Professors, Entrepreneurs Seek Synergies

Monday, November 17, 2008

The McLean Hilton became home to a science fair for grown-ups Friday with George Mason University's Mid-Atlantic Innovation Showcase.

The forum brought out bow-tied professors, venture capitalists and the young executives of fledgling companies from Virginia, the District and Maryland. The goal: For entrepreneurs to learn what research ideas universities have and for professors to learn how to make an idea into a commercial product, despite the economic downturn.

The center of energy was the Hilton's large ballroom. There, row after row of research projects were on display. Standing in the center of that ballroom, next to a large video screen, were Thomas M. Dunlap, 36, and brother Ross M. Dunlap, 33, the chief executive and chief operating officers of Ceres Nanosciences. The brothers began the company in partnership with scientists at George Mason University this year.

The firm is testing a molecule that it hopes will be able to detect human growth hormone in urine on a mass scale, a potential breakthrough for the anti-doping world. Both expressed relief that the young company had gotten its initial funding before the financial crisis took hold in September.

"Everybody is looking for partners," the younger Dunlap said, surveying the crowded room. "There are a lot of ideas that are looking for money right now."

Hooks Johnston, a general partner with Vienna-based venture capital firm Valhalla Partners, said his firm is still looking to make investments, although cautiously.

Johnston touted his recent partnership with Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology to invest $400,000 in MiserWare, a firm founded by a Virginia Tech computer science professor that is testing software that may reduce power consumption in computers by as much as 30 percent. Johnston thinks that if all works out the software could be marketed to big data centers, which gulp down large quantities of power every year.

Mark Frantz, a general partner with Arlington-based Redshift Ventures, said that while the venture capital world has slowed, it hasn't been as bad in Washington as the tech bust earlier this decade. He said most of the offers he is getting from people willing to buy the companies his firm had backed were too low.

"A lot of people are calling right now but it's not anything me or my colleagues will attempt because the price is not there, people are bottom-feeding," he said. "But back in '01, the phone wouldn't even ring."

-- Alejandro Lazo

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