Faked Metrics in University of Washington "Commercialization"

[Updated to include a detail on the collateral damage done by UW taking over Fluke Hall. Updated also with a link to a discussion of SNUPI–now WallyHome, owned by Sears. Update 6/1/17 to include a discussion of IDGenomics]

The University of Washington has spread its claim to being among the top in the nation in starting companies based on its research. In its public announcements, UW claims 35 startups in the past two years. The actual number appears to be 13, with most of these paper shell companies to cover for continuing research. Despite UW’s claim to be a national leader in startup creation, UW’s self-styled Vice Provost for Commercialization is leaving just as the Hall patents have expired and the flow of royalty revenue is about to dry up. Here is some documentation to help your sense of wonder about what is going on.

The President’s Challenge

In January 2013, its Center for Commercialization unit posted on its web site an announcement of eight “new startups” in six months:

c4c-8The post contained an endorsement from UW President Michael Young, who is depicted as “challenging” C4C to increase the number of startups. A published interview quotes President Young on this challenge:

I think we can do even better. Over the next few years, our goal is to double the number of new companies spun out by the UW. We plan to create a new culture of entrepreneurship.  We will do this with public/private partnerships, creating on-campus incubator space for new companies, and more effectively putting our talented students to work on real world problems.  We’ve already taken some big steps in this direction.

The challenge was first made, apparently, at a ceremony marking the takeover of Fluke Hall by the University of Washington, turning it from a state-operated facility to support regional business seeking to partner with UW on research into a UW facility housing its own startup companies. A local blog recorded the moment in pictures. A related blog was upbeat as well. Clearly, C4C’s effort has not been flying under the radar of senior administration. C4C documents the specs on the new facility, along with a prominent pull quote from President Young. What is left out is the $31.5M price tag [the linked project description is now off web, archived by UW; the Regent’s budget put the cost at $28.5M; as of 2016, UW has started a further $37M renovation of Fluke to become “a long-term UW core research facility“] for the retrofit of Fluke Hall–nearly twice the cost of the original construction. C4C claims that UW is now an elite university in startup infrastructure:

The new incubator joins the ranks of technology start-up incubators at peer research institution, including MIT, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, UC San Diego, and the University of Utah. 

Other coverage included the Puget Sound Business Journal and GeekWire, which includes a ten-minute video clip of Young’s comments.

c4c-8b

The announcement that C4C had started eight companies in six months with the help of the new Fluke Hall incubator was picked up immediately by the local press, with GeekWire running a story about UW as “startup central,”complete with a picture of Dr. Young. UW’s The Daily, the student newspaper, ran a story [now removed from the web] as well, including a slam aimed at the pre-C4C effort to start companies, called LaunchPad:

Due to the increased resources, C4C is now offering more help than five years ago when there wasn’t so much interaction between researchers and the office.

There is no evidence provided to indicate that there “wasn’t so much interaction” in the past–we just get an assertion about the past, to be taken as fact. [Update: Among the ironies in all this is that the person brought in to lead LaunchPad told me she was instrumental in persuading UW to hire Rhoads–and Rhoads eventually forced her out of UW, but not before banning her from ever meeting with me “during work hours,” even though I worked at UW at the time. Rhoads was depicted with a similar management style a decade earlier, in a book by Fred Moody.] The Daily included an apparently praising quote from Jeremy Jaech, the CEO of one of the startups listed in the C4C announcement:

“C4C has provided subsidized space and many opportunities to speak with other entrepreneurs for SNUPI,” said Jeremy Jaech, CEO of SNUPI.

The UW alumni magazine, Columns, repeated the claim in its March 2013 edition under the heading “UW Fast Tracks Start-Ups”:

SINCE JULY [2012], the UW Center for Commercialization has ushered eight start-up companies into being based on research and innovations developed at the UW. Seven are based in the Seattle area. The UW is on track to make good, almost two years ahead of schedule, on President Michael Young’s declared goal in February 2012 of doubling the number of start-ups spinning out of the university over the next three years. From an average of eight to 10 start-ups in the past five years, there are 16 to 20 start-ups set for this fiscal year alone. 

