Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Nanocel takes a novel approach to cooling electronics

Dustin Miller and Daniel Rossi show off their productThere are big problems and then there are BIG problems. Cooling electronics, for example. How do you keep large server farms from overheating and how can you extend the battery life of laptops and other portable electronics? “We are currently using over three percent of the nation’s energy on cooling the Internet,” says Dustin Miller, PhD candidate in mechanical engineering and the co-founder, with UW MBA Daniel Rossi, of Nanocel.  The company, which won the $25,000 grand prize at the UW’s Business Plan Competition in May 2009, is introducing affordable fluid-based cooling systems for computer chips.  “Industry calculations say that fluid-based cooling could cut energy use in half,” explained Miller. “That’s a staggering amount.”

Nanocel’s technology uses a combination of microfluidics and novel, moldable plastic materials to cool devices more cheaply than other liquid-based systems and more efficiently than cooling fans. The products use thousands to millions of very thin (between one and 100 micrometers wide) vessels to circulate tiny amounts of liquid in close contact with the computer chips or other device components prone to overheating.  The original process was developed at the University of Washington for food packaging.  “So, for the cost of a coffee cup, you can have a heat sink that used to be made out of copper,” Rossi added.

Rossi’s market research demonstrated that Nanocel wouldn’t have to look far for potential customers and partners. Computer chip manufacturers and designers are obvious candidates, but Nanocel is also talking with companies that make gaming consoles, servers and hardware. “There are tons of shelf-ready products that can’t go to market because they’re too hot,” Rossi says. Fans aren’t powerful enough to cool them down, and liquid technologies are too pricey.

Since the competition, the Nanocel founders have incorporated the company and are gearing up for their first angel funding round in early 2010.

(We’d like to thank Rachel Tompa, Xconomy Seattle, who wrote a longer version of this article. The full story is here.)

InTheWorks goes in for CARB testing

Third-party validation is a critical test of a new technology, and InTheWorks, which developed a catalytic converter for gasoline marine engines (a technology that could set the standard in marine emissions reduction), has survived that particular ordeal. Since winning an honorable mention award at the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge in 2009, InTheWorks (ITW) has gone through third-party verification, completed a round of private funding, and is now embarking on the all-important CARB (California Air Resources Board) certification process for its patent-pending AquaCat catalytic converter.

Todd Hanson, a UW biochemistry graduate and the chief technologist of the company, developed the technology that was on display at the Challenge last year. The AquaCat was designed to increase fuel efficiency and eliminate most of the harmful emissions of high-performance engines, which are dirtier and more difficult to address than smaller engines. He calls the CARB test “more rigorous than the federal government’s EPA standards.” Passing this test, he says, will give ITW access to new development and market opportunities.

Hanson’s role in CARB has meant that he’s spent more time in California in the last year than in Washington. According to Hanson’s team mate, Jamie Forsyth (Bainbridge Graduate Institute MBA 2009), who is now the company’s business development director, in the works at ITW is an initial proposal for the US Coast Guard for a diesel adaptation of the technology, a memorandum of understanding with a regional transit authority for a passenger ferry project, and new interest by a leader in automotive induction systems technologies. “We think that 2010 will be the year that InTheWorks makes its mark,” she says, “and the marine industry is just the start of something big.” Check it out at www.intheworks.com

Ecowell delivers on its refreshment kiosk promise

“For the Environmental Innovation Challenge in 2009, we had an old computer server rack we’d dummied up to look like a vending kiosk that served water. Our mission was to eliminate a portion of the 500 million plastic bottles and cans that are discarded every day,” said Reid Schilperoort, a 2010 WSU graduate in finance and entrepreneurship. “Of course that first kiosk didn’t work, but it got the message across!”

EcowellToday, the kiosks work. Ecowell, which incorporated in May 2009, provides waste-free, healthy and personalized refreshment to on-the-go customers through its revolutionary vending kiosks. Customers can fill their reusable containers with purified hot, cold, or carbonated water and personalize their beverage with 100 percent natural juices, teas, and nutritional supplements.

