Tag Archives: start-ups

$60,000 for winners of 2011 UW Business Plan Competition

Budding entrepreneurs from universities across the Pacific Northwest created start-ups in clean technology, medical technology, retail, agriculture, software and other areas at the 2011 University of Washington Business Plan Competition. Business, engineering, medical, law and public policy student teams competed in the finals this week, vying for a combined $60,000 in prize money.

PotaVida team wins grand prize of $25,000 at 2011 UW Business Plan CompetitionPotaVida won Grand Prize worth $25,000 and another $2,500 for Best Innovative Idea for their low-cost, reusable solution to purifying water using solar disinfection. Their device received a design award from the Rockefeller Foundation prior to the UW competition. The UW team includes Charlie Matlack (PhD student in electrical engineering), Tyler Davis (PhD student in public policy), Damon Gjording (Executive MBA student) and Jacqueline Linnes, PhD.

What is the benefit of PotaVida’s product? “We will lower the cost to non-profits of providing safe water to people after disasters and in ongoing need scenarios. At a personal level, our product provides the visual feedback and guidance that people need to use a disinfection process which is otherwise invisible and impossible to know when done correctly,” said Charlie Matlack.

Matlack and the PotaVida team improved their business through the competition. “What meant much more than the money was all the doors it opened for us to incredibly helpful individuals in the Seattle start-up community,” said Matlack. “The more we took advice from those the Business Plan Competition connected us to, the better our business plan got, and the more we knew where to direct our efforts to improve it further.”

Stockbox Grocers wins 2nd place prize of $10,000 at 2011 UW Business Plan CompetitionStockbox Grocers, with a team from Bainbridge Graduate Institute, won Second Prize worth $10,000 and another $2,500 for Best Service/Retail Idea for their affordable fresh produce business targeting urban food deserts. Stockbox offers a mini grocer service tucked in a reclaimed shipping container. Team members include MBA students Michael Brooks, Carrie Ferrence, Jacqueline Gjurgevich and Eliza Michiels.

Two Finalist Prize winners won $5,000 each. LodeSpin Labs, a UW team of engineering, material science and MBA students, have a non-toxic tracer that works with cutting-edge Magnetic Particle Imaging, a new technology aimed at replacing CT and MRI for imaging patients with heart disease and cancer. The other Finalist Prize winner is Solanux, a WSU and University of Idaho team, that manufactures potato-based food ingredients that help lower a person’s glycemic index response and improve insulin levels. Their resistant starch product can replace existing starch in processed foods such as fries.

Rob Salkowitz, consultant and author of book Young World Rising, served as a judge in the competition saying, “I write about entrepreneurs from all over the world. I was amazed and encouraged to see the amount of innovation right here in my own backyard.”

More teams won $2,500 awards for innovations in various industries.

  • Aqueduct Neurosciences (UW team) won Best Technology Idea for their innovative medical device to improve treatment of hydrocephalus.
  • Static Flow Analytics (UW team) won Best Clean-Tech Idea.
  • Tripbox (UW team of Technology Management MBA students) won Best Consumer Product Idea for their travel planning software that optimizes cost, timing and routes of vacation activities.
  • Urban Canopy (UW team) won Best Sustainable Advantage for software that guides consumers through phases of green building initiatives such as LEED certification.

The UW Business Plan Competition is produced by the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Foster School of Business. Numerous venture capital, angel and entrepreneurial community firms, consultants and individuals sponsor the event and serve as judges, mentors and coaches for teams.

Evolution Capital brings a holistic approach to start-up banking

Evolution Capital
Photo left to right: Troy Hartzell and Kirk Van Alstyne, co-founder of Evolution Capital Advisors. Photo by Judith Fernstrom of Judith Fernstrom Photography.

What’s it like being capital advisors to early-stage start-ups? “It’s one part investment banker, one part strategy consultant, one part coach, and one part shrink,” says Troy Hartzell (BA 2001), managing partner and co-founder at Evolution Capital Advisors. Hartzell and co-founder Kirk Van Alstyne (MBA 1996) run a boutique investment bank providing capital formation and strategic advisory services to entrepreneurial stage emerging-growth technology firms.

The partners have been focused on entrepreneurship since the mid-1990s, when they first met as student leaders in the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Van Alstyne had been a chemical engineer and worked on the sales side of the industry for several years before going to graduate school. “I grew up in a small town in Montana and never really thought about starting a company. But there I was, working with these CEOs who had started some great companies and I thought, I’d like to do that someday. So I went back to the UW and got an MBA to learn about entrepreneurship.”

