Helping its students, faculty, and researchers focus on innovation has become a top priority for the University of Washington.
That was clear this past Thursday, when the UW’s expanding CoMotion innovation program welcomed more than 300 people to its new two-floor headquarters in Seattle’s University District.
Politicians, entrepreneurs, investors, professors, and many more from the local community gathered to check out the new building, which opened in August and includes an incubator space for virtual and augmented startups.
CoMotion helps startups through education and access to experts and funding sources. Originally started as the Center for Commercialization (C4C), the program evolved 18 months ago from a department that mainly helped commercialize ideas born at the university — it has helped spin out 126 startups over the past decade, and 21 in fiscal 2016 — to what it now describes as a “collaborative innovation hub dedicated to expanding the societal impact of the UW community.”
CoMotion has grouped together three buildings into a newly-established “CoMotion Labs” that consists of its new headquarters, which houses the region’s only incubator focused on virtual and augmented reality startups; the CoMotion Incubator at Fluke Hall, which helps startups working on healthcare and biotech; and Startup Hall, where there is co-working space geared to software and IT startups, while also home to the Founder’s Co-op venture capital firm and Techstars Seattle.
Vikram Jandhyala, CoMotion executive director, spoke at the event on Thursday, along with Gerald Baldasty, provost and executive vice president at the UW; Brian Bonlender, director of the Washington State Department of Commerce; Matt McIlwain, managing director for Madrona Venture Group; and Christine Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle and former Washington State governor.
“It’s to deliver the tools and connections so that the UW community can take ideas to impact, regardless of field of discipline,” he said. “It’s about commercialization, but also broader. It’s about innovation.”
Jandhyala noted how CoMotion’s new MakerSpace already has 1,500 students across campus signed up to use equipment and tools for prototyping new ideas. It’s an example of how CoMotion’s mission has broadened in the last few years to help inspire innovation across the entire campus.
“It’s not just students from engineering but also from drama, social sciences, and others, learning how to create prototypes in our makerspace,” he said. “There is an entire ecosystem and an entire mindset that we are trying to take advantage of and build here. CoMotion is a collaborative innovation hub — all those words are chosen carefully.”
Jandhyala added that the top innovation ecosystems around the world all have a premier university that helps produce talent and new startup ideas.
“We are really excited and delighted that the UW is playing that role,” he said of the university, now ranked No. 5 in Reuters’ top 100 most innovative universities list.
The UW’s role in helping bolster Seattle’s technology ecosystem is perhaps illustrated best with the story of Turi, the local startup that Apple recently acquired for $200 million.
Turi originally started as an open-source project at Carnegie Mellon in 2009 headed up by co-founder Carlos Guestrin. In 2012, he joined the UW computer science and engineering department after Amazon provided $2 million to endow two professorships in machine learning at the university for Guestrin and his wife, Emily Fox.
Guestrin continued working on Turi and later spun off the open-source project from the UW into its own company, at the time called GraphLab. The startup received support from the university but eventually outgrew its space at Fluke Hall and moved to an office in Fremont.
Then, this past August, GeekWire broke the news of Apple’s $200 million acquisition. Turi remains in Seattle, giving Apple a larger presence in the area and adding to the growing technology ecosystem.
McIlwain, whose venture capital firm invested in Turi from the beginning, used the company as an example of the “virtuous cycle of an innovation ecosystem.”
“Here’s the really great piece of it,” McIlwain said on Thursday of Turi’s acquisition. “One of their angel investors was being asked to consider a gift to the new computer science building. He and his wife were thinking about giving maybe $500,000, which would be incredibly generous. Then they said, ‘we just made some money, we’re going to give $1 million to that building instead.’ That’s the virtuous cycle, for the next generation of students. That’s why we’re so excited to be apart of what’s happening here at CoMotion and the University of Washington.”
There are around 75 startups now working across the three buildings making up CoMotion Labs, including 14 companies focused on virtual and augmented reality technology at CoMotion Labs HQ. The CoMotion staff did many hours of research into what industry could use more support in the Seattle region, and ultimately picked VR/AR. The new space adds to what is becoming a VR/AR epicenter in Seattle.
In exchange for a $350 monthly fee, entrepreneurs — who aren’t required to have companies launched out of UW research — get access to office space, headsets, mixed reality labs provided by Booz Allen Hamilton, and more. But perhaps most important are the networking opportunities and resources provided by the UW, whether it be weekly CEO roundtables or general advice for early-stage startups.
“It’s really hard to find on your own,” said Tyler Libey, CTO of MultiModal Health, a startup using technology to help patients with arm and hand rehabilitation. “I can’t imagine trying to do it without them.”
Ryan Smith, founder of virtual reality game studio Invrse Studios, said he and his small team loved previously working at co-working space for game developers. But there’s something special about joining the CoMotion community.
“Everyone around here has this feeling that we’re at this epicenter of interesting stuff and people are going to be talking about this space for a long time,” Smith said. “It’s kind of an honor to be here.”
Elizabeth Scallon, associate director for the CoMotion Labs, explained that the program does not see itself as a landlord or a “transactional service.”
“We are a relationship program,” she said.
Scallon added that CoMotion Labs does not take equity or intellectual property from virtual reality startups that join its community. The focus is on hosting a “startup educational program” that helps companies take an idea and scale it into a legitimate business, with the help of the UW and other people from the local community.
“We can unlock the UW services for them,” Scallon said. “And we can unlock the services of the Seattle startup community.”
Political leaders are also supporting CoMotion. Bonlender, director of the state’s department of commerce, said the program lines up with Gov. Jay Inslee’s vision of helping create more companies. He noted that startups born out of university research are seven times more likely to be successful.
“It makes this work here extremely important and extremely valuable for our state and our economy,” Bonlender said.
Gregoire, a UW grad who was governor of Washington from 2005 to 2013, also spoke on Thursday and praised new UW innovation efforts like the Mobility Innovation Center, part of a non-profit public/private initiative she leads called Challenge Seattle, and the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX), a U.S.-China joint graduate technology institute that launched this month in partnership with the UW, China’s Tsinghua University, and Microsoft.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” Gregoire told the crowd. “I wore my purple today; I am an alum of the University of Washington. We are the number one public university in the world for innovation, and I’m proud of it.”