Not only were eight companies started in six months, Columns reports, but also “there are 16 to 20 start-ups set for this fiscal year alone” (the UW fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30). Columns repeats the other key elements of the story: startups are up over the prior period and President Young has led the effort by setting C4C’s goal in terms of the number of startups per year (rather than, say, other possible goals, such as benefiting the public, attracting new research and investment partners to UW research, or even generating the quick and plentiful money that C4C’s strategic plan in December 2010 committed to as a primary goal).

To top it off, President Young sent out a personal email note to a list of UW boosters and alumni under the heading “Open for Business,”congratulating C4C (and, it would seem, himself) for launching eight companies in six months:

Thanks to collaboration with the business and technology community and the hard work of our Center for Commercialization (C4C) staff, we are on track to meet that goal ahead of schedule.

In just a six-month period, eight new startups made their debut.

It was also just over a year ago when we unveiled the New Ventures Facility at Fluke Hall, an incubator space on campus. Today, the facility is near capacity with a range of early-stage companies.

The campaign to make the investments in C4C and Fluke Hall a success clearly came from the top, and the pressure to report figures pleasing to UW’s president no doubt was intense. Present as well were cheerleaders only too ready to disparage UW TechTrans, the previous operating name for UW’s technology transfer efforts, and to give the president anything he wanted, whether true or not.

Three Companies, Not 8

When we look closely at the eight companies claimed by C4C, a different picture emerges. Of the eight companies, only three were started in the period claimed, July 2012 to December 2012: PatientStream, Rosetta@Cloud, and RGB Hats. Of these, PatientStream repackages in company form administrative software that UW had been distributing for years; Rosetta@Cloud was announced as a “joint venture”with an existing company, InSilicos, using cloud services to provide access to research software otherwise available from UW; and RGB Hats sells a board game on computer security via the web and operates from a residence. Two companies were started in the previous fiscal year: SNUPI Technologies in May 2012 and Marine Construction Technologies in June 2012. Marine Construction Technologies appears, two years later, yet to have any operations. SNUPI appears to be doing quite well (more about SNUPI in a moment). The other three companies were started earlier, KitoTech Medical and JointMetrix (formerly KneeMetrix) in 2011 and Portage Bay Photonics in 2009.

Even if we give C4C the benefit of the doubt on the two companies started late in FY2012, C4C still only produced five companies in 9 months–less than the average output for the LaunchPad program that C4C and its supporters delighted in disparaging. And of those five, four of them are essentially “virtual” companies, with stub web sites and little by way of operations or private investment.

Four Companies, Not 17

In July 2013, C4C continued its campaign to appear to be a leader in startups, announcing 17 new companies for Fiscal Year 2013:

c4c-17

UW was now in the “top five” nationally in university startups, according to C4C. The story has the same components: more productive than the past, endorsed personally by President Young, and arising from UW inventions, all “born from UW’s Center for Commercialization.”

Again, the story was quickly picked up in the local press. Crosscut, a political blog focused on Washington state, described a key press event:

At a press conference attended by Congressional delegations, tech industry leaders and local luminaries like Bill Gates Sr., UW President Michael Young announced that this was the most productive year in UW’s history for forming new companies. Seventeen new companies were unveiled, more than double the average number created over the past five years.

A close review of the list of companies provided by C4C fails to find that the claimed 17 companies were started in the fiscal year or were “born from” C4C. Only four of the 17 companies meets C4C’s stated criteria. The rest were started earlier, and/or were not started at UW, or simply aren’t companies. C4C, for instance, includes on its list of new companies one startup that has yet to be named. While it is possible that a company might be conceived without a name, it is not possible for it to be born without one–at least to be recognized as a distinct “person” under the law and registered with the state.