Hartzell had always been enamored with innovation and idea creation. When he got to the UW, he found entrepreneurship to be infectious. “I was surrounded by successful entrepreneurs, 20-somethings who had high aspirations and were incredibly motivated. I was sitting in on lectures with people like Jeff Bezos taking us through the idea generation process,” says Hartzell. “It felt like the possibilities were only constrained by your personal ambition. While I was in school at UW, I started an internet company, won one of the early UW Business Plan Competitions, and went on to raise venture capital for our start-up. Was it the school of hard knocks? Yes it was. But it was absolutely inspiring.”

Several years after graduating, Hartzell and Van Alstyne ended up working at the same investment bank. It was then that the idea for Evolution Capital took root. “We said, we’re entrepreneurs at heart, we love working with entrepreneurs, and we saw an opportunity to bring investment banking capabilities to earlier stage companies in the Northwest,” said Van Alstyne. “So we struck out and started Evolution five years ago.”

Unlike traditional investment banking firms, Evolution Capital tailors their services to the unique needs of smaller early-stage companies by offering hands-on strategic advising and expertise in the clean-tech, telecom, digital media and information technology sectors. The investment firm helps start-ups position, package and present their business in a way that is going to appeal to institutional investors and strategic buyers. “We’re really helping these companies figure out how to tell their story so they can raise capital,” says Van Alstyne. Profitable since its first year of operation, Evolution has completed deals with an aggregate transaction value in the 100’s of millions of dollars with lead investors and buyers from across the United States, Europe and Asia.

What distinguishes the successful entrepreneurs from the rest? “Focus is number one,” says Hartzell. “Is the individual focused and have they separated the noise from the real market opportunity?” Van Alstyne adds, “Successful entrepreneurs also have to be good communicators. You have to breathe life into your story so other people want to invest.”

13 cultural characteristics of great companies

Greg Gottesman, managing director at Madrona Venture Group, spoke to UW Foster School of Business alumni and students about his tips for finding (or leading) a great company or organization.

He blogged about 13 characteristics of a great start-up culture on TechFlash recently and expanded those concepts in a lecture with anecdotes and examples, recommending people consider corporate or start-up culture before taking a job or launching a new venture.

Here are his 13 cultural characteristics of great culture:

  1. No politics – Give credit where credit is due. Be genuine about it.
  2. It’s not a job, it’s a mission – People can work for competitors or jump ship anytime, but companies that foster a culture of a strong mission do best to attract and retain great employees.
  3. Intolerance for mediocrity – Everyone pulls their weight well at all levels; there is excellence in each role and companies repel or naturally weed out those who aren’t comfortable succeeding or excelling.
  4. Watching pennies – Leaders and senior managers treat company assets as carefully and thoughtfully as they would their own personal assets; waste is not tolerated.
  5. Equity driven – Stock options or other non-cash value helps grow businesses for the long term.
  6. Alignment – Everyone is on the same page. Strategy is clear. Like a well-tuned sports team, people all work toward the same goal vs. individual heroism.
  7. Good communication – Even in bad times, communication remains strong; over-communication is even more critical in times of difficulty (i.e., an executive leaves, a key client departs, company is hacked)
  8. Strong leadership – Lead by example and maintain a positive attitude. Leaders boost their own morale and those around them as they set the tone for the whole company.
  9. Mutual respect – Hierarchy may exist, but everyone is respected for their contributions. “Wins” are celebrated together, regardless of title or department.
  10. Customer obsessed – The customer is always the most important asset. Gottesman emphasized this may be the most important characteristic of an organization.
  11. Energy – Good energy permeates across the company and is almost tangible.
  12. Fun – Never underestimate the power of a good start-up that knows how to have fun. Particularly when first in start-up mode, he’s often seen companies that thrive on early-stage activity where employees work hard and play hard.
  13. Integrity – Great companies have an internal sense of doing things the right way. They spend the extra effort to create value that will outlast their own job or time at the company (i.e., documenting code).

Watch video excerpts from Greg Gottesman’s talk on culture.

This lecture is part of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship‘s alumni network events.

