Creating the Catalyst

Washington State partners with Amazon on an innovation grant program.

Who will create the next communication device? What innovative solutions will change the way we treat illness around the world? Can small, simple ideas really create global impact?

These are questions that Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman is hoping to answer through a new partnership with retailing giant Amazon. A serendipitous meeting between a WSU chancellor and an Amazon VP on an airplane flight led to a conversation about WSU’s entrepreneurship initiatives and Amazon Catalyst, an innovation grant program piloted at the University of Washington in 2015. After Amazon reps made visits to WSU’s campuses in Pullman and Spokane, WSU was invited to join Catalyst and pilot its own program in 2018.

The Catalyst program will provide WSU with up to US$300,000 during the first year to fund projects proposed by members of the university community that are deemed to be globally impactful and disruptive. If the pilot is successful, the program could continue with subsequent funding in coming years, says Marie Mayes, director of WSU’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies (CES).

School administrators see the potential for Amazon Catalyst to be an engine of economic development throughout the state, since WSU has campuses far from the Seattle location where both Amazon and the University of Washington are located. “There are so many new ideas to be thought of, new solutions to be found, and new products and services to be created,” says Mayes.

HOW IT WORKS

Through the partnership, current WSU students, faculty, and staff from any field can submit proposals for ideas they would like to see funded. Before every application cycle, the CES will hold events that help individuals prepare for the process and fine-tune their applications. Events will be held at WSU’s system of schools located throughout the state.

Once ideas are submitted, the proposals are subjected to an extensive vetting process by an evaluation committee that includes both Amazon and WSU staff. Applicants who pass the first round of evaluation are invited to in-person meetings with members of the committee to discuss their projects in more detail. The committee judges applications by eight selection criteria, to evaluate whether each idea meets a need, envisions a tangible product, is novel, is scalable, is practical, has the backing of a motivated team, is clearly outlined, and is relatable to the public.

During a final vote, the committee determines which proposals will be given grants and how much money they will receive, up to a maximum of $25,000. Grant amounts vary depending on the type, complexity, and stage of each submitted project. The school expected to fund the first projects in February.

WSU administrators will encourage entrepreneurs who have received funding to remain involved with the CES so the entrepreneurs have access to mentoring and other resources, notes Mayes. For instance, not only does the CES run a business plan competition open to both WSU students and high school students, it prepares participants for the competition through activities such as a six-week speaker series and “Partnering and Pitches” team events. The center also facilitates entrepreneurship clubs and student organizations; oversees scholarship programs; and runs a mentoring program that connects students with experts and community advocates, including some from the Amazon community.

FUTURE IMPACT

School administrators expect the Amazon Catalyst program to encourage students and faculty across all campuses to become involved in entrepreneurial endeavors. Even if they don’t have ideas of their own they would like to pursue, interested individuals can join funded projects to help with marketing, product design, or management.

“We expect to see passionate people who may not have otherwise joined a project, or pursued their ideas, come forward and work on solutions that matter locally and globally,” says Mayes. “We expect to see the sustained growth of a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem across our entire university.”

Mayes also believes the partnership will enhance the school’s existing entrepreneurial initiatives, which include an entrepreneurship major and a minor, a startup accelerator, and a new “micro grant” program designed to get freshmen and sophomores interested in entrepreneurship.

But most important, school administrators expect the partnership to result in real, tangible inventions that will improve the world. Dozens of proposals with social impact already have been funded at the University of Washington’s Catalyst program, including projects devoted to self-cleaning solar panels, surgical assistant robots, and eco-friendly self-driving bikes.

Says Mayes, “We have the research skills and innovative talents at WSU to accomplish those things, and the Amazon grants can really move exciting ideas forward.”

To read how Amazon Catalyst evaluates proposals, visit catalyst.amazon.com/wsu/approach. To learn about projects that have already been funded at the University of Washington, visit catalyst.amazon.com/uw/projects.