Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship celebrates first 20 Years

Zino Society CEO Cathi Hatch gives her elevator pitchHow can 17 speakers share their memories of the University of Washington Foster School of Business Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship without running too far into the next decade? Easy: make it an elevator pitch. The one-minute brief used by all good entrepreneurs made it possible for alumni and current students, faculty and leaders from the Seattle business community to reminisce. Here’s what some of them said in their 60 seconds at the podium.

“Innovation is not just for start-ups, but the life-blood for any company. If we were really doing the same thing we did when we opened in 1982 and using the same ingredients, our company would not be leading the competition or even keeping up with them. Judging the Business Plan Competition each year leaves me energized and more creative in my own business.”
Fran Bigelow, owner of Fran’s Chocolates and Foster alumna

“Expertise doesn’t reside entirely within the tech transfer office or the College of Engineering or the business school. For entrepreneurship to flourish, these organizations need to work together to weave entrepreneurship into the fabric of the university. That’s CIE’s role. CIE is at the center of it all.”
Ed Lazowska, Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering, UW

“We failed horribly twice at the BPC. The third time, we knew what we were doing and took second place. We closed some financing shortly thereafter. Things are going really well. We couldn’t have done it without CIE.”
Brian Glaister, CEO of Cadence Biomedical, UW PhD candidate in mechanical engineering

Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship founder with current director“My interactions with CIE, which include taking entrepreneurship classes through the Technology Entrepreneurship Certificate as well as coordinating events with the Science & Engineering Business Association, have transformed my career path. I’ve discovered my entrepreneurial passion.”
Jeff Chamberlain, PhD student in bioengineering and past president of UW Science & Engineering Business Association

Photos (top to bottom): 1. Cathi Hatch, CEO of ZINO Society, 2. Professor Bud Saxberg, who launched the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship in 1991, with Connie Bourassa-Shaw, CIE’s current director

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.”

From local to national design—UW students progress on hybrid car

Guest post by Trevor Crain, UW engineering student and Environmental Innovation Challenge winner

The Voltaic team is finishing up its sixth month of participation in the US Department of Energy and General Motors-sponsored EcoCAR2 competition. It’s been a wild ride!

There’s been some really excellent work done the last few months as we tackle difficult automotive engineering challenges. We’ve considered a myriad of complex plug-in hybrid vehicle architectures for our Chevy Malibu along with all the drivetrain components required for each, simulated the performance of each of those configurations and selected the ideal vehicle design for our team down to every major drivetrain component. We also began work on the system for the vehicle that monitors and controls most of the systems of the hybrid vehicle.

And while we’re doing all of this, we were building a research lab from scratch from four to more than 40 members, and traveling to Detroit five times for training from the competition sponsors. We haven’t had too much free time, but seeing our vehicle and program start taking shape makes it all worthwhile. And we get the amazing opportunity to work with real automotive companies to develop a production-level hybrid prototype, while helping train our team’s engineers to make the vehicles of the future.

This unforgettable experience of being in EcoCAR2 started when we competed in and won the Environmental Innovation Challenge (EIC) last year. The relationships we built during the EIC, both with faculty and team members helped us get where we are today. One of our faculty advisors, University of Washington Professor Per Reinhall  first alerted us to EcoCAR2. Along with UW Professor Brian Fabien, he’s continuing to help our team succeed. Rich Wurden, Kerwin Loukusa and Trevor Fayer, members  from the Voltaic EIC project team, are team leaders now and doing a great job.

Overall, we’re having an awesome time on the design process. We can’t wait to get our vehicle running!

Read the Seattle Times article on UW team’s progress in the national car-design competition. Learn how the UW Foster School of Business Environmental Innovation Challenge helps new ventures seed a greener economy.

Video: CEO Dave Roberts on PopCap Games success and luck

To be successful in business, Dave Roberts says you have to be good, smart and lucky. You don’t expect to hear luck invoked as a key factor by the CEO of a company—PopCap Games—that was just sold for up to $1.3 billion. Classic CEO talking points include lingo such as “We were in the right place at the right time.” That kind of message implies that founders were in control of external events.