Compared to the January 2013 list, the new list drops Portage Bay Photonics (started in 2009, and moved to Delaware with its former “STARS” faculty inventor) and adds nine more (I boldface the company started in FY13):

  • Genetik Signal (October 2011)
  • IDGenomics (Sept 2012)
  • LumiSands (2010)
  • NanoFacture (2006)
  • Nova TheraNostics (2010)
  • Owl Outcomes (x)–a product name; company is Mental Health Data Systems (2011)
  • Second Wind (January 2012)–started with software from NREL, not UW
  • Stella Therapeutics (March 2011)
  • Vital Talk (May 2012)–a nonprofit for Oncotalk, a web-based discussion service (2002)

Only one, ID Genomics, was started in FY13. In all, of the 17 companies listed, only 4 were started in UW’s FY13 (and this is not the whole story–more follows). One, Owl Outcomes, is not a company. Another, Vital Talk, is a non-profit foundation–hardly a target for venture investment or based on UW “technology,” as its web service appears to be to encourage discussions on medical topics. Vital Talk continues a long-standing, valuable public service by UW faculty, but Vital Talk is not the kind of company that promotes equity returns that will give UW a new source of revenue or add hundreds or thousands of jobs. A third, Second Wind, claims at its web site to use software developed at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a federal laboratory in Colorado, and lists UW as a partner providing access to a wind tunnel and consulting for testing. Again, pretty iffy that this company is based on UW technology, not to mention that it was formed, apparently, in FY12, when it received a $300K seed funding investment.

[As of June 2017, IDGenomics is still in operation, reporting 10 employees. According to Crunchbase, it has received $50K in equity investment in 2016 (a phase I STTR?) and a $3m STTR Phase II grant from the NIH, also in 2016 (actually, it appears that the funding is spread over 3 years). Here is a link to the grant summary. The technology–a better way to diagnose bacterial infections, starting with E. coli–is important. Their primary product to be appears to be a database, but they also have patents on diagnostic techniques. STTR awards require a university subcontract. Thus, IDGenomics collaborates with UW–under projects headed by the same UW PI. In fact, UW collaborates with itself. Here’s a bit from the summary of the IDGenomics grant:

The proposed studies will be performed as collaboration between ID Genomics, Inc, the University of Washington’s start-up company specializing in sequence-based typing of microbial pathogens, and the University of Washington, Seattle, laboratory of Evgeni Sokurenko (the lead PI).

The company appears to be living on grant income, not sales income, and doesn’t appear to have a product on the market. Here’s a link to their NIH funding history. $214K in 2015; $1.0m in 2016; 988K in 2017. One of the principal investigators on the IDGenomics grant is Evgeni Sokurenko, who is also a professor of microbiology at the University of Washington, where he has been PI on RO1 grants in the same area of work, also with NIAID–$784K in 2014; $770K in 2015; $761K in 2016; $739K in 2017. In 2016, IDGenomics and UW filed a provisional patent application for PCR-based test kit for “predicting antibiotic resistance and susceptibility of bacteria” (15/055376) citing both the UW and IDGenomics NIAID grants. It appears that the PI has extended his research funding by adding STTR funding via his company.

As a strategy, then, UW uses company formation to capture more federal research dollars, but now coming formally to a company rather than through UW directly. The research then is divided between the portion that moves through UW and the portion that moves through a company on the premise of commercial development. But given the situation, one might be just as ready to view the arrangement as one in which the entire effort–UW included–is committed to commercial development, with the company serving as the front-end, as it were, of the operation. That’s a consequence of having the university committed administratively to pro-active “commercialization” of research.

Here’s the top-level description of the STTR program:

STTR Mission and Program Goals

The mission of the STTR program is to support scientific excellence and technological innovation through the investment of Federal research funds in critical American priorities to build a strong national economy.

The programs’ goals are to:

  • Stimulate technological innovation.
  • Foster technology transfer through cooperative R&D between small businesses and research institutions.
  • Increase private sector commercialization of innovations derived from federal R&D.