After a successful first round of financing, ecowell has manufactured eight new beverage-dispensing kiosks. With installations at three eastern Washington high schools and at Avista Utilities in Spokane, the company’s test marketing is going better than expected. The ecowell  team includes the original UW Environmental Innovation Challenge competitors, as well as four new employees and a board of directors. And they’re well on their way to answering their original question: Can on-the-go purified water and other beverages be offered without polluting our environment and or risking our wellbeing?

2009 grand-prize winner HydroSense is acquired by Belkin International

hydrosense“HydroSense won the grand prize at the inaugural Environmental Innovation Challenge in April 2009 with a water-usage monitoring technology that screws onto a single valve in a home and can detect water use down to each specific toilet, shower, and faucet,” says Jon Froehlich, a PhD student in computer science. “This type of highly granular monitoring data can fundamentally shift how households, utilities, and policy makers think about and understand water consumption.”

After winning the UW EIC, Froehlich and his student team of engineers and computer scientists entered the UW Business Plan Competition, adding MBAs from the Foster School of Business to the team to help refine the HydoSense business model and investment pitch. One of 90 teams at the outset of the event, they made it to the Final Round of the competition, winning a $5,000 prize and the $2,500 Best Clean-Tech Idea award.

“Our success generated a lot of visibility, and we received queries from a number of potential investors and acquirers,” Froehlich said. “The HydroSense research team is led by UW Professor Shwetak Patel, and I’m one of two graduate students on the project. Within about six months, the UW TechTransfer office negotiated a licensing deal, and the HydroSense technology was acquired as part of a larger energy portfolio by Belkin International earlier this year. We went from being a research idea to being bought by a major international company that has the resources to commercialize HydroSense on a massive scale. Now that’s impact!”

For Belkin International’s acquisition of HydroSense/Zensi, see news release.

Winners of UW Environmental Innovation Challenge

“It’s like a science fair on steroids.” That comment by judge and venture capitalist Loretta Little (of WRF Capital) captured the essence of the University of Washington Environmental Innovation Challenge. 19 student teams from 7 Washington state universities and colleges met in Seattle on April 1 to pitch clean-tech, energy-saving business ideas and prototypes to more than 100 judges, venture capitalists, angel investors, professors and business leaders. Watch video highlights.

EIC_EnvitrumGrand prize = $10,000

A team of University of Washington engineers with a business called EnVitrum won the $10,000 grand prize for their innovative glass recycling and green building technology that converts glass into bricks that are stronger and cheaper than masonry and have a dual purpose of cultivating plants.

Second place + honorable mentions = $12,500

Second place with $5,000 went to Triangle Energy (a University of Washington team consisting of two Foster MBA students, one UW doctoral student in mechanical engineering, one UW doctoral student in biochemistry and one UW chemical engineering undergraduate) who created a mobile bioreactor that converts solid biomass into synthesis gas for energy use. Three honorable mention awards of $2,500 each went to interdisciplinary teams of engineering and business students: NanoWAVE (North Seattle Community College) created an energy-efficient, cost-effective LED lighting alternative for growing plants in nurseries, greenhouses and indoor gardens; iDriveSmart (University of Washington) created software that helps predict and encourage fuel-efficient driving; and Idyll Energy Solutions (Seattle Pacific University) created a solution to the idle, wasted energy of household electronics.

The 2nd annual UW Environmental Innovation Challenge was a collaborative venture between the UW Foster School of Business Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, UW College of Engineering and UW College of the Environment. Learn more or get involved in next year’s Challenge.

NanoString: a big idea turns counting molecules into a thriving business

NanoString founder Amber RatcliffAmber Ratcliffe was close to graduating with her MBA in 2003 and had accepted a job offer at an established Seattle biotech firm when she submitted her plan for NanoString to the UW Business Plan Competition. To her amazement, her plan for the life sciences start-up won the grand prize, the “Best High-Tech Idea” award and $31,000 in start-up capital, leaving Ratcliffe with a big decision to make.  

