When I last took proverbial pen to paper, the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold in the U.S. Many of us were adapting to a new telework reality, and we were learning to jump from one Zoom meeting to another. In the background, a renewed focus on racial injustice and inequities was gaining momentum.
I was keen to understand what effect these events would have on innovation. Would we see a decline in requests for our services? Would researchers’ interest in CoMotion’s innovation programs dwindle? Could we continue to build strong partnerships within UW and across our communities? And above all, how could we ensure that we applied a racial justice and equity lens to the work we are doing?
After three months, I am proud to say that in the face of the devastating health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, innovation at UW has continued to push forward, and by some measures reached new heights. It has been truly inspiring to see how so many UW teams and startups have found creative ways to continue developing their inventions or have pivoted to new markets in sectors as diverse as healthcare, life sciences, deep tech, smart transportation, and clean energy.
Over the last month, the CoMotion team conducted a number of signature events and deployed new funding to support these innovation efforts:
- The CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund held its spring event and awarded half a million dollars to ten teams to help bridge the gap between the conclusion of academic funding and seed stage investment.
- Our biannual CoMotion DubPitch event saw ten UW startups virtually pitching to over 60 investors hoping to raise Seed and Series A rounds.
- Our Innovation Training team partnered with the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs to offer a live webinar to more than 250 postdocs and graduate students interested in taking their research out into the world to create market impact. This was one of our largest training events ever.
- We kicked off our National Science Foundation-funded summer I-Corps customer discovery program with its largest cohort since inception: 200 people parsed out over 60 teams. And for the very first time, we expanded the reach of the program to a regional scale by including teams from universities in eastern Washington, Oregon and Montana.
- Finally, we announced the CoMotion Director’s Award, a just-in-time mechanism that provides financial support for innovations addressing a pressing societal need.
There has also been good news from our spinoffs. Some innovations can take years to come to fruition while others proceed more quickly. Just this month, Proprio, which builds a high-tech surgical navigation system, and Headlight, a construction tech startup, announced funding rounds totaling nearly $50 million. CoMotion is proud of these successes – the true measure of how working with faculty and researchers to nurture innovation leads to tangible economic and societal impact.
Despite these encouraging developments, we must also intensify efforts to address racial and gender equity in our entrepreneurial community. As President Cauce wrote recently, “Let’s create a ‘new normal’ where attention to issues of equity becomes habitual. In this community, in our community, we can and we will continue our work to address issues of equity, racism and bias. The veil has been lifted. We cannot give up – or go back.” As Vice Provost for Innovation and in partnership with President Cauce and the entire UW leadership team, I commit to this pledge as it relates to innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Washington.
We have known for a long time that the most successful innovations are hatched by teams with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints. We have also long been aware of the low numbers of women and people of color in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. CoMotion has advanced the model of inclusive innovation over the last few years and we will continue to create opportunities for all. We are also exploring additional actions and initiatives to support the university’s vision for a more just and equitable campus community. I’ll share these with you in my next update.
Director, UW CoMotion and Vice Provost for Innovation