Reaching the milestones of start-up success

When it comes to student start-ups, more seed capital is better than less, motivation is an imperative, but a team of trusted and experienced advisors might be the greatest asset of all. So in an effort to provide more attention and resources for the most promising start-up teams after the UW Business Plan Competition, the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship worked with the Herbert B. Jones Foundation to launch the Milestone Achievement Awards.  “We wanted to accelerate some of these start-ups,” says Michael Bauer, president of the Jones Foundation, a long-time supporter of the competition. “So we came up with this idea of a real financial incentive for the teams to set and reach key developmental milestones.”

Serious about starting their companies, five of the winning teams from the 2010 competition have spent the last six months participating in the Jones program. The start-ups worked with CIE staff and a special advisory committee made up of CIE board members and past winners of the Business Plan Competition to draw up a short list of “realistic but measureable” milestones they could reach within that timeframe.  “We’re proud to say four of the five start-ups reached their milestones and will receive awards,” said Connie Bourassa-Shaw, director of CIE. “But what’s really stunning about each of these teams is that they all raised angel or grant funding and have made great progress on their prototypes or pilot projects.”

Led by CEO Brian Glaister, EETech is developing a medical device that enables people in wheelchairs to walk again and received a $25,000 award. Another $25,000 went to YongoPal, a service created by Darien Brown, for South Korean university students who want to hone their conversational English with American peers at top US universities. WISErg, with team members Brandon Baker and Jaimee Jewell, developed a solution that uses compostable organic waste to create natural fertilizers and biogas, and received $15,000. Emergent Detection, led by Eric Fogel and Keegan Hall, also received $10,000 in additional seed funding for their handheld device that measures and records fat loss.

“The committee helped us identify what the most important milestones would be for our first six months, in order of priority and contingency,” said WISErg’s Jaimee Jewell. “That helped us keep each of our revenue streams fresh in our minds, but also prioritize what needed to happen to bring them all together.”

“For me, the mentorship was the best part of the program,” said Brian Glaister of EETech. “As a first-time entrepreneur and a first-time CEO, it was really helpful to have an outside view of the company, particularly to put the advice of our internal team and directors into the proper perspective. Even though the program is finished, I expect the relationships with our mentors will continue, which I’m very happy about.”

Members of the Jones committee included Marc Barros of Contour, Bill Bromfield of Fenwick & West, Alan Dishlip of Billing Revolution, Geoff Entress of Voyager Capital, Alan Portugal of Ivus Energy Innovations, Adrian Smith of Ignition, and Michael Bauer, of the Jones Foundation. And the committee had their share of accolades for the teams, noting that it was gratifying to help fellow entrepreneurs start off on the right foot and avoid some of the common pitfalls and “newbie” mistakes. “I got a real kick out of seeing the teams make progress on their first set of milestones,” said Geoff Entress. “I’m already looking forward to next year.”

Photo left to right: Brandon Baker and Jaimee Jewell of WISErg.

Entrepreneur Rich Barton on consumer-driven start-ups

Expedia founder and serial entrepreneur Rich Barton spoke candidly to University of Washington Foster School of Business entrepreneurial alumni about his philosophy, lessons learned, venture capitalist experience, owning consumer-driven dot coms and social networking.

Rich Barton is executive chairman of Zillow, chairman of Glassdoor, chairman of new venture Travelpost, board member of Realself (started by CEO Tom Seery, Foster MBA 2000) and involved with numerous other start-ups.

Watch a condensed 12-minute version of his guest lecture:

 Click on image above to play video

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.)

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

Uncovering real ppportunity at RealSelf.com

Tom and Krista SeeryWhen Tom Seery graduated from the Foster School with his MBA in 2000, he went to Expedia, a Microsoft spin-out that was growing by leaps and bounds. The entrepreneurial Seery knew that he’d start his own company within a few years, but even he was surprised by the source of his inspiration—he launched RealSelf.com in 2006 based on an observation made by his wife Krista. As she noted, it was far easier to use the web to research consumer opinion on hotels, electronics or restaurants than it was to get real insights into far more costly and potentially risky purchases of discretionary cosmetic procedures like laser skin treatments.

Since launching and receiving the backing by prominent Seattle and Bay Area angels, including Second Avenue Partners and Rich Barton (Zillow, Benchmark Capital), RealSelf has emerged into a category leader, helping millions of consumers get peer opinions and expert medical information on nearly 300 cosmetic procedures, everything from Botox to Invisalign braces to Mommy Makeovers.

