The Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship has risen from deep roots—and continues to grow
The evergreen tree is the symbol of Washington state and, for many, of the holiday season—gifts and all. Growers consider it to be mature when it starts producing cones with seeds. This can take up to 30 years and requires that the tree grows as the environment around it evolves.
This makes the evergreen an apt metaphor for the state of entrepreneurship at the Foster School of Business and the University of Washington that has been championed by the Arthur W. Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship. Thirty years ago, a few individuals planted the first seeds of an official program as the dynamics of collegiate innovation adapted to the growth in technology worldwide.
Now, all these years later, the Buerk Center stands as one of the pillars of the UW and Seattle entrepreneurial ecosystem—focused on empowering students at all levels to solve real-world problems by launching impactful businesses.
But just as a startup is only as strong as the individuals behind it, so is the Buerk Center. During the 2021-2022 academic year, we’ll celebrate the perspectives of individuals who impacted or participated in our programs, competitions and courses not only by looking back, but also by looking forward. These stories, a few of which are highlighted in the pages ahead, will live on the Buerk Center’s website at startup.uw.edu. Their experiences and insights will provide additional resources to student entrepreneurs today and in the future.
In this way we honor those who got the ball rolling, while fostering a future we can’t wait to see.
In 1991-92, a group of individuals driven by a desire to empower students to solve real-world problems, and to innovate and lead the Seattle business ecosystem forward, organized the first advisory board for the Program in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Washington. Those same values live on today in the Foster School as it looks to advance the leaders, insights and betterment of humanity well into the future.
Among those influential first board members is a self-described “non-entrepreneur.” Ron Howell retired in April 2021 as CEO of the Washington Research Foundation after 32 years, but remains engaged with the Buerk Center and student entrepreneurs. His leadership has impacted the evolving landscape of the bio- and health-technology startup ecosystem in Seattle.
If you asked Howell to tell you what was true in 1992 that is still true now, he’ll point to the courage, smarts and infectious energy of the students, first and foremost. But that’s not all. As one of the original patrons of the program, he graciously shared these words:
There have been lectures on how the program or the events have changed, grown or become more popular, but all that stuff is like reading a phone book until you get to one of the competitions. It’s all about the students, the students, the students—and how they put in their hearts and souls to try and succeed.
I’ve been on the advisory board through five deans. For the program to survive the vision of five deans only underscores the importance of entrepreneurship in a modern competitive business school. Every single one of them thought that this program was worth keeping and, in fact, improving.
Can you imagine if a medical school graduated people and none of them ended up as actual practicing surgeons? That’s like a business school that doesn’t have practicing entrepreneurs roaming the hallway.
I knew in 1992 that universities in general were interested in creating startups out of technology-based businesses, which is still true today. Alvin Kwiram (UW emeritus professor and emeritus vice provost for research) asked the Washington Research Foundation if we would help think about and fund early-stage startup companies. The answer was simple. He was the first person to inform me that the university wasn’t indifferent to startups. Startups had to become not just a part of the culture, but the university had to become a partner in return.
It’s been my great pleasure to work with the leaders of the program. I’ve seen it develop from a very modest beginning, with very modest resources, to a program that currently competes on a national basis for the best students in the world, not just this country. Graduates go from teams of students to successful serial entrepreneurs and financial patrons and supporters of the program.
In this business school, this entrepreneurship program, you can get introduced to CEOs that have tried and failed, as well as venture capitalists, people that understand manufacturing, distribution, international business, etc. UW is taking full advantage of the fact that Seattle is the repository for many exciting businesses—historical growth, venture capital, and an abundance of different types of businesses. People with various backgrounds.
I’m really proud to have been a part of this program and I hope it sticks around for another 30 years.
In 30 years of formal entrepreneurship programming in the Foster School, perhaps no course has impacted undergraduate students more than Creating a Company. When it debuted in fall of 1998 under the guidance of Gary Hansen—who helped launched the Program for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in 1991—it represented a seismic shift.
The two-quarter structure empowers a diverse group of students to form teams, launch a business and seek real revenue and funding. However, in 2009, four years before the Entrepreneurship Minor for non-business students became available, it was a challenge for students like Adina Mangubat (BS 2009 in psychology), the president and CEO of Spiral Genetics, to enroll. So, Mangubat sought out a sister course taught at UW-Bothell by Alan Leong—the very instructor who would take over Creating a Company at Foster in 2011 and leave an indelible mark of his own. He brought with him the “Hell Night” pitch competition as a core component to prepare students for launch. It certainly did for Mangubat. She lists “Winner of Hell Night 2009” on her LinkedIn next to “Dean’s List” at UW. Since then, she’s been a dedicated mentor to Creating a Company students. Here is why:
Alan’s class was really the first time that I saw other people like me that were starting their own companies. He brings back alumni that did it at the same age that the students are. I didn’t have any background in genetics or computer science. It took a non-matriculated student—a molecular biologist PhD—to be in the course at the same time as me to be able to explain complicated things in a way other people could get them. And boom, there was a company!
Diversity really does breed innovation—the more you can get in terms of ages, backgrounds, technical interests, majors, etc., the more interesting things happen. At the end of the day, investors, especially in the early stages, are investing in you. That’s why the pitch competition (Hell Night) is perfect because it teaches people how to communicate.
The Buerk Center’s 30th anniversary arrives in the same academic year as the 25th anniversary of the Dempsey Startup Competition (formerly the UW Business Plan Competition). What many don’t know about that event is the role that the MBA student co-chairs play—or how participating, networking and working behind the scenes in that role can change their lives forever.
George Robinson (MBA 2019) co-chaired the BPC 20th anniversary celebration in 2017. He had spent almost ten years as an engineer at Boeing when he faced a critical decision: continue or join one of the top-ranked MBA programs in the nation and learn more about business and entrepreneurship. And, like Robert Frost’s fork in the road, George says his choice has made all the difference.
On working behind the scenes:
My mental model of entrepreneurship was the following: Inventor has a great idea, works with close friends in a garage, then capital, hockey-stick growth, and IPO. Experiencing the stages of the business plan competition and meeting with founders and VCs helped me realize how much more there was. Students articulate why they would be the ones to solve their customers’ key problems and backed their ideas up with customer learnings from research and, often, actual revenue.
On joining one of the prize-winning teams as they entered the Jones + Foster Accelerator:
Joining ShopSight (think Google Analytics for a brick-and-mortar store) in the Jones + Foster Accelerator was a chance to learn some of these lessons first-hand. The Accelerator provided us amazing mentors and a springboard to connect with large customers and partners such as Nordstrom, REI and Impinj. Looking back, I can’t believe we made so much progress developing relationships with customers in such a short amount of time (and launched a pilot at Made in Washington at Bellevue Square right before the holidays.)
On choosing the startup world after graduation:
A little over two years after graduating, I worked at a tech startup turned unicorn (Convoy) and an even earlier stage tech startup (Tomo). I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit uncomfortable and sometimes scary moving from a large organization with well-defined roles and products to a smaller company where I had to help chart a new path. But I have been able to lean on the lessons I learned at UW in entrepreneurship, breaking problems into testable hypotheses and treating failures as opportunities to learn. I haven’t had a dull moment since leaving school.