“I wasn’t going to live my life wondering what might have been,” she said. So she changed course, put the entrepreneurial strategies she’d learned at Foster into practice, and co-founded NanoString Technologies in June 2003. NanoString commercialized an innovative technology invented at the Institute for Systems Biology to use DNA barcodes to detect and count molecules in biological samples. It might sound like science fiction, but the technology is now helping researchers at organizations like the National Cancer Institute gain a better understanding of how to battle cancer.

“Researchers, like entrepreneurs, want to solve the problems that no one else has been able to crack,” said Ratcliffe, who is now the company’s director of marketing.  “Foster gave me the tools to be an entrepreneur and now NanoString is giving scientists the tools to conduct studies that were previously inconceivable. It’s an exciting and rewarding combination.”

Her decision to take a chance on NanoString has been validated: the company has been shipping products internationally since 2008 and has raised over $47 million in venture capital. The next big challenge for NanoString is the competitive clinical diagnostic market. “NanoString’s combination of features are very well suited for this new market,” Ratcliffe said. “We believe this technology has the potential to make a significant contribution to the practice of medicine.”

Hear Amber’s story and check out: www.nanostring.com

MicroGREEN wins angel investment prize for its “enlightened plastic”

When Krishna Nadella was a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the University of Washington in 2002, he made that leap of faith that technology entrepreneurs are famous for—he saw that the technology he was conducting his Master’s research on was perfect for a start-up.  Employing that UW technology for microcellular expansion, Nadella and his team described the potential for a new line of plastic cups and food trays that were lighter, held heat better and reduced material costs by as much as 30 percent. The judges at the 2003 Business Plan Competition agreed, and MicroGREEN Polymers took second place honors, winning $15,000 in seed funding and the “Best Technology Idea” prize. The following year, the nascent company was awarded $250,000 in research grants and began negotiating a license with the University of Washington.

By early 2006, MicroGREEN had raised a $2.5 million venture round to establish a scale-up manufacturing facility. But, as Krishna explained to an audience of mechanical engineering students at a February 9 seminar on the UW campus, “we had the right people on the right bus, but in all the wrong places.” The result was predictable, and MicroGREEN scrambled to refocus its technology and reengineer the business model. By the end of 2006, the company hired a seasoned startup CEO, Tom Malone, who put the right people in the right places.

It’s paying off. Last October, MicroGREEN won a $60,000 ZINO Zillionaire investment prize and is in the process of closing their Series B round. The company is using the funds from this round to expand its staff and build its first pilot production facility in Arlington, WA with the capacity to transform 16 million pounds of recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate), made from discarded plastic water and soda bottles, into a broad spectrum of thermoformed products. At the top of the list are food packaging, general packaging and building materials such as insulated wall and ceiling panels.

Nadella, who is now the chief technology officer of the firm, is determined to make MicroGREEN a success. “In the Northwest, software and biotech companies get all the attention,” he said. “I want to prove that there’s good reason to shine an equally strong spotlight on materials technology companies like ours.”

Check it outhttp://www.microgreeninc.com/

Mentors do matter

Students at Lavin Entrepreneurial Action ProgramTake just a minute and ask yourself: Who’s the person who has played the most influential role in your career?  Chances are it was someone who listened to your ideas and gave you feedback—but left the real decision up to you. Or someone who encouraged you just at that point when you were about to give up on your plan. Or someone who made a few key introductions that opened a huge door for your start-up.  A mentor. And mentors REALLY matter when you’re a young entrepreneur.

The Center’s Lavin Entrepreneurial Action Program, named for Alberto Culver’s Leonard Lavin, admits freshmen to an “honors program” in entrepreneurship. No, it’s not based on the students’ GPA or SAT scores, but rather on their level of entrepreneurial drive. Many of these students started their first companies in high school, and most them are already thinking about their next start-up.

