In the fanciest dorm in Washington, designs on changing the world

The first class on the first day at the Halcyon Incubator gathered amidst the banging of construction workers in the background. Painters carefully applied a final coat on the window frames, movers carried furniture into the bedrooms, and a dozen or so guys put finishing touches on what is arguably the most expensive dorm in Washington — the historic Halcyon House in Georgetown.

Biotech entrepreneurs Sachiko Kuno and Ryuji Ueno paid $11 million for the 1787 mansion in 2011, just months after spending $22 million on Evermay, a historic property just blocks away. The question: What on earth was the couple going to do with two multimillion-dollar houses?

The answer: Live in Evermay, and turn Halcyon into an elegant, exclusive graduate school of sorts for social innovators — a 21st-century spin on the old-fashioned idea of aristocratic patronage.

It took three years for the couple’s vision to become reality, and a $3 million renovation of the property. The seven fellows who started Tuesday will live, eat and be mentored together for the next four months in the hopes of getting their dream projects off the ground.

Some of the fellows quit their jobs to be here, convinced that it might be their best opportunity to turn their ideas into something real. “With something like this in your hand, you either make it or break it,” says Diana Sierra, an industrial designer trying to bring her hygiene products to schoolgirls in Africa.

Everyone who comes to Washington wants to change the world, but not many get a chance like this — in a setting quite like this.

Since 2000, Kuno and Ueno have quietly operated the S&R Foundation, which brings young scientists and musicians to the Washington area. The couple hosted an annual awards dinner and concerts featuring young artists, but maintained an extremely low profile outside of the local Japanese American community.

Until they bought Evermay. The 1801 mansion, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and sitting on three acres of prime Georgetown land, was originally listed at $49 million and sat on the market for three years until it was mysteriously snapped up for $22 million. The new owners had another surprise: the purchase of Halcyon House six months later. Turns out they loved historic old houses and, thanks to a fortune from their pharmaceutical company, could afford them.

Both raised in Japan, the two medical researchers — he’s a doctor, she’s a biochemist — thought they were destined for careers in academia until they discovered a natural fatty acid that could be used to repair damaged cells. That discovery eventually turned into a drug to treat glaucoma, then a second for constipation. In 1996, the business partners (and soon-to-be husband and wife) relocated to Washington to raise millions in investment capital.

The move paid off big time: In 2007, their Bethesda-based company, Sucampo Pharmaceuticals, went public — a very short time in the world of biotech. With their fortune made (no details, but Kuno laughs that they’re “not billionaires”) the couple began to expand their foundation work: the outgoing Kuno out front as spokeswoman for the two and her shy husband preferring to stay quietly in the background.

With their experience as young researchers — applying for grants, working with professional mentors — the emphasis was always on helping the next generation of scientists and musicians. They focused on individuals, not organizations, by taking them to the next stage in their careers and showcasing their work.

They surprised a number of people, including themselves, by purchasing Halcyon House so soon after Evermay, but they decided it was the ideal place to launch their experiment for “social impact entrepreneurs,” an idea inspired by Kuno’s student year abroad. While working on her PhD, Kuno, now 59, spent a year in Munich, where she had access to professors, all the resources of a university and a huge, beautiful garden to relax in. “As a young scientist and student, I was very much impressed and helped by them,” Kuno says in the spacious sitting room of Evermay. “It was a life-changing experience for me.”

Instead of giving scholarships to young entrepreneurs, she wanted the Halcyon Incubator to replicate her hands-on experience in Munich: Sharing time and space with other bright young people from different fields, away of the daily demands of work and habits.

“I think it is a special opportunity to separate from the everyday experience,” she says. “You might be inspired.”

“You get to D.C., you’re all ‘West Wing,’ ” says Ryan Ross, the Incubator’s program manager. “After spending enough time here, you’re more ‘House of Cards.’ ”

Like many young idealists, Ross is not convinced that the government can get things done — and this is a guy who spent his life in politics and policy, including a stint at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Too many people in Washington who want to change the world are caught up in the red tape and realities of large organizations. Ross says he joined the S&R Foundation to get what he calls important ideas to the marketplace faster.

The operating principle at Halcyon? Select a handful of young people with really promising ideas — no more than eight fellows each semester — and spend more than a year giving them the tools to implement them. The inaugural class was drawn from more than 200 applicants; finalists had to present a five-minute virtual pitch, and the selection committee picked seven to launch the Incubator.

For the first four months, the fellows will live and work at Halcyon House, where they receive intensive review and training to determine whether their ideas are better suited for the private or nonprofit sector, then pitch their ideas to investors. For the next four months, they move out of the mansion but continue to work out of the on-site office with full access to the business, public relations, legal and other resources of the Incubator. For the final six months, the fellows transition to a shared workspace and continue to work with the Incubator support team. S&R will have no stake in any of the businesses, just serve as the launch pad. As each class moves on to the next phase, a new group of fellows will begin the process.

The ideas range from geeky to practical, global to local. Heather Lawver Sewell, who was home-schooled and finished high school at age 12, has a history of online activism and wants to create a global online teaching tool allowing students to publish stories and share news. Olivier Kamanda, a lawyer and former speechwriter for Hillary Clinton, is trying to find a way to turn interest in news stories into direct, tangible action by linking people to organizations they want to help. Dan Gallagher and Ben Reich are computer guys who want to make government data, all that complex public information that big companies use for planning and strategy, available and understandable for small businesses and anyone else who wants to use it. Ari Raz is trying to get high quality, nutritious baby food to all families. Diana Sierra wants to provide affordable sanitary products to women in developing nations who don’t attend school because of menstruation. Matt Fischer, an asthmatic, has created an early warning system for children who suffer from asthma that sends alerts to parents and doctors.

The common thread? The belief that this program will give them the access and exposure they need — and help them overcome a big hurdle for social entrepreneurs: the problem of pitching ideas that may fulfill a real need but may not make money, which is why businesses haven’t stepped in.

The fellows say they were attracted to Halcyon because, unlike other incubators, the focus isn’t solely on a for-profit company and they get much more individual mentoring. Plus, there’s the residency.

For many, the ability to spend four months — without the demands of jobs or family or routine — is invaluable to sort all the problems and possibilities of their projects. In addition to the work spaces, each fellow has a small private suite with a small kitchenette, plus a communal kitchen, lounges and a small stipend for food.

“Here, everything is put on the table for you to focus and get it done,” says Sierra. “A lot of people have fantastic ideas, but they never get a chance to find a place where you have talent and housing. This is the only incubator where they give you that peace of mind.”

Plus, Halcyon House itself is pretty impressive. The mansion’s top-to-bottom renovation — plumbing, wiring, opening interior walls, shoring up the ballroom to bear the weight of the garden above — took a year. The interior design, handpicked by Kuno, is an elegant mix of traditional and modern, complete with art by Japanese artist Kotatsu Iwata prominently displayed on the walls. Not a bad place for a young hopeful to take a meeting.

Whether any of this results in the next great idea — that brilliant stroke that does, indeed, change the world — remains to be seen. Kuno and Ueno don’t seem to be concerned with the ends but rather the means: making Washington the hub of social entre­pre­neur­ship.

“I think Washington could be the best place in the world to think about such things,” Kuno says.

And since you asked: No more big real estate purchases pending. At least, for now.

READ MORE:

Historic Evermay mansion in Georgetown becomes a $22 million guesthouse

Biotech tycoons who bought historic Georgetown properties retain aura of mystery

Roxanne Roberts is a feature writer for the Style section.
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