One might expect the “small businesses” to be existing businesses. That is, the aim (one might think) would be to involve small businesses in development pathways by which they gain opportunities to develop technology developed in federal research at universities. But in the case of IDGenomics, we have a company formed that displaces existing small companies. If there’s an exclusive license between UW and IDGenomics (very likely, though some of the inventions that may be involved are jointly owned by other organizations, including the University of Minnesota), then that exclusive license ensures that other small companies won’t have collaborative development access to the UW technology.

IDGenomics might take a look at UW’s DIDB drug interaction database for a model. What’s missing from the picture is venture backing and development of a product for sales in the near term.

In March 2017, ID Genomics participated in CAP-FeedForward, an NIH “accelerator” program, where NIH funded companies “presented their business strategies.”

According to Kaveri Parker, IDGenomics president and CEO, determining pricing is the company’s next step. For ID Genomics to develop their value proposition, the company needs to better quantify both the hard costs and the impact of surveillance for customers. IDGenomics has done extensive work on building partnerships with various medical institutions, but needs to find a commercialization model that would protect the IP of its database.

It’s a warning sign that the company cannot figure out, four years in, a “commercialization model” that actually works. It’s also a warning sign when an advisor starts talking like this:

Stephane Budel, a partner at DeciBio, a Los Angeles market research consultancy commented that you don’t always have to have profitability at the forefront—competitively it is not necessarily a winner take all situation but you should build best-in-breed database and technologies.

Ouch.

ID Genomics appears to be a company that’s doing the work of a university research lab, but outside the university. It might be described as truly “extra-mural” research, outside the walls of the university. Perhaps more research ought to be done this way–entirely outside university controls, overhead, bureaucracy, and policies. Companies can be used in this way, not as profit ventures, but as “companies” of individuals focused on a specific goal.

To be effective, should such companies be stuck with a patent license from the university? If the company product doesn’t have a clear line to profitability, does a patent license from the university (which expects royalties) then become a hindrance, because the company might feel constrained not to allow its database to become “open”?

This sort of “company”–an extra-extramural way of getting research dollars for work that otherwise could have gone to a university-based project–is not the sort of company that is built by investment to create highly profitable products. That is, it is not the kind of company that UW put forward to the public as an emblem of economic development and investment vitality. While it is a worthwhile research technology, and the development of database and other tools to predict whether a bacterial infection might be resistant to antibiotics is a good thing, the oddness lies in how UW uses companies to extend its claims on federal funding while presenting to the public the idea that such companies are rather engines of economic development. That may be, too, but it would appear that UW is cleverly subverting the public claims of the STTR program by starting companies that then run with common control with UW investigators.]

One Company, Not 18, But Add 8 to FY13

It is clear that C4C is playing fast and loose with information, but is determined to be viewed as one of the top university startup operations in the country. That is, C4C, a unit of a state agency, is allowed by UW to promote a fantasy about its operations, with the personal endorsement of UW’s president in each announcement.

In June 2014, just days before the end of UW’s FY14, C4C issued another announcement, this time of a new record number of startups–18:

c4c-18

The common elements are there: C4C does it again, UW is among the university leaders in startups, citing Penn and Utah as peers, with a quote from Michael Young connecting a new “culture of innovation” to public benefit, “improving people’s daily lives, here and around the globe.” The implication is that the past at UW was not so entrepreneurial and that the investment in C4C–over $100m by my accounting–has produced wonderful effects, as represented by a count of the number of startup companies launched each year.

Unfortunately, there is no support for UW’s rhetoric. The claims do not hold up under a careful fact check of public records. The claims would not hold up anyway, as the number of startups has next to nothing to do with economic impact, public benefit, jobs, or even a “culture of innovation.” The number of startups has to do with the budget for paper incorporations; over-extending administrative services; creating and perhaps not managing conflicts of interest, including institutional conflicts of interest; and competing, perhaps unfairly, with the private sector for investment funding and access to university expertise and resources. If UW is preoccupied with handing its faculty their own startups, how available are those same faculty to work with anyone in industry around those same research topics? The number of startups may as easily be a huge problem as they might be a success.