But Dave Roberts clearly said the “L” word—and for gamers everywhere, luck is a very powerful force. PopCap makes the blockbuster games Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies with a mix of creativity, business savvy and luck.

Capping the 2011 University of Washington Entrepreneur Week, Roberts shared PopCap Games’ growth timeline in the rapidly evolving landscape of social media and mobile devices. Watch highlights of his lecture.

McKinstry’s David Allen offers sustainability industry insights

Guest post by Katie Collier, graduate student at UW Foster School of Business and Evans School of Public Affairs

This month, McKinstry Executive Vice President David Allen sat down with University of Washington students to deliver the message that green jobs are real and abundant, and available in surprising places.

David should know. Several short decades ago, McKinstry was founded as a small plumbing company in Bellevue, WA. By responding to an increasing demand for sustainability in building design, construction, operations and maintenance, McKinstry realized enormous growth potential. Today the firm employs over 1,800 people, earns more than $400 million in annual revenue, and continues to innovate and create value in the energy-efficiency sector.

A generation of Americans who care deeply about environment may be disappointed by recent headlines challenging the legitimacy of the “green economy.” The way Allen sees it, the green economy is alive and well, blossoming from every corner of the economy; rising costs of energy are naturally changing the way America does business, and the green economy is made up of those who tweak their business models to accommodate demand for more sustainable products and services.

Green job trends

Allen explained that some of the most important jobs in sustainability are not where we expect them to be: “Not everyone can be an environmentalist. We need people to be in business, to be in Congress and to create jobs.” At McKinstry, where many employees are engineers and construction professionals, Allen says a dozen or so “sustainability-specific” positions are added every year. This was good news for Allen’s audience, students in the University of Washington Environmental Innovation Practicum.

Data analysts and engineers were among the promising environmental career pathways Allen emphasized. Building owners responding to new municipal energy standards, or inevitably rising energy costs, need professionals to “monitor, measure, verify and act” on changes in building BTU usage.

Allen delivered a hopeful prognosis for continued growth in the energy-efficiency sector, citing the following trends:

  1. Rising need for efficiency as costs of energy and water continue to increase
  2. Clean technology innovation boom
  3. Aging infrastructure that must be replaced

Students interested in careers in sustainability can learn more about McKinstry online and explore the clean-tech industry by entering the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge.

Katie Collier is a joint master’s student at the UW Foster School of Business and Evans School of Public Affairs. She has a background in energy policy, urban land use policy and private utility development and is currently the MBA co-chair for the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge, and a student representative for Net Impact’s UW Chapter.

Video: Michael Potts on a renewable energy future

Michael Potts, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, spoke to a group of University of Washington students in all fields – business, engineering, public affairs – about solutions for a renewable energy future.

He addresses energy efficiency, building efficiency, 21st century electric cars, trucks, planes – and gives success stories such as a recent project to retrofit and “green” the Empire State Building in New York City, which resulted in both money and energy savings.

Watch this 15-minute video of highlights from Potts’ lecture.

This lecture is part of the University of Washington Environmental Innovation Challenge organized by the UW Foster School of Business.

When entrepreneurship drives community building: Uwajimaya legacy

Guest blog post by Rita Brogan, CEO of PRR

Uwajimaya’s beginnings were humble, when in 1928 Fujimatsu Moriguchi started selling fishcakes in Tacoma, Washington. Today, Uwajimaya is the largest family-owned Asian grocery and gift company in the Pacific Northwest.

In 2011, Tomoko Moriguchi Matsuno, the youngest of Fujimatsu’s seven children, leads the family enterprise as Uwajimaya’s Chief Executive Officer. “I became an entrepreneur by inheritance,” says Tomoko. “I started my career as an artist.  An entrepreneur takes risks, and I will not take risks with my family’s business or Uwajimaya’s 400+ employees. My thought process may be risky, but then I weigh the consequences. I don’t think of myself as an entrepreneur.”

Rather, like many businesses in the Asian American community, the entire Moriguchi clan is an entrepreneurial family, working together to weigh decisions about investments and growth.  They take risks together, informed by experience and a commitment to each other.

