On a break from his startup, the jeans and T-shirt-clad Matt Ferguson, ’11, slips into the bright-windowed break room on the third floor of Fluke Hall at the CoMotion Incubator.
As he adds ice to his coffee, he explains that he and the other co-founders of LodeSpin Labs are refining a medical imaging technique that may be safer than X-Rays or CT scans. Their company, founded in 2010, spun off from research they undertook as Ph.D. students in the UW materials science lab of company co-founder Kannan Krishnan.
The proximity to UW’s medical community and to Krishnan’s offices is ideal, says Ferguson. And the hall itself has provided the founders a base as they develop their product and look for investors. “The people here have really helped us, simplifying our access to key resources and materials,” he adds.
Half concrete and contemporary, half brick and wood paneling, Fluke Hall today blends life sciences and computer technology, labs and offices, invention and investment. Built in 1988, the three-story structure on the east edge of University of Washington’s Seattle campus started out as the state-run Washington Technology Center, but in 2012 became the UW’s building. A $28 million renovation provided office and laboratory space for new companies to evolve out of UW’s research and labs. “It’s really a whole ecosystem around the innovation efforts at the UW,” says Vikram Jandhyala, Vice Provost for Innovation.
Many of the founders of the building’s new companies are recent graduates or University scientists and engineers. A few receive support from the University’s CoMotion Innovation Fund, garnering between $40,000 and $100,000 to bridge the gap between academic effort and early outside investment.
The list of businesses that have incubated in Fluke Hall is sizable, and the mix surprising. Zwitter, for example, makes ultrathin coatings that are resistant to microorganisms and unwanted molecules. AnswerDash helps online businesses answer customer questions more quickly and correctly. Seattle Sensor Systems makes portable instruments that detect pathogens, toxins and allergens.
But perhaps the most lively lab is VICIS, a collaboration between UW doctors, scientists and engineers to create a football helmet specially designed to reduce the forces that cause concussion. The standard helmet design currently in use hasn’t really been updated since the 1970s. For the work, VICIS received $500,000 this year from the NFL, Under Armour and GE’s Head Health Challenge, and about $2 million in pledges and support.
With about 20,000 square feet of laboratory and office space, the incubator can accommodate up to 25 small companies. Fifteen are currently making use of the building’s labs, offices and support resources. Four have recently “graduated” to larger facilities.
In addition to serving as safe harbor where UW spin-offs can manage the challenging early period of starting a new company, the incubator helps the first-time business owners through a steep learning curve and broad need for resources. The CoMotion program brings in entrepreneurs to advise the startups. It also helps with intellectual property management, marketing strategy and licensing support.
Something is happening in every corner of the hall, from the confetti of Post-it notes covering the floor of the office zone, to the wet and dry laboratories and the CoMotion MakerSpace where students, faculty, and staff can, simply put, make stuff. The “makers’” resource, which opened last March, provides dry erase boards, wood-topped worktables, discrete rooms for meetings, sewing machines, hand tools, soldering stations, circuit boards and 3D printers.
“We purposely set it up to be attractive to a wide and diverse set of students,” says Patrick Shelby, ’04, director of Innovation Programs at CoMotion. “There may not be a startup or IP [intellectual property] that develops as a result of this, but it is a way to foster and encourage innovation.”