Meet Tom Daniel, the new CEO of Washington Research Foundation

Tom Daniel, incoming Washington Research Foundation CEO (WRF Photo)

Washington Research Foundation has appointed a new CEO: Tom Daniel, former chairman of the University of Washington’s Department of Biology.

Daniel will take the helm of WRF on Oct. 1 from interim CEO Susan Coliton, who took over after the retirement of longtime CEO Ron Howell more than a year ago.

WRF was founded in 1981 to help commercialize and license tech from the state’s universities and research institutions. That role is now largely performed by in-house tech transfer offices, and WRF’s remit has since broadened.

The organization has provided more than $137 million in grants to state institutions to support postdoc salaries, faculty research, nascent startups, and more. WRF supports innovation and entrepreneurship even before tech transfer offices get involved, and it also moves it forward through WRF Capital, which has invested in 119 startups since 1996.

“Their role in the ecosystem is that bridge point, more than being strictly venture capital” said Daniel, a former MacArthur ‘Genius’ fellow. “They do the whole thing. And there are not many organizations that do that.”

GeekWire spoke with Daniel, 68, about the future of WRF and how the new position dovetails with his other roles, which include serving on the federal advisory committee for the Biological Sciences Directorate of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the board of directors for Allen Institute and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

He also directs the UW Weill Neurohub program, which advances treatments for brain disease. “These are all synergistic activities,” said Daniel, who transitioned to emeritus faculty status this month and plans to continue his research on movement and flight biomechanics in the giant moth Manduca sexta. He’s an interdisciplinary scientist and has held adjunct appointments in Computer Science and Engineering, Bioengineering and Mechanical Engineering.

The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

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Geekwire: What are you most excited about for the future of WRF?

Tom Daniel: Taking this life science sector and accelerating what’s happening there in this region. And I use the words very carefully. I didn’t say life sciences startups. The life science sector includes the startups, it includes innovation, it includes the people doing the science. My role as CEO is to grease the skids for the WRF staff and the projects and enterprises that the region is trying to move toward. WRF can inform that. If there’s a partnership that can help bridge the private and public sector, we should do it.

WRF’s focus has been mainly in the life sciences. Do you feel there are opportunities to broaden the type of disciplines WRF supports?

It’s a little early to say because we are going to be doing some strategic planning, and that will be a team effort. It is not easy to separate domains: “This is biosciences, this is engineering, this is environment.” The reality is there are things happening at the confluence of all of these. For example, human health and environmental conditions: look outside and there is climate change. Devices and biosciences have heavy overlap in areas such as neuroscience. I’m hard pressed to find new and exciting areas which don’t have a touch of machine learning and AI.

Over the last 40 years, WRF has provided more than $570 million to nonprofit research institutions in Washington state through grants and licensing payments. (WRF graph)

WRF has strengths in supporting early-stage researchers, grant-making and fostering and funding startups. Are there other ways it can spur innovation?

This is really early days, so I’m not sure how this all plays out. But WRF’s main goal is to enrich innovation in the state of Washington, supporting research and early stage companies through grants and investments. There are a lot of ways to do that. Among them are partnerships, not just with venture capital, but there can also be partnerships with the National Science Foundation — for example, if an institution wants to create a major center relevant to innovation in technology.

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There are so many synergies with what WRF is trying to do and the strategic mission of NSF going forward. There’s a new directorate at NSF called Technology, Innovation and Partnerships. And everything that NSF if talking about — there is a mirror in what WRF is doing.

That’s a pretty interesting potential intersection.

I’ll give you one other connection. I sit on the board of directors of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. And it has been funding quite a range of efforts that are not in the biosciences, because that is on the Allen Institute side. The foundation has much more of a focus on conservation, climate, things like that, though they also have a bioscience push. Another example of a partnership, and this is not particular to WRF, is that the foundation has partnered with NSF to fund technology development for monitoring biodiversity in the context of climate change.

Do you feel you’re in a better position to help foster these larger goals through WRF than the UW?

Yes. WRF’s partnerships are not just with UW. I’m a passionate fan of the UW and all that it’s done, and I’ve loved my career there, but there’s some impressive things going on across the state. Our agriculture and veterinary fields are pretty thin at UW and they are really important to the economy of the state; these are strengths at Washington State University and elsewhere. Things that have a direct impact on the health and welfare of the people of the state, that’s where WRF can come in. There’s some real challenges with agriculture today, and climate.

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You’ve also expressed an interest in increasing diversity in science and entrepreneurship, can you elaborate on WRF’s role?

WRF is affording better diversification of the STEM pathway, better inclusivity all the way from discovery to translation, for instance through its funding of postdocs and a recent award to Seattle Children’s. I care deeply about this. You can’t have innovation in the region without a diverse pipeline of innovators.

What excites you about the startup ecosystem in Washington?

It was dominated by the IT sector until fairly recently, and the biotech sector is now beginning to boom here. That’s really interesting. And why it is beginning to do so? Part of it is those two are coming into alignment: the IT sector in the biotech sector. And there are few places in the world that can match that alignment that we have here. That includes the strength of the research institutes in this region.

There’s a single research-intensive institution with this strong UW-Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center partnership, and then there’s this region immediately around it with Seattle Children’s, the Allen Institute and others. But in the Bay Area, you have institutions like Berkeley and Stanford working more separately. Boston is similar. You don’t have quite that town-gown coordination that we have here. That’s pretty unique.

Tell us something cool about moths.

Moths have the most exquisite chemical sensing capabilities in the world.

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