Left unstated in all UW’s accounting is what has happened to past startups–those from 2008, say, or 2009. Where are the exits? An institution’s carrying capacity for supporting startups is not unlimited–what happens when a university has 100 “startups” all struggling for research funding, bridge funding, seed money, and SBIR grants? At some point, the numbers dilute focus, shift support from past efforts to new startups, and leave a trail of zombie companies, existing on paper, in dreams, and in university press releases.

What about those 18 new companies? Remarkably, only one–just one–was started in FY14 and based on UW technology. UW’s output of startups has plunged, despite the massive spending to increase the number of startups.

Of the rest, five were started elsewhere, based on technology licensed from other universities, and four of these were started before FY14 anyway. Another four startups date from more than two years earlier. That leaves a surprising 8 companies that were not started in FY14–they started in FY13. One of these, AnswerDash (started as Quazzow), looks promising. Most of these companies appear to be repackaged research efforts, many with stubs for web sites and existing on seed money pumped into them by UW through a variety of methods. A number of them have executives serving as the leaders of multiple companies at once, as if there is a shortfall of entrepreneurs to go around, so the ones willing to work with C4C have to split their time.

The Repackaging Research as Startups Trick

Such repackaging is not in itself wrong. However, it can be done at will anywhere, provided there is money to file incorporation paper work. The fact of forming a company means nothing, and is ironically not relevant to the idea of “launching” new companies that have actual operations, with independent management and financing, with principals working full time to develop the company into a self-sustaining operation.

That is, over the past two fiscal years, UW has with the repeated endorsement of its president claimed 35 startups and a leadership position near the top of university startup programs nationwide. The reality is: 13 startups, most of which are shell companies that repackage continuing UW research, or are nonprofits, or sell board games, or continue to sell what UW has been distributing as administrative products and services for years–hardly based on UW research, not employing significant numbers of people, not in most cases even having independent private investment or product on the marketplace that might “benefit people’s daily lives.” The reality is that UW has started 2 companies in the past two years–SNUPI and AnswerDash–that look promising.

[But see this discussion about SNUPI before accepting that it is a UW startup and not a Georgia Tech startup; SNUPI shut down operations in 2015, laid off most employees, and later was sold to Sears, the retailer, who leased 10,000 square feet of space on the UW campus to continue development of SNUPI’s product, WallyHome. Meanwhile AnswerDash raised $2.9m in September 2015 and appears to be a healthy company. So one company that’s doing well–and that’s great news.]

I see no evidence that UW intends to correct the public record. When I sent notice to UW’s news and information service that I had found deficiencies in C4C’s claims, they did not so much as reply to my offer to supply documentation. UW apparently wants to retain the status created by C4C’s fabricated metrics.

Retarding Commercialization While Championing Commercialization

In the past week, UW has announced that the architect of C4C, Linden Rhoads, is leaving. Apparently a committee met and decided it was time for a change. GeekWire carries the story, among others. Prof. Ed Lazowska, a professor of computer science, is quoted commending Rhoads, a big donor to the computer science department, while slamming again UW TechTransfer:

“She has done many hugely innovative things — particularly notable because she inherited an office in complete disarray due to terrible leadership by her predecessor,” said Lazowska.

Xconomy fills in more of the story:

UW President Michael Young convened a committee of technology and entrepreneurship leaders to make recommendations for improvement in this area. Its October 2013 report, obtained by Xconomy, begins: “For the UW to become an entrepreneurial ecosystem, the culture of the institution needs to change to encourage commercialization, and the systems by which the university operates need to change to encourage rather than inhibit commercialization.”

How could it be that if UW had become a national powerhouse in startup companies, as a stream of UW press releases, planted stories in the local press, and personal communications had argued, that UW also needed to make significant improvements? How could it be that the UW which President Young proclaimed in 2012 was “increasingly” becoming a “culture of innovation” to put Stanford and Utah to shame is two years later back to needing “to become an entrepreneurial ecosystem” that must “encourage rather than inhibit commercialization.” What could be more productive than 35 startups, unless the numbers were faked?

