Category Archives: University of Washington

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.”

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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 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.

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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.”

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VholdR – market leader in HD wearable camcorders

Founders Marc Barros and Jason Green pose with outdoor gearWhen avid skiers Marc Barros and Jason Green were entrepreneurship undergraduates at the University of Washington, they tried to share videos of the thrills and spills of their downhill adventures with their friends. Their initial attempts were dismal.  “A frozen mountaintop is a grueling and unforgiving environment for video camcorders,” said Barros. “And when you’re zooming downhill, crashing through trees with ski poles in your hands, it’s just not smart to hold a camera.”  The two devised a simple helmet camera to make action video easy to shoot and easier to share. That was in 2003. Their newest product, the Contour HD, was named a Top 20 Holiday Product for 2009 by Time Magazine and a 2009 Top100 Gadget by Wired Magazine.

Barros and Green entered the 2003 UW Business Plan Competition with that first helmet camera and took third place, winning “just enough money to afford the rent on a chilly warehouse,” Barros said. But that seed funding gave them the foothold they needed:  the two friends began building and selling their cameras and introduced a series of innovations that enhanced the “hands-free capture and effortless online sharing of action and travel video.”

Fast forward to 2009. VholdR introduced the world’s first HD wearable camcorder and made the list of fastest growing companies in Washington. “What makes us really proud is that we’re profitable,” said Barros, “with more 300% revenue growth from 2008. We’re selling our ContourHD cameras in hundreds of outdoor sports retailers across the United States and in 45 countries.  More than 75% of our camera owners actively publish video content on the community.”  Barros says that VholdR, whose tag line is “Wear it. Shoot it. Share it,” expects to double again in 2010. Check it out:

WATCH VIDEO from USA Today: High-definition equals high sales for wearable video camera

The power of three: LaunchPad teams are fearless

“This partnership with CIE is absolutely unique,” said Jim Roberts, the business development officer for UW TechTransfer’s LaunchPad. “We create teams of three:  an entrepreneurship MBA, a UW inventor and a TechTransfer manager. The job for the team is to assess potential applications for very early-stage technologies and develop strategies for taking them to market.  The results have been invaluable.”

The teams of three work very well. It all begins with the UW tech managers identifying research faculty/inventors who have developed technologies that could well move quickly into the marketplace. The descriptions of these projects are sent over to the CIE, which in turn advertises the 2-credit ENTRE 600 internship to second-year MBAs and other graduate students who have taken the entrepreneurship core courses. There are multiple deliverables for the internships, and CIE is very clear about the personality requirement: “fearless in conducting market research, talking with potential customers, making findings/recommendations presentations.”  Students must apply to specific technologies, relating their experience and interest in that specific project.  Not every project gets a student, not every student comes away with a project.

Once the pairings are complete, the real work gets underway. “What we’re seeing is that these teams have become very skilled at communicating the details and are developing trust in each other’s knowledge and experience,” said Connie Bourassa-Shaw, CIE director. “The results have been impressive—more  commercialization licenses and start-up companies. It’s a great practical experience.” The program launched in Fall 2008 with 14 teams and ramped up to 32 teams in Fall 2009.

Center funds $35,000 in clean-tech prototype development

A HydroSense sensor“We have funding available.” Those are four words that are bound to attract student attention. For the University of Washington’s Environmental Innovation Challenge, student teams define a clean-tech problem, design and develop a solution and produce both a prototype and a business summary that outlines the market opportunity. To aid in prototype development for the April 1 Challenge, the Center offered teams $35,000 in prototype funding. All they had to do for the free money was apply by December 11.  And apply they did.

Seventeen teams, with students from engineering, environmental sciences, business, computer science, arts and sciences and forest resources, submitted proposals requesting a total of $59,961. The review team examined each proposal for the credibility/novelty of the idea and its potential for impact. After that first cut, the reviewers looked at each team’s budget and whittled down the expenses. What did the team really need, what could they do without, buy on Craig’s List or find in a UW lab with faculty support? In the end, 14 teams received emails from CIE Director Connie Bourassa-Shaw, awarding them between $450 and $5,400.

