UW’s Severson has a world of ideas to get out the door

Jim Severson gave a talk one night in
Bellevue, not long after he took the job
of fixing relations between businesses
and the University of Washington. He
was pulled aside afterward.

"You’ll never last," one businessman
told him.

By Luke Timmerman
Seattle Times business reporter

Severson had just talked about making
bedrock change at UW’s
technology-transfer shop, a place seen
in and out of the university as a
dysfunctional bureaucracy. Some eyes
rolled at how foolish he sounded —
trying to get rid of obstacles that block
UW discoveries from becoming engines
of business.

The jab rolled off him, as usual.
Severson, a tall Midwesterner, showed his squinty smile, laughed and shook
hands. He jokes about it now.

"You need to be sure of yourself, and you need to have a thick skin,"
Severson said later. "This is not an easy way to make a living."

As the new man in charge of UW technology transfer, Severson has one of
the thorniest, and most vital, jobs in Seattle, some in business and
academia say. The UW is the nation’s top public university at snagging
research dollars, but it has never mastered the art of sprinkling inventions
into businesses that parlay them into real products.

Severson, 52, came to the task on New Year’s Day with a reputation as a
national leader in his field. He began his career in academic research,
switched to business, then focused the last dozen years on the nexus
between the two. He’s the first person UW has hired with such a background
for the job.

National colleagues, subordinates and a former
boss say Severson has a knack for staying
grounded in his mission and thriving in a field of
complex motives, greed and ego.

Colleagues describe him as gregarious,
strait-laced and steely. He earns $210,000 a
year, yet drives an 8-year-old compact
Oldsmobile. He doesn’t take himself too
seriously. Asked about his hometown of Jewell,
Iowa, population 1,200, he chuckles that it still
has the quaint, small-town motto he grew up
with, "A Gem in a Friendly Setting."

Ron Howell, managing director of WRF Capital,
a venture fund with ties to the university, said he
saw key personality traits emerge on Severson’s
second day on the job.

"He came in here and said to me — here’s who I
am, and what I see needs to be fixed," Howell
said. "I didn’t have anything to add. He
immediately established credibility, which isn’t

Farm work and football

Severson grew up the older of two boys on a small Iowa farm where his
parents still live. His brother, Darrel, said he did chores, wasn’t afraid of hard
work, but didn’t love farming.

He loved sports. One year at Christmas, Severson got a football helmet and
marked it with the number of his idol, quarterback Johnny Unitas.

He grew into a 6-foot-3 offensive lineman in
football and captain of his high-school basketball
team. He didn’t study hard but got good grades,
and teachers liked him, Darrel said. Growing up
during in the post-Sputnik years, he was
intrigued more by science than English.

College pulled Severson 20 miles away to Iowa
State University, where he says he didn’t get
serious until his senior year. He became
captivated by a physiology course on how the
body responds to stresses, which led him to
pursue a doctorate.

Severson got married the summer before
graduate school at Iowa State. His wife, Trish,
taught elementary school, supporting him
financially and emotionally in the four years it
took to get his doctorate.

In the late ’70s, the Seversons moved to Los
Angeles, where Jim got a postdoctoral fellowship
at the University of Southern California to study
aging. In nine years, he was promoted from the
lab to the faculty and started a family with three

"I was treated well, but my wife and I wanted
something different for the family," he said.
"Salaries weren’t great, and housing costs in
L.A. were notorious."

He took a job with Amersham, a pharmaceutical
company with offices in suburban Chicago. They
wanted a traveling scientist to meet with other
scientists about their projects. Severson’s
Rolodex fattened with contacts, from Nobel
Prize winners on down, and he learned the ropes
of drug development, a foreign concept to many
in academia.

Severson got tired of travel and also learned that to climb the ladder at
Amersham he had to be in sales and marketing, which didn’t interest him.
He listened when a recruiter from the University of Minnesota called.

Shaping Minnesota’s office

Severson marvels that he was the first scientist — and first nonlawyer —
Minnesota’s tech-transfer office had ever hired. He figured his background
was essential for the tricky work of evaluating technologies, marketing them
to business and negotiating technology licenses. He saw an opportunity to
help shape an office.

He quickly was assigned to investigate a scandal, in which a
world-renowned transplant surgeon developed a drug at the university, sold it
without FDA approval and kept it hidden from the university. His office had to
act quickly. For one three-week spell, Severson worked round the clock to
evaluate the market for such a drug and try to craft a legal, ethical business
deal for a drug company to license it. It didn’t pan out, but wasn’t a waste.

"That work helped me prove myself to some substantial people in the
Minnesota business community and to the administration," Severson said. "I
proved I could work under pressure."

