Lacing together the business of NanoString

CIE proves the gateway to a winning business plan
Amber Ratcliffe (MBA 2003)—Seattle entrepreneur—arrived at the Foster School’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) with the high energy and laser focus of a creative student about to start something big, and by all accounts she had come to the right place.

CIE’s core mission is to inspire, inform and empower entrepreneurship for undergraduates and graduate students across the University of Washington through course work in finance, strategy and marketing as well as with internships and mentoring.

“She was engaged the whole way and she was a rock star the whole way,” said Connie Bourassa-Shaw, CIE’s director. “She was one of those students you knew would make things happen.”

The first thing Ratcliffe and fellow MBA student Aaron Coe made happen was to take first place in one of the Foster School’s premier and most rigorous events–CIE’s Business Plan Competition. The plan they submitted was to create a company called NanoString Technologies based on molecule tracking technology developed by Dr. Krassen Dimitrov.

The next thing Ratcliffe made happen was to secure $8 million to build a marketable prototype of that technology, which essentially barcodes an individual molecule in a biological sample so it can be tracked, characterized and counted.

Now, with $30 million in Series C venture capital financing added in June 2009 to $11 million in earlier total investments, it’s clear that Ratcliffe had, in fact, started something big.

Idea turns business + action plan
Ratcliffe recently shared her role in building NanoString at the CIE seminar series “From Invention to Start-up.”

In her lecture, she detailed NanoString’s evolution from a scientific idea, developed at Seattle’s seminal Institute for Systems Biology, into a complex business and how that success challenged her to grow into new responsibilities as well as to let go of many key company decisions.

The idea, she said, came to life in the lab. Ratcliffe, then a research scientist at the institute, realized that she simply didn’t know enough business for NanoString to survive in the turbulent waters of start-ups. So, she enrolled in the Foster MBA program looking for answers to one simple question: “What’s every single thing I’m going to need to know to run a small business?”

CIE was the key program she found at Foster for not only helping her build that fundamental business understanding, but also supercharge her ability to write an effect business plan, get that plan exposed to critical eyes and expand her network of go-to people.

Winning CIE’s Business Plan Competition was her first big break – the money NanoString won became the seed money for Ratcliffe to begin building the business. In fact, CIE has awarded $812,000 to student companies in the past 12 years as well as involved more than 300 judges, mentors, sponsors and supporters each year from the alumni and business community.

“I feel really fortunate because we had a lot of exposure during the Business Plan Competition,” she said. “So, I felt like I had people that I could call and ask questions. CIE is a very good resource for those kinds of things.”

Founder turns team member
In addition to the Business Plan Competition, the broad business education Ratcliffe sought at Foster paid off. From her role as a founder seeking friends and investors, she went on to file patents, spend time in the lab, write protocols that robots could follow, brand the company, market it and even write press releases.

As the company grew, she and her team had to bring in more people with more experience in each of these areas, including a CEO who had the A-level contacts to put them in front of A-level investors.

“As a founder,” she told a lecture hall nearly full of UW students, faculty and staff who were either interested in starting a company or simply curious about the process, “it can be really difficult to step back and let somebody else own those areas and to give up some decision-making ability.”

That is a necessary evolution of the company and the founder’s career because, Ratcliffe said, the company’s success comes before the founder’s own personal goals.

“Hiring those people really helped accelerate the rapid pace of decision making you have to have in order to get a product developed and out the door before you run out of money,” she said.

Exemplifying one of CIE’s key attributes – alumni coming back on campus, sharing their experience and dolling out healthy doses of advice – Ratcliffe ended her lecture with these thoughts:

“I’ve been working on this nine years and we have not all become millionaires and we might not ever have that happen,” she said. “My take away is that you should be really clear about what the opportunities are. … You really need to look at the market, the application of your technology, the freedom to operate.”

“Most importantly, I think you need to do it because you are passionate about the technology, you are passionate about your idea.”

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