The ideas for the 2010 UW EIC include automotive adaptations to save energy, new forms of solar products, thermal heating and cooling systems, products for households wanting to conserve electricity, energy solutions from biomass and wireless alternatives for energy distribution. Students have from early January to April 1 to use the funds and must provide receipts of their expenses. By accepting the prototype funding, teams agree to compete in the Challenge. The prototype dollars were provided by the UW College of Engineering and the National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance (NCIIA).

Building the next generation of business leaders of color

MichaelVerchotThis past spring, the College Success Foundation released the results of a study that looked at how well Washington’s high school students are doing in progressing toward high school graduation and their success in making it into college. As a state, we are lagging the national average:

  • Washington has a lower-than-national high school graduation rate of 69% versus 71%
  • The four-year high school graduation rate for white students in Washington is 72%; for Latino students it’s 57% and for African American students it’s 52%
  • Washington’s college-going rate of 48% for high school graduates immediately starting college is lower than the national rate of 61.6%
  • For 18-24 year olds in Washington just 29.2% are enrolled in college compared to 33.9% nationwide

For an economy like Washington’s where the future job growth is dependent on an educated and high-skilled workforce, these numbers are troubling. And with the projected growth among students of color among the college-going age group over the next decade the gap in college attendance between Caucasian and Asian American students on the one hand and African American, Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander students on the other has the potential to have a significant impact on this state’s economic future.

Recently, the UW released a profile of our new freshman class. There was nearly a 7% growth in the number of freshman applicants but due to state funding cuts this year’s freshman class is about 4% smaller than last year. Looking at the number of under-represented minority students, this year’s freshman class has an all-time record number of Latino students (330 up from 320 last year) and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students (45 up from 42) an increase in the number of Native American students (75 up from 71) but a four-year record low in the number of African American freshman (134 down from 179 last year).

At the Foster School of Business we focus on the total number of under-represented minority students at the undergraduate level. This year we have:

  • 70 Latino students (a record high)
  • 39 African American students (a slight increase from last year)
  • 13 Native American students (a slight increase from last year)
  • 533 Asian/Pacific Islander students (a record high)

But what’s most exciting to me is the growing pipeline of under-represented minority students we are building. For decades the Foster School has worked with the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity (OMAD) and we continue to do so. But recognizing that business continues to be the most popular undergraduate major we’ve felt a special need to build programs that complement OMAD’s work and insure that the next generation of business leaders reflect the diversity of Washington State. That is why I’m very excited about the symbiotic relationship between the Foster School’s Business and Economic Development Center (BEDC) and the Undergraduate Diversity Services (UDS) office.

At the 2001, UW Minority Business of the Year Awards the BEDC raised funds to award the first scholarships (we call them BEDC Fellowships) to students of color at the business school.  In the fall of 2002, under the leadership of the UDS, these BEDC Fellows began to mentor and tutor high school students of color to help them prepare to go to college. Since 2002, individuals and companies who have attended the UW Minority Business of the Year Awards banquet have donated $170,000 in scholarships to 68 students of color at the Foster School of Business.

In 2006, UDS altered this high school program to become the Young Executives of Color (YEOC). This nine-month program has brought 247 high school students to the Foster School of Business between 2006 and 2009. Last year, there were 37 high school seniors who completed YEOC and 35 of them were offered admission to four-year colleges and universities and two were offered admission at community colleges. We’re excited that 13 of these students are enrolled at the UW and are getting in line to apply to come to the Foster School when it’s their turn to declare a major.

This year, we are witnessing a significant change in the YEOC program. Thanks to a three-year $75,000 commitment from Ernst & Young, this program will be able to support 100-125 high school students each year – a tripling of the number of students we can reach.

But now the leaders of the YEOC have come back to the BEDC with a challenge. The eight BEDC Fellows are being stretched to the limit as they work with our YEOC high school students. We need to increase the number of BEDC Fellows from 8 to 10 which means we need to raise at least $25,000 in scholarship funds at our December 10 UW Minority Business of the Year Awards banquet. In this economy that will be a steep challenge, but we’re confident that our 550 guests will be able to help us reach this goal. After all, our state’s economy depends on having an educated work force and what better way to do that than to increase the college-going rate for the state’s fastest-growing population groups.

I hope to see you all there on December 10.

