Growing Up in the University District
Seattle and the UW aim to transform the U District into an innovation zone. Think of it as an urban Silicon Valley.
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Vikram Jandhyala sees Seattle’s University District evolving into an “innovation district” — a place where public and private sectors work together to develop socially beneficial technologies. Think Silicon Valley, where Stanford University faculty and students launch new companies or work on their new technologies with existing tech giants.
As the University of Washington’s vice president for innovation strategies and head of the UW CoMotion program, which pairs the research resources of the university with the business resources of the private sector, Jandhyala has already been pushing to make that vision come to life.
“CoMotion’s role is to be a hub, an innovation hub where we can get all these ideas out from the university into the community,” Jandhyala explains.
This noble endeavor involves not only working with researchers to spin out the next big ideas but also working with the city of Seattle to create an urban “campus” that extends beyond the physical boundaries of the university and into the University District. Unlike the relatively undeveloped acres that surrounded Stanford University in what became Silicon Valley, the UW is surrounded by urban neighborhoods, so the only way to grow is up — with taller buildings and the challenges that come with higher-density living, including reduced parking and higher rents.
“The U District is an opportunity just waiting to blossom,” declares Margaret O’Mara, a UW associate professor of history who has studied Silicon Valley’s development and believes the University District is well situated to realize Jandhyala’s vision.
O’Mara cites three major ingredients needed to sustain a viable innovation district. The first two are capital and an abundance of universities or other research institutions. Given existing research facilities in the region — not only at the UW but also at private-sector organizations such as the Allen Institute, Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center, Microsoft and Amazon — and the tech-oriented venture capital firms in the region, O’Mara says, “A lot of tech companies want to be proximate to that.”
O’Mara’s third ingredient key to the development of an innovation district is “quality of place.” Seattle possesses an advantage in retaining quality researchers, she says, because “people are generally loath to leave here.”
At the heart of uw CoMotion lie three “incubators,” or laboratories: one focused on engineering, life sciences and medical technologies; one on software and IT startups; and one on augmented, virtual and mixed reality startups.
It’s not just lab space that CoMotion offers faculty- and student-led startups. It also provides access to networking with industry partners and investors, plus coaching on pitching strategies, funding and business development.
In the past five years, CoMotion has incubated 79 startups. They are co-owned by faculty and student participants, along with investors, and the university generally takes a stake of between 5 and 10 percent. One recent graduate of the program — profiled by Seattle Business in 2014 when it was called GraphLab — is Turi, a machine-learning company acquired by Apple last year for $200 million.
Besides working with investors and private-sector companies like Amazon, Boeing and Microsoft, CoMotion collaborates with outside interest groups, such as Challenge Seattle, a private-sector initiative led by former Governor Christine Gregoire, which targets education, infrastructure and employment issues in the Seattle area.
“We are seeing synergies,” notes Jandhyala of these associations. “They want to understand how to keep their own staff and researchers innovative. We want to help them create their own sort of Skunk Works inside the companies.”
Matt McIlwain, managing director of the Madrona Venture Group and an investor in some of the startups launched by CoMotion, believes the model is a good one.
“UW CoMotion is expanding its impact on the community outside the university and is creating opportunities for ‘experiential learning’ for students at the university by investing in the innovation district,” says McIlwain. “This is a winning formula. UW brings strong academic thinking, talented students and innovative solutions to the table, while the external community often provides understanding of real world problems.”
At the same time, however, some residents of the neighborhood worry that the growth that would come with developing an innovation district could destroy the “quality of place” the U District already offers. John Fox, coordinator of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, a citizens’ group, said last May that plans to rezone the U District proposed by the city — allowing buildings as high as 320 feet — would fundamentally change the neighborhood. “It’s a wholesale remake of the university — turning this rich, socially, economically diverse community into a feeder for high-tech development,” he says.
Dave laclergue, a resource and production comanager with the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD), says the U District will be growing and, yes, changing, regardless of any rezoning the city initiates.
“There is really strong development interest right now under current zoning,” LaClergue points out. “The University of Washington is expanding; the private sector is building a lot of student housing. There are all these different forces bringing development to the U District.”
Through rezoning, LaClergue maintains, OPCD hopes to direct more of the expected growth to the core part of the neighborhood south of 50th Street and within a 10-minute walk from a light-rail station scheduled to open in 2021.
LaClergue says the city’s rezoning proposals, recently approved by the City Council, aim to ensure that residents’ priorities are addressed. One such priority, he notes, is affordable housing. The city’s plan is designed to provide 50,000 housing units within the next 10 years — with 30,000 being offered at market rates and 20,000 meeting affordability standards under the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda.
While some residents express concern about rezoning, those interested in seeing the emergence of an entrepreneurial community say the new development and density the rezoning would bring constitute crucial elements to the creation of an innovation district.
Chris DeVore, founder of Techstars, a startup accelerator, has been a pioneer in helping bring startups to the University District. He moved Techstars to Startup Hall, a UW-sponsored incubator established inside a renovated law school building. “The intent was to have a physical place for innovation independent of the UW,” DeVore says. “That was very successful.”
