Washburn reflects on past 18 months, looks forward in his new role

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last in a five-part series that started with an interview with David Millhorn, Executive Vice President of the University of Tennessee, about the past eight years and the future, including the important work of the Research Foundation {UTRF}. It comes on the heels of Dave Washburn being elevated to the top post at UTRF.)

Dave Washburn came to the University of Tennessee Research Foundation (UTRF) about a year and one-half ago to help accelerate the commercialization of UT inventions.

When the then new UTRF Vice President arrived in November 2011, he brought his experience over the past decade in helping rebuild the technology transfer program at the University of Illinois

“I’m most proud of the number of high-quality start-ups that we created at Illinois,” Washburn told us in a recent teknovation.biz interview. “We have inherited some of the same challenges here that I found there – distrust, a belief that we could not deliver, and the lack of a robust entrepreneurial culture.”

His Illinois experience and his performance since arriving obviously played heavily in UT’s decision to elevate Washburn to the top position as UTRF President that was announced a few days ago.

“The University of Illinois is an excellent example of a university that successfully turned around its commercialization group, and Dave was an integral part of that process from the start,” said UT Executive Vice President David Millhorn.

Eighteen months into his job, Washburn is bullish about the progress that the UTRF team has made, particularly in the areas for which he has been responsible – UT’s Knoxville and Chattanooga campuses, the Institute of Agriculture, and the UT Space Institute. In his new role as President, he looks forward to also focusing on the entire institution.

The soft-spoken, but focused Washburn has some strong, philosophical beliefs.

“We have become an important part of a culture shift that is underway at the university,” he says, adding that his personal goal is to “show that we are an organization that can move at the speed of business.”

Being very responsive means “building trusting relationships with faculty,” working closely with the top leadership of the university on strategic institutional priorities, and building out an infrastructure that supports entrepreneurship and commercialization of faculty inventions.

Washburn is also committed to not letting the technology transfer function be the proverbial tail wagging the dog.

“IP (intellectual property) is anywhere from fifth to 15th in priority for companies wanting to work with UT,” he says. The top two are the expertise of the faculty and the talents of the students the university graduates.

“We won’t let the conversations about IP frustrate companies who want to engage in a meaningful way with UT,” Washburn adds.

In the Vice President’s role, he regularly strategized with Taylor Eighmy, Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement at UTK, Bill Brown, Dean of Research at the Institute of Agriculture, and Wayne Davis, Engineering Dean. Davis is the outgoing chair of the UTRF Multi-Disciplinary Executive Committee that oversees efforts at all campuses but the Health Science Center in Memphis.  Eighmy recently replaced Davis on the UTRF Board.

“Our conversations were much broader than just IP,” he says as he collaborated with those individuals to drive a research and commercialization agenda.

Washburn concurs with Millhorn’s assertion in an earlier article in this series when he said research funding from the federal government will be flat. This means a greater emphasis on business and industry.

As a result, Washburn also works closely with Cliff Hawks, the new President and Chief Executive Officer of the Cherokee Farm Development Corporation.

“It (Cherokee Farm) is a critical piece of our research enterprise,” he says.

In his new role, Washburn will be working even more closely with Richard Magid, his Memphis-based colleague who is responsible for UT’s Health Science Center (UTHSC) activities.

“UTHSC generates about one-third of UT’s IP, and Richard is well-ingrained in the healthcare community,” Washburn said. “The office is running very well, and we are working together to optimize our shared back office systems and processes.”

Some of Washburn’s short-term goals include:

  • Securing more maturation and seed funding to help jump start technologies and successful startup formations across the system.
  • Working with UTK’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to launch a “third, high dollar business plan competition.” The existing two are “Vol Court” and the “Boyd Venture Fund.”  Washburn visualizes the newer competition awarding a grand prize of $25,000 to $30,000.
  • Implementing a systematic marketing system for UTRF technologies

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