathmandu, the starting point of Red Lantern’s popular Everest Base Camp trek. “We’ve raised $30,000 each of the last couple years and I’m really proud that we’re able to provide that kind of support in a community where we send travelers,” says Bittner.

Evolution Capital brings a holistic approach to start-up banking

Evolution Capital
Photo left to right: Troy Hartzell and Kirk Van Alstyne, co-founder of Evolution Capital Advisors. Photo by Judith Fernstrom of Judith Fernstrom Photography.

What’s it like being capital advisors to early-stage start-ups? “It’s one part investment banker, one part strategy consultant, one part coach, and one part shrink,” says Troy Hartzell (BA 2001), managing partner and co-founder at Evolution Capital Advisors. Hartzell and co-founder Kirk Van Alstyne (MBA 1996) run a boutique investment bank providing capital formation and strategic advisory services to entrepreneurial stage emerging-growth technology firms.

The partners have been focused on entrepreneurship since the mid-1990s, when they first met as student leaders in the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Van Alstyne had been a chemical engineer and worked on the sales side of the industry for several years before going to graduate school. “I grew up in a small town in Montana and never really thought about starting a company. But there I was, working with these CEOs who had started some great companies and I thought, I’d like to do that someday. So I went back to the UW and got an MBA to learn about entrepreneurship.”

Hartzell had always been enamored with innovation and idea creation. When he got to the UW, he found entrepreneurship to be infectious. “I was surrounded by successful entrepreneurs, 20-somethings who had high aspirations and were incredibly motivated. I was sitting in on lectures with people like Jeff Bezos taking us through the idea generation process,” says Hartzell. “It felt like the possibilities were only constrained by your personal ambition. While I was in school at UW, I started an internet company, won one of the early UW Business Plan Competitions, and went on to raise venture capital for our start-up. Was it the school of hard knocks? Yes it was. But it was absolutely inspiring.”

Several years after graduating, Hartzell and Van Alstyne ended up working at the same investment bank. It was then that the idea for Evolution Capital took root. “We said, we’re entrepreneurs at heart, we love working with entrepreneurs, and we saw an opportunity to bring investment banking capabilities to earlier stage companies in the Northwest,” said Van Alstyne. “So we struck out and started Evolution five years ago.”

Unlike traditional investment banking firms, Evolution Capital tailors their services to the unique needs of smaller early-stage companies by offering hands-on strategic advising and expertise in the clean-tech, telecom, digital media and information technology sectors. The investment firm helps start-ups position, package and present their business in a way that is going to appeal to institutional investors and strategic buyers. “We’re really helping these companies figure out how to tell their story so they can raise capital,” says Van Alstyne. Profitable since its first year of operation, Evolution has completed deals with an aggregate transaction value in the 100’s of millions of dollars with lead investors and buyers from across the United States, Europe and Asia.

What distinguishes the successful entrepreneurs from the rest? “Focus is number one,” says Hartzell. “Is the individual focused and have they separated the noise from the real market opportunity?” Van Alstyne adds, “Successful entrepreneurs also have to be good communicators. You have to breathe life into your story so other people want to invest.”