Certainly, it is an entrepreneurial family vision that has guided Uwajimaya’s growth—a vision that is as much about cultural sustainability as it is about offering the highest quality and broadest variety of Asian foods in America.  It was vision, and a willingness to take risks, that inspired Fujimatsu Moriguchi to open the family’s first store at the corner of 4th and Main after they had been released from the Tule Lake Interment Center in 1945.  And certainly it was vision and a commitment to community 55 years later that led the Moriguchi family to invest and expand its flagship operations in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District into a mixed use development that with 66,000-square feet of commercial space and 176 apartment units on top.

Today, Uwajimaya has stores in Seattle, Bellevue, Renton and Beaverton, OR.  Tomoko was responsible for opening each of these stores.  She has learned the family business from the ground up, and assumed her position as CEO three years ago, in 2008, after her brother Tomio retired from that post.  Tomio steered Uwajimaya through its years of growth. Tomoko says she follows the “servant CEO” model, over a more typical American corporate approach of “strategic planning” led by a single charismatic leader. “These days it’s much more about operations  because you need to be able to fix things fast.”  Tomoko adds, “I believe in mutual accountability. It’s a more sustainable approach.”

Uwajimaya’s newest Bellevue store, opened in March of this year under Tomoko’s leadership, is exceeding revenue expectations, largely because of the growing demand on the Eastside for unique, quality pan-Asian food.

All of this has Tomoko thinking about the future.  She says, “It’s hard to explain that Uwajimaya is about more than just selling groceries.”  Tomoko thinks about the changing and evolving character of Asian/Pacific American communities and how Uwajimaya can help educate and sustain cultural identity.  She thinks about the growing “foodie” movement. She thinks about the evolution of “creative class” communities of highly educated and culturally vibrant neighborhoods. She thinks about the next generation of Moriguchi family members and their roles in taking Uwajimaya the next step.

The vision continues.

Rita Brogan is the CEO of PRR, a public affairs and communications firm based in Seattle, one of Washington’s 50 largest minority-owned businesses. Brogan was a recent recipient of the Foster School’s Business and Economic Development Center Asian/Pacific Islander Business Leadership Award. She writes the BEDC Brogan blog series monthly. Previously, she covered green economy issues with an emphasis on ways that businesses owned by people of color or women can create a competitive advantage. Her current blog topic focus is on innovation.

Gravity at the speed of light

At 16, Dan Price’s high school rock band, the Straightforwords, broke up. At 26, he was on a stage in Washington, DC, shaking hands with President Barack Obama, who had just announced Price as the winner of the National Small Business Administration Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for his company, Gravity Payments. Unrelated events? Not exactly.

After the Straightforwords broke up, Price kept up with his record store and coffee shop friends who had ties to the music industry. This small business crowd complained about the credit-card processing fees that made it hard for the little guys to compete. Having spent some time in the industry, Price vowed to level the playing field. In 2004, 19-year-old Price and his brother Lucas started a company called Gravity Payments.

Today, Gravity Payments handles over 10,000 clients, including about 30% of all small to medium-sized companies in Seattle. Their formula is simple. In a world where big banks often tack on whopping fees to the credit card transactions of smaller customers, Gravity charges about one-half to two-thirds less, with a fee structure that is refreshingly transparent. Add world-class customer service and it’s understandable why Gravity is processing more than $4 billion annually for clients in all 50 states, with revenue just under $100 million.

John Platt, owner of St. Clouds Restaurant and Catering, a Madrona neighborhood mainstay in Seattle, notes, “I don’t need a lot from a credit card company other than access to our money, and Gravity does that well. Even though the company has grown, if I have a problem and call him, Dan always gets back to me within 24 hours.”

As a student at Seattle Pacific University, Price won second place in the 2007 UW Business Plan Competition for Gravity Payments. “We were already in business at that time,” Price said, “but entering the competition gave me the opportunity to step back and get perspective on where we were going. The event strengthened my confidence and Gravity’s visibility. Investors were knocking on our door, but ultimately we declined their offers.”