Severson was promoted to director of Minnesota’s tech-transfer office in
1995. On his watch, Minnesota researchers disclosed more inventions, got
more patents and licenses done, and raked in more cash.

With a national reputation by 1999, Severson took the top tech-transfer job
at Ivy League school Cornell.

He was so well-regarded, Cornell tried to outbid the UW for his services,
said Bob Richardson, Cornell’s vice provost for research.

"He’s honest and he knows how to deal with people," Richardson said. "I
think he’s one of the outstanding leaders in the field."

Severson said he was happy at Cornell but was enticed by a chance to
come to one of the top research universities. He also hit it off with UW
Interim President Lee Huntsman, who kept a commitment to talk over the
tech-transfer job during the frenzied weekend that former President Richard
McCormick announced his departure.

Huntsman was clear about what Severson would be getting into.
Entrepreneur and investor relations were tense, faculty were frustrated by
slow responses to inventions, office turnover was high, experience and
morale were low. Not enough companies were being spun out, not enough
inventions disclosed, not enough money flowing.

"One of the good things is that everything here
has been as advertised. No surprises," Severson

Making the rounds

Severson has been making the rounds,
introducing himself to key people for the past
three months. He eats brown-bag lunches in a
central meeting room and invites employees to
sit with him.

He has already fired a couple of people. He
figures he has about a year before he has to
show results.

He isn’t afraid to list his goals. He wants to
stabilize his 45-person office by reducing
turnover and increasing training, productivity and career growth for
employees. He wants to fix relations with businesses and faculty, and boost
the number of licenses signed and companies started.

He doesn’t list bringing in more money, but it’s an obvious objective.

Some already see results. Dr. Chuck Murry, a UW stem-cell researcher,
said responses to inventions have improved and the staff attitude is "a breath
of fresh air."

Severson’s wife, still in New York state, plans to move this summer. They’re
thinking of buying a three-bedroom house in Edmonds or Woodinville, and
they’ve accepted that it’s going to have a smaller yard than they’d like.

"We did a lot of soul-searching," Trish Severson said. "It was a difficult
decision because we have a lot of great relationships (in New York) and
things were going well. But it was the sort of thing he couldn’t turn down. It
was too good of an opportunity."

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


Tech transfer puts ivory-tower results to real-world use

By Luke Timmerman
Seattle Times business reporter

Technology transfer is the dimly
understood buzz phrase for one of the
fundamental movements within American
universities in the past two decades.

It is a field that’s attempting to transfer university inventions into the hands of
businesses that can hone them into useful — and profitable — products for

It has its roots in the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, a federal law which made it
possible for universities to get a financial piece of the pie from inventions
they create with federal money. The law gave universities incentives and
obligations to spread technologies throughout society, to find businesses
with the ability to take them to store shelves.

Some examples of university tech transfer have become icons, and some
have spiraled into scandals. The sports drink Gatorade has beginnings in
research done at the University of Florida. University of Washington
technologies have been used to develop vaccines for Hepatitis B.

Other faculty inventors have been accused of using public support for
personal profit, such as a surgeon at the University of Minnesota who used
university resources in the early 1990s to develop and sell a drug without
approval from the FDA.

The professional group touting technology transfer, the Association of
University Technology Managers, claims that in 1998, patents and licenses
from U.S. universities stimulated $33.5 billion in economic activity and
supported 280,000 jobs.

Development of technologies is a long odyssey. It begins with university
research, usually supported by federal grants. When a faculty member
believes he or she has made a discovery, it is supposed to be disclosed to
the university’s tech-transfer office. The office decides whether the invention
has value to businesses and, if it does, contacts businesses who may be

The office may try to patent the technology and sell an exclusive license to
a business, if that’s the most viable way to get a business to fully develop it
for the market. Or, the office can sell licenses to a wide array of businesses
that may be interested in a common tool, like techniques for cutting and
pasting bits of DNA to develop drugs. In some cases, tech-transfer offices
will attempt to help spin out new companies built around a patented
university technology and take an ownership stake in the company.

At the UW, the nation’s top public university at winning research grants, a
total of 503 technology licenses have pulled in $175 million over the last 20
years, according to the office’s 2002 annual report.

It is a lot of money, but tech-transfer people joke about how unrealistic some
administrators or regents are about its impact. Some leaders hope the
revenues can lessen the need for tuition increases or state funding. But last
year, technology licenses brought in $17 million to the UW, a tiny sliver of
its annual operating budget of more than $2 billion.

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or [email protected]

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

Sorry, we couldn't find any posts. Please try a different search.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.