Executive Academic Part 1: To CEO or not to CEO?
By Eran Moore Rea
Finally, your research works! You’ve churned through enough tin foil and recycled code to create something you could develop as a product. Your discoveries could change the world.
How do you present your product to investors? What exactly is your product? How do you run a company? Do you want to run a company? These are not questions inventors at UW have to answer on their own. The Center for Commercialization (C4C) helps UW researchers approach business wisely.
A three-part series, The Executive Academic follows researchers who’ve commercialized their work through the C4C.
Dr. Chang-Ching Tu saw the opportunity when he earned his doctorate. As a UW C4C Commercialization postdoctoral fellow, he was able to develop his technology: eco-friendly silicon nanoparticles to replace the rare earth elements used in LED lights.
Tu now works as a CEO of his company LumiSands full-time. LumiSands spun out of UW in May 2013. But Tu expects that as his company grows, it will eventually attract an experienced CEO. Tu does not plan to lead his company forever. But for now, he’s in business.
“I see definite similarities between being a CEO and being an academic,” said Tu.
At this early point in his company’s maturation, Tu said that his work as a CEO is “still mostly a research type of position.”
“We conduct experiments, measure samples and write proposals for funding. I was doing all of those things as a researcher. But unlike in academia, working in a small company like LumiSands means we have to focus on one thing and push it toward commercialization as soon as possible.”
Dr. Vikram Jandhyala, chair of the UW Electrical Engineering Department, took a two-year leave from his faculty position in 2006 to work as the CEO of his company, Nimbic (formally called Physware). Nimbic provides electromagnetic simulation to electronics companies. Texas Instruments, Toshiba, and Samsung are all Nimbic’s customers.
Jandhyala felt he needed to devote his time to Nimbic’s early formation because, as a scientific founder, he brought passion and focus to the company.
“If the founders leave too soon, then the people leading the company can lose sight of the technical vision for the product. The founders bring the passion to the company,” Jandhyala said.
According to UW conflict-of-interest statutes, a faculty member can only act as CEO of a company if he or she withdraws from all negotiations with competing companies. More and more, academics are looking at taking a short leave of absence to lead their companies, and then returning to academia.
Jandhyala sees that many faculty members have management experience from running a lab with multiple people.
“And we understand competition, because we compete with other labs for grants and with other faculty for advancement,” Jandhyala said. “Academics understand the process of creation, and they know their tech. They’re not going to make short cuts in the research.”
Also, he added, “we are the risk-takers. We have to be gutsy, or we’d never have discovered something in the first place.”
But many academics want to continue discovering. Not all academics who commercialize their work become CEOs, or take any part in business management.
Dr. Lori Arakaki is a co-founder of Shockmetrics, a developing UW spin-out company. Shockmetrics creates non-invasive devices (pictured right) that measure the amount of oxygen in a person’s muscles to detect medical shock.
“Personally, I have always been very interested in developing the technology,” said Arakaki. “I play a main role in that now. But I was never interested in what a CEO does, never interested in being the primary person responsible for the business.”
Business value of academic experience
UW C4C Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs) know that academics contribute unique skills to business. EIRs bring their business experience and contacts to the C4C to advise researchers on start-up creation and other commercialization efforts.
The EIR program is a contract position with the C4C. EIRs are recruited by the C4C to fill a specific need: to provide business advice for, and sometimes manage, UW start-ups. EIRs often have decades of experience managing businesses in a given start-up’s field.
The C4C connects an EIR with UW start-ups that fit the EIR’s experience. If the personalities mesh and everything works out, the EIR will help take the start-up from concept to formation. Whether that’s by taking over the CEO role, advising a fresh-out-of-academia CEO, or something else entirely, depends on the start-up.
Ron Berenson, a 2012 C4C EIR, left the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center as a celebrated oncologist in 1989. Since then, he has been working in medical translation, helping companies move innovation from lab to bedside.
At the C4C, he’s a co-founder of KitoTech and is currently guiding the company to formation. KitoTech makes micro-needle bandages for wound care that provide a cheap and painless alternative to stitches.
“Academics often don’t realize what great stuff they’re sitting on,” Berenson said. “One research team wanted to use their work to heat and release drugs for cancer. I treat cancer patients, and I know that isn’t really feasible. But then we discussed other potential applications. It turned out the same technology could be used to make drugs that usually only last in the human body for 10 minutes stay there for several weeks! That’s a huge advance for cancer treatment.”
Bob Barry, another 2012 C4C EIR, brings an engineering background to the UW. He worked in product development at Pfizer, Boston Scientific, and Spiration before founding his own company, Uptake Medical, that created improved products for patients with severe emphysema. At the C4C, he became the co-founder and CEO of the UW start-up Stasys Medical Corp.
Stasys makes devices that measure the ability of the blood to clot during trauma. This can take up to half an hour to detect with current technology; Stasys gives doctors the information in three minutes.
“To a greater and greater extent, no one in higher ed can pay for his or her lab without taking advantage of grants,” Barry said. “And most often, research needs to be at least a bit applicable to apply for grants.”