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2000 Small Business profiles
Monday, March 13, 2000
by Thomas Lee
Hearing Steven Cooper and Mike Rucki describe Dr. Beam, their new software program, is like attending an Engineering 101 lecture at the University of Washington.
As UW grad students in the early '90s, Cooper and Rucki originally designed Dr. Beam to be a learning tool for undergraduates considering a career in civil engineering.
But a funny thing happened to them on the way to the laboratory. Dr. Beam, they figured, could make the jump from a novel research toy confined exclusively to the use of engineering gurus to a viable commercial product for students and professionals alike.
And so with a little help from the UW technology-transfer office, Cooper, Rucki and UW Professor Greg Miller founded Seattle-based Dr. Software in 1996.
That Cooper and Rucki would want to spin off their research into a commercial venture is hardly new in the world of higher education. Products ranging from Gatorade (University of Florida) to DVD technology (Columbia University) were the result of university brain power. Medical schools across the country frequently form partnerships with pharmaceutical companies to market breakthrough drugs.
The University of Washington is a big believer in commercializing research, raking in more than $10 million in royalties in 1997 and 1998, according to a survey by the Association of University Technology Managers. Since 1964, more than 140 small businesses have spun off from the university, said Ken Walters, a UW business professor.
Of the group, some have grown into formidable companies (Immunex) while a few have been bought by industry Goliaths like Microsoft (Numinous Technologies). But most small businesses remain small, said Walters, with 90 percent choosing to remain in Washington state.
Most university-bred start-ups, said Walters, find it difficult to attract capital because their products are still in development.
In Dr. Software's case, Cooper and Rucki have yet to find an investor, and instead are relying on a $100,000 National Science Foundation grant to develop Dr. Beam and the newer Dr. Frame.
In a nutshell, Dr. Beam and Dr. Frame are interactive software programs that allow users to manipulate computer models to instantly determine the outcome of a given scenario. For instance, if an elephant walked across a bridge, the program would calculate how the elephant's weight would be distributed across the structure.
Eventually, Cooper and Rucki hope to create a three-dimensional multimedia program, which can record and play back a particular model manipulation.
It's not exactly the stuff that fires the imagination of venture capitalists, but Cooper believes the software has unlimited potential. Cooper said the company has received interest not just from engineers but also from architects, high-school teachers, hobbyists and aerospace workers.
"We are sitting on a bubble right now," said Cooper. "We could go in so many directions."
Since Cooper and Rucki devote most of their resources to product development, what little marketing Dr. Software does consists of placing ads in trade journals.
But the company's saving grace has been the Internet. Through its Web site at www.drsoftware-home.com, the company has sold products to customers in England, Japan and Italy. Overseas sales accounted for half of Dr. Software's $30,000 in revenue last year.
"You can't send salespeople tramping around the world," said Walters. The Internet "is a perfect way to get your product out there."
Dr. Software can also tap into a bottomless pool of talent: the university. If Dr. Beam allows UW engineering students to develop their own technology, said Cooper, then Dr. Software would be able to incorporate it.
"A lot of people do research which lies dead on the shelf as soon as they leave the university," said Cooper.
But with the company's strong ties to the university, he said, engineering students will have the chance to really make their education pay off.
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