By Michael Verchot, director of the UW Business and Economic Development Center

Evening MBA student and entrepreneur perspective

By guest blogger Daniel Rossi, Evening MBA Class of 2010

Daniel Rossi (UW MBA 2010) and Dustin Miller (UW PhD student), Nanocel founders
Daniel Rossi (UW MBA 2010) and Dustin Miller (UW PhD student), Nanocel founders

Over the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of immersing myself into many of the classes and programs that the UW Foster School of Business Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship offers students here at the University of Washington. I’m here to tell you what you can expect if you do the same.
First there is the entrepreneurship curriculum. It’s for UW business and technology students wondering what exactly entrepreneurs do and if they might want to be one someday. “Searchers” are exposed to the risks and rewards associated with starting their own companies. You’ll hear the good and the bad from myriad entrepreneurs that have started and sold many of their own companies. If you decide, like I did, that you dig it and want to learn more, there is an entrepreneurship certificate that will prepare you (in finance, accounting, marketing, networking, etc) to give it a shot. The teachers, speakers and subjects are excellent and give students a strong knowledge base.

Entrepreneurship competitions

There are three competitions that allow students to put what they have learned into practice: Venture Capital Investment Competition (VCIC), Environmental Innovation Challenge (EIC) and the Business Plan Competition (BPC). I’ve competed twice in the BPC and in last year’s inaugural EIC. These competitions are the perfect forum for business students and technology innovators (engineering/medical researchers) to partner up.  They’re great for academics looking to research an idea and write a business plan and for real start ups looking for their big break. The EIC focuses on “green” technologies and awards scholarship money so teams can research and actually build prototypes. The BPC is a virtual marathon of research, market validation, business plan writing and presenting. CIE brings in a virtual “who’s who” of local entrepreneurs and investors that act as judges throughout the competition. We’re talking SERIOUS networking people! And if you want, you can even apply for an internship (for credit) with UW’s Center for Commercialization office and be assigned to a technology and team that will compete. Last year, ALL of the teams that made the BPC finals had UW Center for Commercialization technologies, including mine. Any one of these competitions can be considered a capstone for your studies here at UW.

My own start-up, Nanocel

In 2009, I formed a team called Nanocel with Dustin Miller (mechanical engineering UW PhD candidate and Mad Scientist Extraordinaire). Dustin had an amazing technology and an even better idea of how to use it. I had competed in the previous BPC and knew how to write a business plan. We teamed up and got to work. Even with a brilliant technology, it took all the knowledge and experience we had accumulated in CIE classes to validate our technology and write our plan. We worked and competed very hard. We wrote our plan and presented it. Then we fixed it and changed it and kept presenting. The work was arduous but exhilarating. In the end, we were overjoyed with our results. We won the BPC and have had many opportunities to network with and present to the local business establishment, including investor groups. We’ve formed a start-up called Nanocel Inc. and are in the process of licensing our technology from UW’s Center for Commercialization. We’re really doing this thing!

All of this began with a simple introductory class offered by CIE at the UW Foster School of Business called ENTRE 509 (and with a mad scientist with an entrepreneurial bent).

To those of you—niche carvers, franchisers, industrialists, capitalists and social entrepreneurs—who wonder if you have what it takes to make a calculated leap—to strike out on your own and start something. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. It’s not even for most of us. Is it for you? That can be a very tough and expensive question to answer alone. So don’t do it alone. Let the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship help you begin to answer that question. I did.

Foster MBA reunion speakers: Howard Behar and Allan Golston

Over 350 – a record number – Foster MBA grads returned to business school in September for the annual UW Foster School MBA reunion weekend. MBA grads from six different years (1984, 1989, 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009) gathered to reconnect with classmates, tailgate at a UW Husky football game, and listen to guest speakers talk about leadership issues. Guest speakers included:

Howard Behar, past president of Starbucks and former Foster School Fritzky leadership chair, talked about why people are not corporate assets, the value of the human spirit in the workplace, and how to encourage creativity and innovation.


Click image above to play video.

Allan Golston, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation president of United States programs, shared insights about new and upcoming research on education, the minority access gap, and discussed “talent lottery” luck.

Click image above to play video.