Category Archives: Alumni

Kikking it

James LeppGolf champion-turned-entrepreneur James Lepp brings style and performance to the green

Different. Believes saddles are for horses. Always scores better than it appears. Only replaces divots that are actually going to grow back. Welcomes unnecessary noise in his backswing. Is in several people’s dream foursome. Respects golf history, but embraces change. That describes the Kikkor golfer, according to the shoe company’s 2011 catalog.

Sound a little edgy? Cool? Like you—maybe? If that’s the case, James Lepp (BA 2006) welcomes you to the world of Kikkor Golf.

“I don’t know many guys who say they want to dress like their dad,” says Lepp. So, in 2008, with his career as a pro golfer lagging, he felt the entrepreneurial spark and began designing alternatives to classic golf shoes. The company started with six styles when they launched in 2010; they currently offer more than 40.

As good as they look

Lepp finds inspiration on the streets and the courts. Kikkor’s current line-up of styles range from slip-ons resembling skater shoes to a high top that begs for a shot beyond the 3-point line. Read the shoe names and descriptions and the Kikkor brand comes to life. For the Men’s New Heights – Whiteout: “No, we weren’t high when we designed this bad boy. This high top golf shoe is legit.” Or, the Women’s Tour Classe – Black Aruba: “While the shoes may be lightweight and waterproof, you’ll want to resist the temptation to dive into the ocean or nearby pool. Instead, just run to your ball and tap in for birdie.”

Make no mistake however, as cool as “Kikks” may be, they are also made to perform. A review on mygolfspy.com gave the shoes 96 points out of 100, and 20 out of 20 points for performance.

Kristen Williams, the author behind the popular blog “The Golf Chick,” writes about her Kikkors: “If I could stop looking at them I might forget I was wearing shoes at all. However, they’re also quite stabilizing. They make me feel secure when addressing the ball and give me confidence in my golf shots.”

Consider the chip shot

The fact that Kikkor shoes perform as well as they look shouldn’t come as a surprise, given Lepp’s background. Among his many golfing triumphs, Lepp was named the Royal Order of Merit as Canada’s top amateur golfer for 2003 and 2004, was the first non-American to win the Pacific Coast Amateur Championship, and made Husky history when he became UW’s first NCAA Individual Champion in 2005.

“I love the subject of James Lepp” says UW men’s golf Coach Matt Thurmond.  “James is a guy I’d always bet on because he’s committed to finding creative and innovative ways to get results.”

Take Lepp’s approach to wedge play, something Thurmond says is a point of pride in the program and that Lepp took to a new level.

“He would constantly practice his chipping,” says Thurmond (for golf novices, a chip shot is a short, usually low approach shot that lofts the ball to the green). “He’d do it the night before a round in the hallway of the hotel, chipping over and over again, or into a garbage can, or onto the seat of a chair. He even chipped on the putting green, which most golfers say is taboo, but he knew that and he would practice his chipping on the putting green doing things that no one else does—he’d chip it into the pin and bang the pin over and over to make sure his alignment was perfect. He’s incredible with a golf club.”

Passionate and prepared

Similar to many entrepreneurs, the classroom didn’t garner as much attention from Lepp as the things he was most passionate about—like the golf club.

“Looking back on it I wish I didn’t view assignments, tests, projects as something I needed to get done, like a chore,” says Lepp. Yet his business school experience did help him launch the company. “There were definitely some things I learned that helped me when I started to think about launching Kikkor.”

There is ongoing research about whether entrepreneurial success is rooted in passion or preparedness. In Lepp’s case, it may be a bit of both. Lepp is still making mad chip shots (just check out Kikkor’s Day-at-the-Office video) and Kikkor experienced a 550% growth in its first year and revenues are up 250% to-date in 2012.

Paul Smith

Paul Smith

Alumnus invents revolutionary oil spill cleanup technology for $1 million X prize

Let no one doubt the power of competition to spark innovation.

Vying for the $1 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, Paul Smith (Executive MBA 2000) was part of a team that made the first significant advancement in oil-skimming technology in decades. Just 45 days from conception to prototype, Team Elastec/American Marine produced a grooved-disk skimmer that won grand prize and quadrupled the industry standard for oil removal.

“Past X Prizes—for commercial spaceships and a 100-mpg car—seemed to me like neat photo ops,” admits Smith, who recently joined Elastec to head new product development. “But now, having seen what all the competitors bring to the game, I’m fascinated by it as a mechanism for innovation.”