Xconomy reports what the CEO of SNUPI told them:

It took SNUPI 10 hours of legal work to obtain a license from Georgia Tech, according to the report. Obtaining a similar license to the same IP from the UW took about 100 hours. The drawn-out negotiations contributed to financing delays and cost increases, as they did for a half-dozen other companies mentioned in the report.

On the one hand, C4C makes a big deal of “launching” SNUPI, when the primary technology came from Georgia Tech, and anything additional apparently came from UW only because one of the SNUPI principals, a graduate student at Georgia Tech, was hired as new faculty at UW. While Georgia Tech completed a license quickly, UW took 100 hours of legal work–perhaps costing SNUPI on the order of $50,000! Far from “launching” SNUPI, C4C *delayed and drained resources from* the startup.

Despite all this, UW senior administration still applauds Linden Rhoads. Here is the Provost, Ana Mari Cauce in a memo circulated to the UW community:

She’s created a great record of achievement at the UW.  She built a strong unit devoted to service and constant improvement. During her tenure, C4C doubled the number of patents filed per year, as well as the number of start-up companies (this is the second year in a row with a
record number of 17). Linden also spearheaded tremendous engagement with the regional business and investor community.

Dr. Cauci repeats the same figures on startups that clearly were fabricated by C4C–Rhoads spent $100M to create a “record of achievement” in the press, but on the ground, in practice, the operation was incompetent, wasteful, and “inhibiting commercialization” according to others that have dealt with C4C. One may say pleasant things as you show a senior university official the door, but to repeat the faked figures, too, suggests that the UW administration is pleased to inhabit a dream world created for them, and at their expense, by a unit ready to create the illusion of success without mastering the underlying fundamentals. There may be success at C4C, but it is not in the public record.

Time for the State to Audit C4C and STARS

What did the state of Washington, and Washington taxpayers, and the state legislature, and university faculty, purchase with that $100M? They bought from the state Fluke Hall, a facility that was serving companies doing research with UW faculty statewide, and made it serve, instead, university shell company startups. In doing so they ignored the plan for a portion of Fluke Hall proposed by their first STARS entrepreneurial faculty member, who then gave up in disgust and took his research, Caltech patents, startup company, and photonics foundry service to the University of Delaware. This move UW has not reported so broadly as when they recruited him. Instead, UW has bought with its money conveniently faulty press releases and the appearance of success, promoting “elite” status for a technology transfer program that was performing worse than its predecessor unit. UW senior administrators–and state legislators–bought a fool’s dream, just as Utah did: starting shell companies given exclusive licenses to publicly funded research findings equates to economic development and public benefit. In fact, the practice at Utah and Washington works the opposite, and is an antagonist to economic development in favor of promoting the “success” of bureaucratic control of creativity and public research. The appearance of bureaucratic success, in turn, is used to secure even more money to expand the program, subsidize research that is not fully paid for by extramural research sponsors, and build even more research buildings on the premise that federal and state money for research will ever-increase.

Last year in Utah, the state legislature did a performance audit of the money they had spent on USTAR, a commercialization program on which Washington state appears to have modeled its STARS program. USTAR’s primary beneficiaries were the University of Utah and Utah State University. It is not pretty. The audit found that USTAR had “overstated” jobs and revenues and that the reported return on investment was “flawed” and commercialization success was “limited.” That is, the universities had led the state to throw good money–and a lot of it–into a dark hole. On top of these findings, the audit noted a lack of oversight and a misuse of funds by the research teams who were funded to spark economic development.

The state of Washington would do well to wake up to the Utah moment. The president of the University of Washington was the president at the University of Utah during much of the $300M+ USTAR program, which began in 2005. The University of Utah went on a startup tear, operating as a company puppy mill, turning out 20 companies a year for six years. But a review of those 100+ companies shows that the overwhelming majority were shell companies–a web site, a university business address, no employees, no investment beyond a handful of SBIR grants, no products, no economic impact, no public benefit.