Despite the down economy, 2009 was a particularly successful year for the RealSelf team. The community received over 50,000 answers posted by a national network of board certified medical specialists. These doctors “got social” by responding to consumer questions, uploading thousands of images and tweeting out their postings to followers. RealSelf also launched an industry-first “Worth It Index,” ranking cosmetic procedures according to actual patient input on whether a treatment was worth the results.

The company is looking forward to another year of growth , which Seery says will be driven in great part by “helping consumers find good doctors, and creating enhanced tools for consumers to navigate the always-popular before and after photo galleries.” [If you’ve had any cosmetic treatment, whether it be Lasik or Laser resurfacing or Latisse eyelash lengthening, RealSelf would love to hear about your experience!]

Lacing together the business of NanoString

CIE proves the gateway to a winning business plan
Amber Ratcliffe (MBA 2003)—Seattle entrepreneur—arrived at the Foster School’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) with the high energy and laser focus of a creative student about to start something big, and by all accounts she had come to the right place.

CIE’s core mission is to inspire, inform and empower entrepreneurship for undergraduates and graduate students across the University of Washington through course work in finance, strategy and marketing as well as with internships and mentoring.

“She was engaged the whole way and she was a rock star the whole way,” said Connie Bourassa-Shaw, CIE’s director. “She was one of those students you knew would make things happen.”

The first thing Ratcliffe and fellow MBA student Aaron Coe made happen was to take first place in one of the Foster School’s premier and most rigorous events–CIE’s Business Plan Competition. The plan they submitted was to create a company called NanoString Technologies based on molecule tracking technology developed by Dr. Krassen Dimitrov.

The next thing Ratcliffe made happen was to secure $8 million to build a marketable prototype of that technology, which essentially barcodes an individual molecule in a biological sample so it can be tracked, characterized and counted.

Now, with $30 million in Series C venture capital financing added in June 2009 to $11 million in earlier total investments, it’s clear that Ratcliffe had, in fact, started something big.

Idea turns business + action plan
Ratcliffe recently shared her role in building NanoString at the CIE seminar series “From Invention to Start-up.”

In her lecture, she detailed NanoString’s evolution from a scientific idea, developed at Seattle’s seminal Institute for Systems Biology, into a complex business and how that success challenged her to grow into new responsibilities as well as to let go of many key company decisions.

The idea, she said, came to life in the lab. Ratcliffe, then a research scientist at the institute, realized that she simply didn’t know enough business for NanoString to survive in the turbulent waters of start-ups. So, she enrolled in the Foster MBA program looking for answers to one simple question: “What’s every single thing I’m going to need to know to run a small business?”

CIE was the key program she found at Foster for not only helping her build that fundamental business understanding, but also supercharge her ability to write an effect business plan, get that plan exposed to critical eyes and expand her network of go-to people.

Winning CIE’s Business Plan Competition was her first big break – the money NanoString won became the seed money for Ratcliffe to begin building the business. In fact, CIE has awarded $812,000 to student companies in the past 12 years as well as involved more than 300 judges, mentors, sponsors and supporters each year from the alumni and business community.

“I feel really fortunate because we had a lot of exposure during the Business Plan Competition,” she said. “So, I felt like I had people that I could call and ask questions. CIE is a very good resource for those kinds of things.”

Founder turns team member
In addition to the Business Plan Competition, the broad business education Ratcliffe sought at Foster paid off. From her role as a founder seeking friends and investors, she went on to file patents, spend time in the lab, write protocols that robots could follow, brand the company, market it and even write press releases.

As the company grew, she and her team had to bring in more people with more experience in each of these areas, including a CEO who had the A-level contacts to put them in front of A-level investors.

“As a founder,” she told a lecture hall nearly full of UW students, faculty and staff who were either interested in starting a company or simply curious about the process, “it can be really difficult to step back and let somebody else own those areas and to give up some decision-making ability.”

That is a necessary evolution of the company and the founder’s career because, Ratcliffe said, the company’s success comes before the founder’s own personal goals.

“Hiring those people really helped accelerate the rapid pace of decision making you have to have in order to get a product developed and out the door before you run out of money,” she said.

Exemplifying one of CIE’s key attributes – alumni coming back on campus, sharing their experience and dolling out healthy doses of advice – Ratcliffe ended her lecture with these thoughts:

“I’ve been working on this nine years and we have not all become millionaires and we might not ever have that happen,” she said. “My take away is that you should be really clear about what the opportunities are. … You really need to look at the market, the application of your technology, the freedom to operate.”

“Most importantly, I think you need to do it because you are passionate about the technology, you are passionate about your idea.”