Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

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.

Thinking inside the box

From Hawaiian-shirted “captains” at Trader Joe’s to milled flax seed with goji berry powder at Whole Foods, Seattle food shoppers have a jungle of choices. For some neighborhoods, however, it’s a desert out there. Stockbox Grocers to the rescue.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, about 10% of Americans live in “food deserts,” low-income neighborhoods with limited access to supermarkets. Without that access to fresh ingredients, people tend to consume more of the high-energy snacks and fast foods that dominate the urban landscape. If Carrie Ferrence and Jacqueline Gjurgevich have their way, Stockbox Grocers will give underserved communities far better food choices.

The concept is simple. The Stockbox store is “a miniature grocery tucked inside a reclaimed shipping container,” selling a variety of grocery staples and fresh foods, and dropped into a neighborhood parking lot.

The prototype store opened last autumn in the Delridge neighborhood of Seattle. The need was there, but the partners Ferrence and Gjurgevich (MBA graduates in sustainable business from Bainbridge Graduate Institute) had to put in extensive legwork and outreach to gain traction: meetings with community groups, flyers, even waves of encouragement to wary area residents who walked around the periphery of the parking lot on opening day.

“Within a few days,” Ferrence observed, “people wandered in, from 10-year-old kids to old ladies, and there was an immediate spark—they got the concept.” Community residents bought up the fare described as “good food,” and requested even more fresh food and produce.

Stockbox was a second place winner in the 2011 UW Business Plan Competition (BPC) and received another $25,000 in seed funding through the Herbert B. Jones Foundation’s milestone program. Ferrence and Gjurgevich also raised money through KickStarter, an online platform that allowed the founders to approach friends and family and others looking to invest in a worthwhile and commercially viable endeavor in a social, non-threatening way. In only 45 days, that effort brought 192 backers and an additional $20,000.

The Stockbox solution to the food desert attracted national attention from local press to environmental news site Grist to the New York Times to the White House blog. Ferrence and Gjurgevich now have a new design for the next version of their 200-400 sq ft container stores, and they plan to open two locations in Seattle in 2012.

Their fans are hungry for them to succeed.

UPDATE June 2012: They’re opening their first neighborhood grocery in South Park in August and were recognized as 2012 Echoing Green Fellows.

There’s profit in prediction

When undergraduate Mike Fridgen started his first business in 1997, a lot of parents suffered sleepless nights. Predictably. Imagine groups of unescorted university students heading off to Mexico on spring break tours arranged by a group of college fraternity brothers. Fridgen was the driving force behind iSTours, his first foray into the travel business and, happily, the company doubled its market volume in just one year.

Today Fridgen is CEO of Decide.com, a unique web site and mobile app that predicts the optimal time for electronics consumers to buy their dream products. In a world of ever-changing prices and models, that information can save serious coinage. The company claims a 77% accuracy rate in its price predictions, saving buyers an average of $54.

Decide.com resulted from the discovery that similarly to airlines, electronic manufacturers use complex proprietary algorithms to regularly update the prices of cameras, computers, televisions, etc. Behind the easy-to-navigate user interface of Decide, over 100 million terabytes of computational power are constantly mining trillions of bits of data, looking for hints of price fluctuations.

The cutting edge “future-tense” predictive computer modeling that provides the backbone of Decide.com was the brainchild of Oren Etzioni, UW professor of computer science. At the time he developed Farecast, a travel program that predicted fluctuations in airfares, Etzioni became aware of how pricing algorithms were used across a wide range of industries. Fridgen was vice president of marketing at Farecast when it was sold to Microsoft in 2008 for $115 million.

Although he is in the prediction business, Mike Fridgen is the first to admit he has a rare advantage—one he could not have appreciated as a student entrepreneur. “I’m on my third venture-backed start-up with the same investors who backed iSTours and TripHub, [his second travel start-up]. I still work with Andy Farsje, one of the same company co-founders, and Decide is my second venture with Oren.”

Greg Gottesman, managing director at Madrona Venture Group and an investor since TripHub, agrees: “The teams that have repeat successes are unique. People who work with Mike have had a great experience and go on to build the next thing together.”

And back in the Web 1.0 days of the 1990s, Fridgen told a campus publication that there was “no better time to explore business options and receive guidance than in college.” Does he still believe that? Predictably, yes.

Sack-religious advice to budding entrepreneurs

“More important than writing a business plan,” states Andy Sack, serial entrepreneur and investor, “entrepreneurs need to get out and meet the people and explore the markets they’ll be serving.” Contradictory advice for students entering a business plan competition?  Not really.

When Andy Sack made that suggestion as part of his “Start-up Checklist for Entrepreneurs” presentation to launch the Resource Nights for the 2012 UW Business Plan Competition, murmurs and nervous laughter broke out in the auditorium. No one expected to hear that. But as Sack reminded his audience, “Ideas are not opportunities.” Thinking of starting a restaurant? Go stand on the street corner that you’d like to rent and ask the people who walk by if they’d come in for dinner.

