Category Archives: Alumni

Making shabu “chic”

Kien Ha describes himself as a risk-averse entrepreneur. And given that restaurants are notoriously risky start-ups, Ha went with a concept he knows well – shabu-shabu. Shabu-shabu, or Japanese hot pot dining, is a trendsetting phenomenon that has long driven technology transplants  from California to expect its healthy, simple, and affordable food on almost every street corner. Ha’s discovery that Washington is the fourth fastest growing state for Japanese-style restaurants convinced him to launch Shabu Chic at the UW’s 2008 Business Plan Competition.

Open Friday through Sunday in Seattle’s International District, Shabu Chic boasts fans who are true devotees talking and sharing photos of the restaurant and the unique food presentation. Yelp gives Shabu Chic a 4.5, and the restaurant got 200+ Facebook “likes” when it posted the possibility of adding a Kimchi sauce in the fall. “Word of mouth has been great,” Ha says. But once a customer is in the door, he relies on wait staff training and social media to share little morsels of Japanese food history along the way.

Still working part-time as an advisory manager for a Seattle accounting firm, Ha is content taking things a bit more slowly than his tech entrepreneur peers. “Most restaurants fail in the first year because they’re under-capitalized. Having no outside funding from the outset has kept us on task and deliberate in all that we do,” he said. His hope is to break even in year two, make a profit in year three, and go full-time with a second location.

Ha sees tech start-ups and restaurant start-ups in the same light. “Whether it’s a tech or food,” he says, “you have to own everything from end to end.”  By serving Seattle’s unmet shabu-shabu need, Ha is developing a market for something people in Seattle never knew they’d love. An entrepreneur’s dream.

EMBA alumus: Kevin Conroy

Executive MBA helps Seattle entrepreneur survive—and thrive

Like many successful serial entrepreneurs, Kevin Conroy’s career has had big ups and big downs. He grew up in California, earned an undergraduate degree and went to work for a large company. But he had an itch to branch out on his own. Launched in 1990, his first venture grew quickly, but hit a wall and eventually failed.

“I didn’t have the skills to make the right changes when the economy shifted,” he explains. “We didn’t understand the headwinds of the economy and the things that were deeply impacting our business that we had no control over.”

He was determined to learn from his mistake. In 2000, he started Blue Rooster, a technology consulting firm, as a one-man operation. Realizing that the crash of his first business was related to gaps in his education, Conroy (EMBA 2004) enrolled in the University of Washington Foster School of Business Executive MBA Program in 2002 and never looked back. Courses in economics, finance and strategy filled those gaps and helped him build a solid foundation for his new business.

Blue Rooster grew steadily. But when recession hit, it threatened to undo everything Kevin had built. That’s when he reached down into the bag of business tools from Foster and connected with his alumni network for advice, shifting his strategy to respond to conditions over which he had little control.

“We changed quite a bit when the downturn happened in 2008, and our change as a company came about from the EMBA Program and all the things that I learned there,” Conroy recalls.

Blue Rooster not only survived, but thrived, tripling its business, growing to 50 employees and attracting a long list of Fortune 500 companies as clients. Now Conroy is nourishing the entrepreneurial spirit in those big companies, in his local community and at the Foster School, where he regularly serves as a judge in business plan competitions.

Today Blue Rooster is headquartered in a stylish, corrugated-steel building in Seattle’s Fremont district that also houses another of Conroy’s ventures, Five Zero Nine Wine. Blue Rooster’s open-plan office space features high windows that look south to the neighborhood’s working waterfront on Lake Union and the city’s downtown skyline.

Conroy is excited about what’s happening in Seattle and sees himself as a partner with the University of Washington and Foster School’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in promoting entrepreneurial activity.

“Small business is the engine of job growth,” he observes. “This area—the University District, Fremont, South and North Lake Union—this is really a hub for new businesses, and whatever we can do to keep that going and growing is very important.”

Emer Dooley TEDx video: entrepreneurship education – an oxymoron?

University of Washington Foster School of Business lecturer and alumna Emer Dooley (MBA 1992, PhD 2000) recently gave a TEDx lecture on entrepreneurship. Her topic? Top five skills we can learn from entrepreneurs who build successful, enduring companies.

“That great business philosopher Confucius said, two thousand years ago, ‘What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. But what I do, I learn.’ And that’s what entrepreneurship education is all about,” says Dooley.

Watch the 17-minute video and catch lecture highlights below.

Top 5 skills  of a successful entrepreneur:

  1. Do something. Try something. Many successful entrepreneurs have been fired or let go from a former employer and have to act quickly to pay bills. So they start a business without having written a formal business plan, but have a sketch on the back of a napkin.
  2. Beg, borrow or convince people to give or loan resources. Entrepreneurs must figure out how to get resources, assistance and seed funding.
  3. Embrace surprise. Juggle the unexpected and shift gears quickly by seizing opportunities.
  4. Minimize the downside of risks. Great entrepreneurs do not take huge risks. They reside in a state of “heads I win, tails I don’t lose too much” in starting a new business.
  5. Be an effectual thinker. Through entrepreneurial education, emerging entrepreneurs learn to realize they are the pilot-in-command. They are running and starting a business and by trying a business idea out, they may fail. But they will learn from mistakes and can continue moving forward.

More entrepreneurship advice, insights from Emer Dooley’s TEDx lecture:

“Entrepreneurial thinking is a way of looking at and thinking about problems, but very much about doing something about problems.

“There’s this myth about entrepreneurship. Who pops into your brain? It’s Gates or Bezos or Richard Branson. But there is no one type of person that’s an entrepreneur. When I think about the characteristics of an entrepreneur, they can be incredibly gregarious. They can be really shy. They can be these big, big picture thinkers or they can be these obsessive control freaks.

