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Julie Sandler accepts the award for Geek of the Year at the 2014 GeekWire Awards. She is now moving from Madrona to Pioneer Square Labs. (GeekWire Photo)

For the past five years, Julie Sandler has immersed herself in the startup world as an investor, advisor, and mentor, traveling around the country and meeting entrepreneurs at accelerators, incubators, makerspaces, and more.

But she hasn’t seen anything that helps entrepreneurs succeed quite like Pioneer Square Labs (PSL) — and now Sandler is leaving Madrona Venture Group to join the Seattle-based startup studio.

Julie Sandler. (Pioneer Square Labs Photo)

Sandler this week became a managing director at PSL, an 18-month old “startup studio” that uses a unique innovation model to rapidly test and validate new ideas before recruiting an executive team to build out a spin-off company. She is PSL’s fourth managing director, joining co-founders Greg Gottesman, Geoff Entress and Mike Galgon.

Sandler previously spent six years at Madrona, one of the top venture capital firms in the Pacific Northwest, and worked her way up to become a partner at the firm this past January. In an email to friends, Sandler called it a “difficult decision” to leave Madrona, noting that she had an “amazing experience there with a wonderful team.”

But the Seattle venture capitalist said she was intrigued by Pioneer Square Labs. She’s kept a close eye on the firm from the time it launched in October 2015, particularly given that Madrona was an early investor in the studio, and Gottesman, who served as managing director at Madrona for 18 years, started PSL. His fellow co-founders — Entress and Ben Gilbert — also spent time at Madrona before starting PSL.

At the same time, Sandler developed a passion for helping people who were in the early stages of company building. She noticed the quality of entrepreneurs who were coming through PSL, as well as its growing entrepreneur-in-residence program.

Pioneer Square Labs co-founder Greg Gottesman. (Pioneer Square Labs Photo)

“It’s one of the most vibrant innovation environments that I’ve seen, anywhere,” Sandler told GeekWire. “There is nothing I’ve seen that is as high-leverage or more entrepreneur-centric than what’s happening at PSL.”

Sandler was already helping entrepreneurs while working at Madrona, which also runs a similar “startup studio” called Madrona Venture Labs. But the opportunity to join PSL in its nascent stage — she calls it a startup — was enough to convince the Harvard and Stanford grad to make the change.

“This organization is clearly on a roll,” she explained. “It’s also early enough for me to really take on the role of an early team member and help develop how this model evolves to serve the entrepreneurs in our region in numerous ways.”

Gottesman said Sandler is uniquely suited to help PSL build the “best platform in the world for entrepreneurs.”

“In addition to being an incredibly smart, creative and inspirational leader, Julie is one of the most capable and entrepreneur-centric investors I have met in my 20 years of venture capital,” he added.

Sandler, who helped lead investments in startups like Integris, Poppy and Julep, said she had an “amazing ride at Madrona” and looks forward to continuing to work with the VC firm. She said “the relationship is close.”

Asked about that relationship given Sandler’s transition, Gottesman noted how Madrona is an investor in PSL and also invested in some of the studio’s spinout companies.

“We are excited to continue to find ways to work together to help build the Seattle ecosystem,” he said.

In a statement to GeekWire, Madrona Managing Director Scott Jacobson echoed those thoughts.

“Julie has been a great contributor to Madrona, many of our portfolio companies, and in the Seattle startup ecosystem,” he said. “We are excited for her in her new role at PSL and look forward to working together in the future to help build early stage companies in our region.”

Sandler, GeekWire’s 2014 Geek of the Year and a 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholar, is also passionate about helping women and underrepresented entrepreneurs; she helped start the Seattle Entrepreneurial Women’s Network, for example. Sandler said it will be an area of importance for her at PSL and she hopes to bring a diverse mix of entrepreneurs to the studio.

“There is an entirely new generation of founders coming up here in the Pacific Northwest, and especially Seattle, that is far more diverse across multiple dimensions than any generation of the past,” she said, adding that she’s never been more bullish about Seattle-based entrepreneurship.

PSL employs 17 people and five entrepreneurs-in-residence. It has spun out six companies, with four publicly announced:

  • LumaTax, a company that aims to automate sales tax reporting for small businesses.
  • Jet Closing, an app that helps streamline the real estate closing experience.
  • AdLightning, which helps digital publishing outlets scan their sites for disruptive ads.
  • Boundless, a startup that aims to help people navigate the U.S. immigration process.
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