Meeting President Obama in 2010 also served as a springboard into making a political difference, one that would help small businesses and Gravity. The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was up for vote in Congress. The Durbin Amendment included a provision aimed at regulating debit card fees and increasing competition in payment processing. Major banks “threw everything they could” at repealing the effort. Price contacted Senator Patty Murray, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the senator’s office told him that his letter played a key part in passage of the amendment.

It’s hard to hold Gravity down

Competition winners and job creation

Since the UW Foster School of Business Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) launched the Business Plan Competition in early 1998, 891 student teams have gone for the gold. And 95 of those teams divvied up nearly $1.1 million in prize money. Launching companies out of a competition is relatively easy. But what was their impact on job creation on the Washington state economy?

In May 2011, CIE undertook a brief survey of 38 companies that had launched as a result of the competition and were still in business. 28 of the 38 companies responded to the survey: 15 consumer product/retail companies, 5 tech firms, 4 life-science companies and 4 in clean technology. Combined, these companies employed 640 people, with 220 of them earning more than $75,000 a year.

Among the additional findings:

  • More than $60 million in venture capital has been raised (17 companies raised $250,000+ and 12 raised $500,000+). 8 companies chose to bootstrap.
  • $92.7 million in anticipated revenues for 2011 (with 13 projecting more than $1 million).
  • 3 companies made it on the 2010 Inc 500 list of fastest-growing private companies.

Responders’ thoughts captured the intangible value of the Business Plan Competition:

“I like to tell people that I was a PhD student in mechanical engineering,” said one founder, in his comments about the event, “but I got an MBA from the UW Business Plan Competition. Because honestly, I’m not sure what else I could learn from business school that I didn’t learn from the competition. 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.”

“Believe it or not, we went through the fire of the investment round three times,” said another, “and got asked all of the tough questions. So when it was time to do it for real, we were grizzled veterans of the process. 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. CIE helps make dreams come true.”

West Coast Research Symposium inspires novel research

PACCAR Hall,Faculty researchers from 50 major universities across the United States and from as far away as Singapore and France met on September 8 and 9, 2011 at the UW Foster School of Business. They came to do what they do best: share their research and experience in technology entrepreneurship.

This year the top papers were weighted toward the emergence of new markets and the role of cognition—how markets are formed and how perceptions get framed of those markets. Other areas of research included venture investing, management teams and innovation, generating legitimacy and creating identity, tracking technology patterns, technology shocks on existing industries, and longitudinal perspectives on new technologies. Out of 50 papers submitted to the symposium, only 19 were chosen for presentation.

The West Coast Research Symposium (WCRS) is dedicated to improving research projects, stimulating novel ideas, and fostering new relationships and research collaborations. As Professor Suresh Kotha of the Foster School (and one of the original organizers of the event) noted, the atmosphere of the meeting makes it easy to share information. “Most academic conferences have as many as 10,000 attendees, but the WCRS is an intimate meeting,” he said. “We had 92 attendees this year. In that environment, people get to know each other, and their conversations revolve around what they’re researching in technology and entrepreneurship, and how they might be able to collaborate going forward.”

This year also marked a first for WCRS. Eleven of the papers presented at the symposium will go into a special issue of the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal (SEJ), slated for publication in 2012. SEJ is a sister publication of the prestigious Strategic Management Journal, and is designed to expand and develop the natural relationship that exists between strategic management and entrepreneurship’s focus on innovation and opportunity recognition.

A key element of the WCRS is a one-day doctoral student consortium designed to educate the next generation of technology entrepreneurship researchers and keep the field vital for the future. The symposium, funded with financial support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, provides an opportunity for PhD candidates who haven’t yet defended their dissertation proposal to discuss their interests with senior scholars in the field. The students use the day to explore their own emerging interests or find new ones, and meet peers who may become lifelong colleagues.

Professor Nandini Rajagopalan, a member of the WCRS organizing committee from USC’s Marshall School, remarked that the doctoral students and research faculty alike benefit from the interaction. “Our attendees note how open and constructive the meeting is. The tone is nurturing and critical at the same time—a difficult combination to pull off.”

WCRS history goes back to 2003, when faculty from three universities—University of Washington, Stanford University and University of Oregon—held the first symposium at the UW. The WCRS organizers were later joined by faculty from the University of Southern California and University of California Irvine.