New oil standard

It worked for Team Elastec. Engineers from the Illinois-based firm created a skimmer with grooved disks that spin on an axle, picking up oil to be scraped into a holding tank and leaving water behind. The real innovation is the grooves, which collect much more oil than flat disks as they pass through the water.

But to compete in the X Challenge—and to work in the real world—the skimmer needed to perform in open water under any conditions. So Smith and colleagues from the Glosten Associates, a Seattle marine engineering firm, designed the “wrapper,” a vessel that ferries the abacus-like rows of skimming disks through moving water, fooling them into feeling stationary.

In the X Challenge test, team Elastec’s skimmer proved capable of removing 4,670 gallons of oil per minute from open water, with nearly 90 percent efficiency. The old industry standard recovery rate for skimmers—unchanged from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill to the massive BP Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010—was 1,200 gallons per minute.

Career of innovation

For Smith, it was another maritime innovation in a career full of them. After earning a BSE from Michigan and an MS in ocean engineering from MIT in the 1970s, he worked for years in marine operations and salvage. Salvors are never far from oil spills, so when he sought to come ashore after Exxon Valdez, he joined Seattle-based MARCO Pollution Control in 1992. There he managed an engineering and manufacturing operation with worldwide reach.

Feeling he needed a greater grasp of the business, he enrolled in the UW Foster School of Business Executive MBA Program, where he was valedictorian of his class. “I went initially to learn accounting,” Smith says. “But I really fell in love with all of the management sciences, especially finance.”

Expertise in business and marine engineering made Smith a hot prospect. He joined Glosten as a principal in 2002, and for a decade managed its marine consulting group, specializing in “anything nobody’s done before,” he says. “It was a great opportunity to applying my background in operations and engineering to solve strange, unique, fun problems.”

Among them, he’s been working with Lockheed-Martin to generate continuous, renewable energy by harnessing the temperature differential of water at the surface and depths of the ocean, a technology first envisioned in the 1800s.

A better mousetrap

Smith also developed sophisticated financial modeling tools for Glosten’s clients that have “killed a lot of marine transportation projects,” he says. “But it has shown others to be homeruns.”

One of the biggest was a next-generation oil skimmer, built on the hope of a prestigious prize. “For us to take on a job like this on speculation was out of character,” Smith says. “Were it not for my Foster background, I’m not sure if I could have sold the business case to my partners.”

Good thing. The prize could get a lot bigger if Elastec’s skimmer can be refined for the commercial market. “We still need to convince response organizations that this really is a better mousetrap,” Smith says, “and that they owe it to the world to put the best machinery available out in the next spill.”

Lasting alumni network

Now leading new product development for environmental innovation firm Elastec/American Marine, Smith’s world is potentially scattered to the seven seas. But wherever he goes, his far-flung classmates from Foster School’s Executive MBA Program continue to be an important part of his life and career. “They are like my personal consulting group,” he says. “Whenever I have a problem that needs some added expertise or perspective, I send out a blanket e-mail to my classmates and it’s never more than two hours before I have a solution.”

Impel’s POD device helps drugs jump the blood-brain barrier

Impel NeuroPharmaIt sounds like science fiction: a device that delivers pharmaceutical drugs directly to the brain using something called “nose-to-brain” transport. But this is no sci-fi tale. The Pressurized Olfactory Delivery (POD) device, developed by John Hoekman, UW PhD in pharmaceutics and chief scientific officer of Impel NeuroPharma, has the potential to solve one of the biggest problems facing the neurological drug industry today: getting drug molecules beyond the blood-brain barrier and into the central nervous system.

While conducting research in neurological drug delivery at the UW, Hoekman saw how the nose-to-brain pathway could improve drug delivery save for one small issue: there were no devices capable of reaching the upper nasal cavity to utilize this pathway. He began working with Dr. Rodney Ho in the UW Department of Pharmaceutics to develop a commercial device that would be cost-effective, disposable and user-friendly. “We’ve developed the POD device to be an elegant mechanical solution in a space plagued by biological problems,” says Michael Hite (MBA 2009), CEO of Impel. “Rather than manipulate drug properties chemically to improve absorption by the brain, the POD device simply delivers them to a region in the body where they will naturally be readily absorbed into the brain.”

For many drugs, this ability to move drugs beyond the blood-brain barrier means lowering the dosage, reducing organ exposure and lessening side effects. It can also have significant impact for biologic-based drugs such as peptides and proteins—drugs that hold tremendous promise for treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s but that can’t make it to clinical trials due to the lack of a viable delivery mechanism.

