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Condon Hall could become a new hub for startup activity in the UDistrict. Photo via Wikipedia.

Welcome to the new tech hub of Seattle: North Lake Union?

Startup companies in the city have historically set up shop in the quirky old brick buildings of Pioneer Square, and more recently the redeveloped areas of South Lake Union and Fremont.

But a new effort is taking root just west of the University of Washington’s main campus. Inspired by UW president Michael Young’s focus on commercialization and supported by a group of startup leaders like Founder’s Co-op’s Chris DeVore, the University of Washington plans to help transform a small pocket of the UDistrict into a thriving startup hub.

It’s starting small — on one floor in the old law school of Condon Hall. But, if all goes as planned, the UDistrict could become a key innovation zone in the city where aspiring entrepreneurs hatch their groundbreaking ideas.

The concept has already grabbed the attention and support of some important movers in the startup community, with TechStars, Founder’s Co-op and UP Global (formerly Startup Weekend) tentatively looking to take over space on the second floor of Condon Hall next July.

In fact, the concept has been brewing since mid-summer when DeVore and Young — who both sit on the City’s Economic Development Commission — started comparing notes about ways to get the UW more integrated into the entrepreneurial life and culture of the city.

Chris DeVore at the 2012 GeekWire Awards

“We knew we we’d be taking a risk by relocating TechStars and Founders’ Co-op to the UDistrict — South Lake Union has become the center of gravity for the innovation sector in Seattle, and outside the UW itself the UDistrict has not been top of mind as a location for startups,” said DeVore. “But we thought that by partnering closely with the UW — and by co-locating three strong organizations all focused on early-stage innovation — we might be able to tip the balance in favor of the neighborhood for other early-stage companies and organizations.”

UP Global’s Marc Nager said that Condon Hall is “an option, but not a certainty” for the fast-growing non-profit, and he hopes to have a decision made by early next year. “We love the idea of being able to create a center of density with a few of the other big ecosystem players,” said Nager.

The ground floor of Condon Hall will be converted into an open meeting area and “crash pad space” for those who are looking to connect more closely with the startup community, while the third floor may also eventually be converted for use by startups if there is demand. TechStars, the tech incubator that bankrolls and supports 10 new startups each year in Seattle, is looking to take about 5,000 square feet on the second floor.

DeVore said he’s in deep discussions with the UW on how to configure the space to “make it a mixing chamber” that brings together University-based entrepreneurs with the startup community. The building, which was built in 1973 and housed the law school until 2003, is currently used to house departments that are in between space due to other construction on campus.

Michael Young at the Center for Commercialization. UW photo
Michael Young at the Center for Commercialization. UW photo

President Young said that Condon Hall represents a small step in getting the UW more closely linked to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, important connection points as the university looks to provide the “spark” to ignite even more startup companies, either from the minds at the UW or from the region as a whole.

“The bulk of our research goes on 50 feet from the U. District, and it is a very logical and natural place,” said Young, referring to Condon Hall. “It has space where that sort of thing is possible and it is very, very proximate to the university, and geography is not completely destiny, but geography is related to destiny.”

Young, who has espoused the importance of tech transfer and commercialization since his arrival at the UW more than two years ago, said that he doesn’t see a problem with the state’s top research institution allying with the startup community. In fact, he says that stimulating the economy is a “byproduct” of the groundbreaking and innovative work that faculty, staff and students take on every day on campus.

Condon Hall is located just west of the main campus. Click on image for larger view.

“If there are a few more Porsches in the faculty parking lot, great. But that is not the fundamental purpose,” Young said in an interview with GeekWire. “To be honest, while I am happy to talk the language of economic development and I am happy to talk the fact that we are stimulating the economy, that is the byproduct of what is our more fundamental vision (of doing good). But, if we do our fundamental vision right, it does generate that byproduct to be sure. When looked at that way, I don’t get many critics on it.”

A number of innovative companies have sprouted at the UW since Young’s arrival, including Qazzow which just this week announced $2.4 million in venture funding and home-sensor network startup SNUPI which is led by serial entrepreneur Jeremy Jaech and UW professors Shwetak Patel and Matt Reynolds.

This isn’t the first time that the UW has established office space that caters to startup companies. Last year, the UW’s Center for Commercialization established the New Ventures Facility in Fluke Hall, taking over 23,000 square feet.

In that case, however, the space was committed to the UW staffers or faculty who were developing technologies directly connected to the university.

At Condon Hall, the doors will be open to startups that don’t necessarily have a UW connection.

“We really want to create that nexus,” said Paul Jenny, who heads the University of Washington’s Office of Planning and Budgeting and has been directly involved in the redevelopment of Condon Hall. “Everybody wants to be next to the University of Washington and the bright kids that we are producing and the companies that we are spinning off and our faculty.”

Once light rail arrives in the UDistrict, expected in early 2016, Jenny said that the neighborhood will become more of a destination point. And he’s hopeful that Condon Hall could become an “influencing agent” to fulfill President Young’s vision of creating a new “innovation district” in the city.

Seattle venture capital firms have been scouring the UW for innovative technologies for years, an effort that has heated up with Young’s push to commercialize more technologies.

But Young wants to see even more VCs and entrepreneurs walking the halls of campus.

“Having more of these venture capitalists around, and startup companies spun out of the university has a really positive effect,” he says. “The closer those links are, the better.”

Condon Hall could be a place for the those links to occur, a connection point between the high-level research taking place on campus and the entrepreneurial talent who can help commercialize it. Certainly, Stanford University has met with success by forging tight bonds with the neighboring tech community in Silicon Valley.

Of course, the effort isn’t without risk, and there’s no guarantee that startup companies will want to pick the UDistrict over other hotbed areas in the city. However, Young is bullish on the concept of igniting more entrepreneurial energy, just a few blocks from the university’s central plaza.

“Condon Hall is a start. It is a small start, but you’ve got to start somewhere,” he says.

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