“If you’re a loud-mouth like Ted Turner, it’s natural. You’ll start CNN. If you’re a geek and you’re afraid to approach girls directly, what are you going to do? Start Facebook. If the only way to be an entrepreneur was to be born one, Colonel Sanders would never have started Kentucky Fried Chicken when he was in his 60s and on Social Security.

“There’s the strategic approach or the entrepreneurial or affectual approach. An affectual entrepreneur is someone who thinks they can affect their own world. What can I do with the resources I have at hand? Not, what is the end goal and how do I get there?”

After 11 years of teaching entrepreneurship to UW business, engineering and computer science students, Emer Dooley now serves as strategic planner, board member and faculty advisor for the UW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Alumnus is Pirq-ing up the daily deals market

Maybe James Sun was never the hiring type.

More of a job creator, the 1999 BA graduate of the University of Washington Foster School of Business has been one busy entrepreneur since being the last contestant “fired” on national television by Donald Trump in the season six finale of “The Apprentice.”

Sun’s latest venture is Pirq, a clever twist on the buzzing “daily deal” industry that was pioneered by Groupon.

James Sun (Foster BA 1999) is a serial entrepreneurPirq’s innovation is a smart phone app that identifies instant deals offered by businesses—initially restaurants—near your location or destination. Simply activate the virtual coupon and redeem on the spot for up to 50% off the total bill. Instant gratification.

Sun says it’s a win-win. Customers pay no upfront charge, endure no waiting period, swallow no pre-purchased coupons that never get used. And businesses get the opportunity to offer more targeted deals and the flexibility to avoid being crushed by oversold daily deals.

“Pirq shifts the way we discover and get deals by letting our smart phones help us find instant, relevant savings wherever we are—in a way that benefits both consumers and businesses,” said Sun.

UW alumni exclusive deals

Pirq recently raised $2 million in venture capital funding and is expanding rapidly from its home market of Seattle. Sun, the company’s CEO, has been busy making exclusive partnerships with a variety of organizations. The newest is with the University of Washington Alumni Association, announced in May 2012.

UWAA members have only to enter their member number when downloading the free Pirq app to become eligible for exclusive offers unavailable to the general public. What’s more, Pirq will donate 10 percent of the proceeds from each member transaction to support the UWAA.

“Pirq is an innovative business founded by a UW alum, and it provides our members with relevant benefits they can access through their phones while generating support for the UWAA,” said UWAA executive director Paul Rucker, in an interview with GeekWire. “Members will absolutely enjoy saving money with Pirq and… we’re thrilled to be working with Pirq.”

Life after Trump

Given his adventures since “The Apprentice” wrapped, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Sun would have been better off as a foot soldier in Trump’s gold-plated, real-estate empire.

After his televised dismissal, Sun leveraged his new-found celebrity to launch and host his own international TV show. “Sun Tzu: War on Business,” a co-production of the BBC, MediaCorp and CCTV, was broadcast in 20 nations across Asia in 2009-10. In each episode, Sun counseled motivated-but-struggling entrepreneurs on lessons from “The Art of War,” the iconic writings of the ancient Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu.

Returning to business of his own making, Sun founded GeoPage, a location-based search company that helps people find restaurants, hotels and attractions in their vicinity. GeoPage built the platform upon which Pirq now operates.

Sun also is an active angel investor and strategic advisor to a number of start-ups. He serves on the board of United Way of King County and the King County Scoutreach Program, as well as Seeyourimpact.org, an organization that solicits micro-donations to support children in the developing world.

Columns magazine recently named Sun one of the UW’s “Wondrous 100 Alumni,” and he recently judged the Foster School Business Plan Competition.

Making a difference

The Nutters, Lee and Darlene (UW BA alumni, 1967), have close ties to the Northwest and the University of Washington. Both graduated from the UW School of Business (now Foster) in 1967, and there are now three more Huskies in their immediate family. Lee also serves as a member of the Foster School Advisory Board.

“We wanted to give something back to this school and the people of this state that afforded us an education and, in doing so, led to the many opportunities we‘ve enjoyed,” Lee explained.

Born in Astoria, Oregon, Lee grew up in small towns in Western Oregon and Washington, where his father worked in the lumber business. He finished the eighth grade in a class of eight in a two-room schoolhouse and graduated from Clallam Bay High School with a class of sixteen. “It was a big change going from those small communities to the University of Washington and Seattle,” Lee said with a smile. He studied accounting and operations at the business school.  Darlene graduated with a degree in marketing.

Two days after graduation, Lee began his forty-year career as an analyst with Rayonier, a global supplier of high performance cellulose fiber and wood products. He retired in 2007, as Chairman, President and CEO. Darlene grew up in Cathlamet, WA, and initially attended WSU to study business, but finished at the University of Washington. Lee said, “She saw the light.”

Although Lee and Darlene married while in Seattle, his career eventually took them and their two children, to the East Coast and ultimately Florida. However, the Northwest and UW still hold a very special place in their hearts and lives and they often return to visit family and friends. The Nutters are also passionate about Husky athletics, managing to attend a few UW basketball and most football games.

Their giving relationship with the University of Washington started modestly and grew over decades. “I found our first check to the UW for $25!” Darlene laughed. More recently, Lee and Darlene have provided significant support to the Foster School of Business for undergraduate scholarships, MBA scholarships and a named team room in PACCAR Hall.

“We paid far less than the cost of our education and its value. The citizens of the state of Washington paid the balance…” Lee continued. “We feel obliged and honored to give back.” He and Darlene hope to inspire other Foster alumni to support scholarships that help future students achieve something that they could not have done otherwise.

“We hear from students who have received scholarships about what it meant to them, what they’re accomplishing and what they hope to achieve,” Darlene described. “It’s very satisfying to know that you have been able to make a difference.”

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.