Sack knows early-stage entrepreneurship. He’s got 17 years of experience as a successful entrepreneur, and partner and co-founder of TechStars, Founder’s Co-op and Lighter Capital. The tech newsletter Geekwire called him “one of the three people to know in Seattle.”

“Andy’s the reality-check guy,” says Connie Bourassa-Shaw, director of the UW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “He’s direct, honest, and no nonsense. If you say that you’re in it for the money, he’ll tell you there are a million easier ways to make a living. And very often, your question to him will result in a question back at you: ‘What do you think?’  He wants to know what you’re thinking.”

After you’ve got your idea, Sack said, go directly to opportunity validation. Can you create value—and make money? Put it all down on one sheet of paper. His other fundamentals for first-time entrepreneurs include:

  • Resolve founder issues in the first 90 days: who does what and who earns how much?
  • Make a list of the top 10 personal reasons why you’re starting this company—followed up by the reasons why you shouldn’t do it.
  • Ask yourself how much time and money you’re willing to invest. Really. Put down the number of months, and the dollar amount.
  • Write an executive summary and share it with five people you respect. If you’re not hearing some negatives, you’re not trying hard enough. You should also be telling your story early and often and listening to what people say.
  • Establish [companynamelegal]@gmail.com and sending all legal correspondence there.

Perhaps most importantly, Sack stressed the value of the team. “More than anything else in entrepreneurship, people matter,” he repeated. “You need to be able to understand, communicate and listen to your employees, partners and investors. They don’t teach that skill set much in school, so get it down now.”

View Andy Sack’s full presentation. Want more tips for how to start a company? See the UW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Start-Up Resources.

Rich Barton on successful entrepreneur traits

When Rich Barton, creator of Expedia, Zillow, Glassdoor and many other successful web companies, spoke at the University of Washington EntrepreneurWeek 2011, attendees closely listened for his secret. What was the thing that enabled him to be wildly successful across a range of seemingly unrelated businesses? He did not disappoint, although he didn’t give up his secrets easily.

Barton referred to himself as a revolutionary who “stormed the Bastille,” a pronouncement that might—from someone else—be laughable. According to Barton, in the ancien régime of business, industries were intrinsically unfair to consumers. They guard information and profit from this secrecy. In travel, flight schedules were the closely-held province of agents. Realtors used public record information, largely inaccessible to all but the most savvy buyers. Storming the protective Bastille, releasing information and leveling the playing field for consumers is Barton’s organizing principle for success.

The next metaphor Barton employed to detail the traits of successful entrepreneurs came from the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz.” The great entrepreneur/leader needs to have all the traits that the Mighty Oz bestowed upon Dorothy’s three companions in the movie:

  • Scarecrow was granted wisdom. The factory of the entrepreneur is the brain. Great entrepreneurs are smart, have insights and appreciate assets that are locked in the heads of smart people.
  • Cowardly lion was given courage. Entrepreneurs have the courage of their convictions, a capacity to think boldly and an ability to convey that belief.
  • Tin man received a heart (passion). Leaders believe in what they’re doing. The passionate entrepreneur will win hearts and minds.

Who knew? The talk was not all metaphor. Barton also offered a bit of advice to attendees who want to join start-ups: bring social marketing tools. Most start-ups don’t have money for marketing and these skills will be valued. In the old days, marketing on a shoestring budget was called guerilla marketing, which fits perfectly with Barton’s revolutionary metaphor.

Watch another lecture from serial entrepreneur Rich Barton. UW EntrepreneurWeek is an annual week-long event put on by the UW Foster School of Business Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Why Seattle breeds young entrepreneurs

Professor Nouriel Roubini, the respected NYU economist sometimes called “Dr. Doom,” is known for his predictions of the real estate meltdown, oil shock and recent recession. So it was a ray of sunshine poking through the gloomy November morning in Seattle when a Wall Street Journal article (Nov. 12, 2011) co-authored by Roubini noted that of major world economies, the long-term future appears brightest for the US. Why? We are still the leader in the cutting-edge technologies that expand a nation’s potential, including renewable energy, medical devices and nanotechnology.

If the U.S. is to lead the way, Seattle was noted as a city that contributes its share. The November 2011 issue of Seattle Business Magazine lays out reasons why Seattle provides the perfect hothouse atmosphere to encourage the start-up ambitions of younger and younger entrepreneurs.

Seattle has a reputation for a strong venture capital/angel community and a vibrant entrepreneurial community. Recognizing the increasing numbers of high-potential students, University of Washington and Seattle University have expanded their reach toward younger students. The UW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) at the Foster School of Business recruits students directly out of high school into its Lavin Entrepreneurship Program.

At the age when most teen bands are breaking up, many students already have business experience. Connie Bourassa-Shaw, CIE  director notes, “Of the undergraduates we’ve admitted, nearly half started their first companies in high school.”

Young people who start companies have less risk and smaller opportunity costs. Lack of experience may work in the favor of young entrepreneurs. As Bourassa-Shaw says, “They don’t know what they don’t know, but they make up for it in sheer motivation and determination.”

Sunny days are ahead.  Meet some of the entrepreneurs, educators and investors who are making the future brighter in Seattle Business.

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.”