Hoekman and Hite took Impel to the 2008 UW Business Plan Competition, where they won the $25,000 Grand Prize as well as a Best Idea Prize for Innovation. They then worked with the UW Center for Commercialization to license their technology, produce a prototype device and select candidates for proof-of-concept trials. “The BPC prize raised our profile and provided credibility with angel investors,” says Hite. “One of the lessons we learned was how to convey not only the technological break-through of the POD device, but also the advantages of our business model to angel investors. As a pharmaceutical technology provider, Impel adds value to products in the $60 billion-plus central nervous system therapeutics market without having to launch its own drug products.”

As one might expect for a life sciences start-up, the last 18 months have been make or break time. In early 2010, the company raised its first outside seed capital from some of the Northwest’s most well-known life science angel investors, including members of the Alliance of Angels, WINGS and Bay Area angel groups. With over $1.1 million in private and public funding raised, the company has been able to conduct proof-of-concept work and scale up the POD device in anticipation of human trials, including a successful demonstration of the device using neuro-oncology tracers in PET imaging studies. Impel’s device will soon see its first in-human trial for the targeted delivery of analgesics to the brain as part of a study being conducted later this year by UW SOM researchers, funded in part by a life science discovery fund commercialization grant. This analgesic program has broad treatment applications, including post-operative and cancer pain.

Hite says that Impel has thrived because he and Hoekman have quickly addressed the concerns of their critics and improved the design of their device.

What advice does he have for other first-time entrepreneurs? “Don’t just begrudgingly accept help, but go out and seek advice, assistance and opinions from successful entrepreneurs. CIE has built a great network of advisors who can provide that invaluable experience.”

The grapeful red: wine groupie follows his dream

In 2010 the gavel dropped and a bottle changed wine racks at a Hong Kong auction. The price?  $233,000, confirming that wine lovers wear different skins than the rest of us. Paul Zitarelli is one of them. His obsession has become his business.

This past October, Full Pull Wines, located in Seattle’s SODO neighborhood, celebrated its second anniversary. Prior to starting the business, Zitarelli (MBA 2009) was a passionate wine blogger. When he rhapsodized about a favorite vintage, readers demanded to know where that bottle could be bought. So he decided to sell it to them and uncorked the company.

Selling Washington wines was not an uphill battle. Already on the grape-dar of oenophiles, their growing reputation was sealed when the venerated Wine Spectator ranked a Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet the #1 pick of the year in 2009. As for Zitarelli, he could immerse himself (figuratively speaking) in wine.

“Initially, the business was a lifestyle choice,” he admitted. “The part of wine business I liked had limited opportunity for MBAs. I thought my own business would provide the freedom to write more. That lifestyle choice has instead become my whole life.”

Full Pull Wines continues to grow without any marketing budget, relying on a highly targeted email list that has grown fivefold since launch. Mail recipients receive as many as five messages weekly, describing the week’s offerings. Purchases are shipped or may be picked up at the warehouse, which is what most customers prefer.

Customer Tiffany Stevens noted, “Full Pull brings the winery to you. At the warehouse I sample hard-to-find wines from some smaller wineries, an opportunity you just don’t get in the retail store. And, of course, Paul’s there to talk about what’s new.”

Zitarelli candidly admitted to being somewhat unprepared for events as they are unfolding, having spent more start-up time weighing the cost of failure rather than the contingency of success. That’s understandable. Overriding passion as a wine lover guided the first two years of Full Pull. Now, as he faces issues of expansion and hiring, the left brain that propelled him to an MBA degree is coming into play to take him to the next level.

Video: McKinstry CEO Dean Allen on recession-proof innovation

How do you recession-proof your company? McKinstry CEO Dean Allen talks about how his firm broke down the silo approach in the construction industry and grew to be a full-service mechanical and electrical engineering, design and construction firm.

By integrating services, they operated faster, cheaper and with fewer change orders, improving customer relations and growing through strategic planning and innovation instead of reactive project by project. His now nimble company retrofits buildings and builds new ones that are energy efficient, earning McKinstry sustainability accolades from President Obama.

A few years ago, Obama visited McKinstry and called them a model for the nation, also saying, “They’re retrofitting schools and office buildings to make them energy efficient, creating jobs, saving their customers money, reducing carbon emissions and helping end our dependency on Middle Eastern oil.”

Watch video highlights from a Dean Allen lecture.

Dean Allen 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.

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