Here is how Utah state legislators responded to the audit findings (my emphasis):

State Senator Scott Jenkins (Republican – Plain City) sharply criticized the program. Jenkins said that a “culture of untruth and lies (has) come out of this group. You’ve presented us with ROI figures that were wrong. You’ve personally, not the current chair, but previous ones have personally lobbied me and fed me, literally, with food and other untruths that I feel somewhat offended about because it’s turned out that they’re not right. And it wasn’t one year or one report, it was a series of years and a series of reports and I believe to some extent that this has been a culture that has been generated to prop up USTAR and make it look good.” “If I was an investor right now today, I think I’d probably still pull my money out,” Jenkins said.

An exacerbated Senator Stuart Reid (Republican – Ogden) put it bluntly: “In my career, I have seen this movie before and I know how it ends, there is no question how it is going to end… I can tell you this right now: the legislature is not going to continue to fund this if [USTAR] can not demonstrate real progress – it’s just not going to happen.”

Reid continued by expressing frustration about the lack of a Return on Investment (ROI) report that was requested two years ago by Reid. “I was first told that ‘[USTAR doesn’t] have it, then they were going to get it, then we were told ‘well here it is’ …and it was a total and complete fabrication… I don’t think they know what an ROI is… and with all due respect to the Tanner team, I feel that you are trying to sell us again.”

The purpose of the Utah program was self-promotion to attract more state money and to gain bragging rights. But the program was built on a fraud. The parallel with the Washington program is hardly necessary to point out. Much of UW’s spending, however, has come from UW’s funds, outside the oversight of the state legislature. That is, UW has robbed its research and instructional programs to create the illusion of economic success of inventions made by faculty, students, and staff.  C4C’s primary public purpose is to flatter the desires of the university president while running a nominal IP program distinctive primarily for prodigious spending on patents, web sites, incubators, and self-promotion, all without oversight. (For years, Rhoads canceled most oversight meetings and ended in 2009 the publication of a substantive annual report of activities.) The result is a toxic mix of misspending, fabrication, self-congratulation, public subsidies for already-wealthy investors-cum-“entrepreneurs,” and failure to perform on the metrics that matter the most–public benefit, new products from research, new jobs, and, yes, real new companies.

The question now is whether the Washington state legislature has the will to find out what UW purchased with $100M of public money, plus the $7.4M the state spent on its own STARS and related programs, most of which came to UW and WSU, and which near as I can tell produced next to nothing by way of economic impact. In the meantime, the public is given to understand that Rhoads did a tremendous job, 35 or 34 or however many companies various UW officials can add up were started over the past two years, and UW is a startup powerhouse, so much so that officials at other universities tell me they are pressured to follow UW’s example. What a shame, and what a loss for the real innovators in our society, that universities would seek to imitate sham programs that have wasted public resources and stymied commercialization, all in an effort to game the public and state legislators for more money.

Reforming University Rhetoric of Commercialization

In short, UW has bet its reputation on a public lie in the hope of doing “good” for university funding. It can only do the opposite. The state should fund higher education better than it has, but higher education has substantial work to do to clean house, reform its rhetoric, and conduct programs with transparency, not hype bordering on fraud.

The University of Washington should correct the public record, retract their claims with regard to startups and a national leadership position, ask local Seattle press to publish corrections to their on-line stories regarding UW’s claims for startups, and revise C4C’s own web-published statements with regard to startups. It would also be appropriate to notify the state legislature with regard to questions raised by testimony by C4C personnel or prepared by C4C personnel and communicated to the legislature by UW’s government liaisons. These steps would mark a return by UW to a path of integrity. That return, echoed in other aspects of UW’s relationship with the legislature, might also open up a chance for the state to consider more funding for higher education, even while considering alternatives to continuing to pour more money into UW’s failed administration of startups.

The University of Washington and the Washington state legislature now have a chance to become a leadership on these fronts. Let’s see what they do. [update as of November 2016: nothing, nothing at all!]

 

 

 

 

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