DeVore adds 30 companies have come from Techstars since the program moved to Startup Hall. A coworking space in the same building has been operating at full capacity. DeVore has also launched the Amazon Alexa Accelerator in concert with the Alexa Fund to help selected companies work with technologists and product leaders from Amazon and Techstars.
Another startup space has been established at Fluke Hall.
Peering over the edge of the UW Tower, top, one can see into the construction pit for Sound Transit's light-rail station on Brooklyn Avenue in the U District. Aove, a typical commercial strip along University Way demonstrates the low-rise nature of most buildings there — a situation that will change under new city zoning allowances.
One obstacle to the further development of an innovation district has been the scarcity of office space.
“When a [startup] reaches 15 people, there is no place to go,” says DeVore. He hopes the proposed rezoning will help change that situation, though it could take years for new high-rises to be built to the new heights allowed by the rezoning and for additional office space to become available.
While some of the new office space will be costly, he says, cheaper space will open up as those who can afford it move into the newly developed space.
Another important goal of the innovation district is to encourage more interaction between town and gown. The UW's plans for a more urban West Campus where students, researchers and professors interact with non-university innovators aims to do just that by creating an area with retail and public spaces.
“There will be more porosity, allowing more productive collaborations,” says DeVore. An accessible, desirable neighborhood will create the kind of “organic density and serendipitous interchange” innovation requires.
The potential conflict between development and livability is “well placed and well understood,” says UW’s Jandhyala. “Not all growth is great. If you grow the wrong way, you could end up gentrifying and losing the uniqueness of the district.”
Jandhyala thinks a major factor in the success of the district will be the imminent arrival of a light-rail station in the U District that will help discourage the kind of increased motor vehicle traffic that density often brings. Light-rail access will also ease pressure on housing availability because once the station opens, “suddenly you won’t have to live here to work here.”
O’Mara considers the planning activity for the innovation district a success. “The process that was started five years ago was a collaborative approach among policymakers, city officials, local business owners and stakeholders and social service providers, and the university,” she says.
She admits the inclusion of so many stakeholders made the process difficult. “[But] I think it will be a blessing in the long run because the most vibrant, most interesting neighborhoods are ones that are allowed to grow a little more organically.”
O’Mara, whose 2005 book Cities of Knowledge examines the combination of public and private forces that drive high-tech innovation, gets excited at the prospect for tech development in the U District.
“I’m very optimistic and bullish,” she says. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to build a really interesting, diverse tech community.”
Vikram Jandhyala demonstrates VR technology at UW's CoMotion Labs.
It’s Not Stanford
UW CoMotion targets social purpose in its startup labs.
While Seattle and the U District share many entrepreneurial advantages with Silicon Valley, University of Washington history Professor Margaret O’Mara notes some significant differences. The biggest is that, unlike Stanford University, the UW is a public institution.
From the beginning, says O’Mara, Stanford “had very porous boundaries between campus and the business community and they made it very easy for faculty to consult and to take a year off and go set up a startup.”
The UW’s mission, O'Mara says, is not to let a thousand startups bloom. "Its academic mission is to educate the students of the state of Washington.”
Vikram Jandhyala, the UW’s VP for innovation strategies and head of UW CoMotion, says that difference has shaped the projects CoMotion supports.
First, there is a strong educational component to CoMotion. In addition to providing laboratory space and connections to investors and private-sector companies, CoMotion also offers boot camps, workshops and training to faculty and students on business development, innovative thinking and marketing strategy. Second, the choice of projects to support isn’t based solely on prospective profitability.
“The metric,” Jandhyala explains, “is really moving the needle on something important in society. It could be a new technology, which disrupts something like an Uber, but it could also be something that on its own has no financial benefit, like our project on improving software for foster-care children.”
Not all of CoMotion’s projects are, strictly speaking, aimed at delivering social benefits.
“Some focus on profitability while others focus on social mission and use a sustainable business model,” Jandhyala says. “We also work with our teams to build an ‘inclusive innovation’ mindset, so even those building for profitability have a larger, more holistic view.”
Matt McIlwain, managing director of Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group, agrees.
“Companies can build a successful and profitable business by pursuing both commercially and socially beneficial goals,” McIlwain asserts.
Jandhyala points to a growing list of startups — some of which are still “incubating” in CoMotion labs and some of which have already “graduated” to the private sector — that promise a variety of social benefits.
• In the health and medicine lab, Senosis is developing applications that use the built-in sensors on smartphones to perform many common medical tests. The first two tests the team has developed detect neonatal jaundice and asthma.
• In CoMotion’s virtual reality lab, Pear Medical has developed software that converts CAT scans and MRI images into 3-D models that can be used in VR or mixed reality for preoperative planning.
• Another company, BluHaptics, developed visual control software for robotic systems that includes force feedback, making it easier to operate devices remotely.
• Nurtured in CoMotion’s software and engineering lab, WiBiotic developed technology for wirelessly charging aerial, mobile and aquatic robot fleets.
• Two undergraduates used CoMotion’s laboratories to develop SignAloud gloves, which translate American Sign Language motions into speech.
“There are 200 new ideas coming at us every few weeks,” says Jandhyala, who describes CoMotion’s goal as developing “the innovation mindset” and delivering it to “anyone who needs it — a student, faculty, alumni, the community.” — P.M.