Part of the Lavin Program’s promise is matching the students with entrepreneurial mentors, and CIE’s 28-person Advisory Board volunteered to be the “first line of mentors.” At the Center’s winter board meeting, director Connie Bourassa-Shaw moderated a discussion on mentoring, which elicited comments and stories from both board members and students. The group then began “mentor speed-dating,” with 10-minute intervals for striking up new conversations.  “I’d expected the students to be a little reticent, a little shy,” said Lisa Hjorten, the founder of Informia, “but there was none of that. The Lavin students had business cards ready to hand out. And had come to the meeting knowing which of us they wanted to meet. I never could have done that as a sophomore!”

There are now 20 mentor-student pairings going forward, with more on the way. Read more about the Lavin Program.

The CIE Alumni Network is for working entrepreneurs

“What I need is a group of people who are like me—in the throes of growing their start-ups,” said Tom Seery, the CEO of RealSelf and a 1999 MBA graduate. “I’ll make time for a peer group I can count on for advice, shared experiences and empathy.” And that’s how the CIE Alumni Network, whose goal is to create a cohesive community of University of Washington alumni who share a passion for entrepreneurship and innovation, was born.

Sara Weaver, the owner of Ogborn Investments and a 2001 MBA, is the president of the network (with co-founders and fellow MBA alumni Chris Howard, Ben Lower, and Elizabeth Morgan). “Most of our members were actively involved in CIE during our time at the UW, whether it was through the Business Plan Competition or the entrepreneurship classes,” she said.  “We’re fervent supporters of the program. We want to stay connected to each other and to CIE, and we believe there’s tremendous value in the collective knowledge of our members.”

In addition to staying connected with an entrepreneurial peer group, network members have access to CIE Advisory Board members and other contacts in the larger entrepreneurial community, invitations to hear UW entrepreneurship faculty talk about their latest research, intimate dinners with Seattle’s entrepreneurial icons, the opportunity to mentor student entrepreneurs and of course the ability to give back to what Weaver calls, “the entrepreneurship program that helped us get started.”

To apply for membership in the CIE Alumni Network, email Weaver at saraweaver201@yahoo.com. You must be a UW alumnus who has started a company, is engaged in a start-up or is working in an entrepreneurial role in a larger firm to join the network.  Dues are $50 a year.

More information

Athleon: the team that keeps on pitching

Brent Lamphier, member of the Athleon teamWhen Brent Lamphier and the Athleon team pitched at the Investment Round of the 2008 Business Plan Competition, there was a collective moment of surprise from the judges. In a room filled with high-energy teams, Athleon was over the top—immediately riveting and undeniably compelling. Throughout the competition, Athleon, which provides an internet platform taking professional-level sports software to the mass market of competitive amateur sports teams, was the bulldog team that wouldn’t let go.

Less than two years after the event that won them second place and a “Best Consumer Product Idea” award, Athleon is picking up speed. In a tough year, the company signed up over 500 teams across the country, bringing its total to 800 paying teams in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe. It also launched its subscription-based business model—a unique element in the amateur sports market—which allows teams to fund their site themselves or solicit team sponsors, either from their local business community or Athleon’s ecosystem of national brands.

At Athleon, every high school or amateur sports team has its own private hub that can be accessed by coaches, players, parents and others.  Workout schedule? On Athleon. Moving playbooks, game film, practice plans, event alerts, stats tracking and analysis, group text messaging and photo albums? All through Athleon.

Lamphier, the firm’s CEO, just opened the San Francisco office of Athleon to raise a $2M venture round and says that he’s seeing substantial growth in the first few months of 2010, as spring sports teams ramp up and prepare for their seasons. “In July the 2010 World Lacrosse Championships in Manchester (the Olympics of the Lacrosse world) will feature at least four teams who are using Athleon,” he said. “England, Wales, Finland and Austria are customers, and that brings us huge international credibility.”

Check it outwww.athleon.com