“I was told I was going to be a doctor,” Ron Howell says of his parents’ advice to him growing up. So Howell (’80 Biochem.) entered Washington State University as a premed student, but his heart wasn’t in it.
Instead, he became a partner of sorts with doctors and other health professionals. As CEO of the Washington Research Foundation (WRF) for 29 years, Howell helped researchers in Washington’s university and nonprofit institutions turn their discoveries into commercial ventures to benefit public health. By providing funding, his influence has been felt in advances in an astonishing number of fields from vaccines, immunotherapy, and cancer treatment to AI-assisted 3D imaging, cardiac care, and inflammatory bowel disease treatment.
Getting there—as the Beatles’ song says—was a “long and winding road.”
Howell’s father grew up in the projects in Youngstown, Ohio, facing a great deal of racial prejudice. He became a psychiatrist. His mother was a surgical nurse. “Education, education, education was what my parents emphasized,” Howell remembers of his years growing up in Spokane and Lacey. “They said, ‘You’re Black, and that’s what you need to be respected and have a good living.’”
The most respected profession they could think of was a medical doctor. “But I hate hospitals,” Howell says.
At WSU, he enjoyed learning for learning’s sake: calculus, chemistry—especially biochemistry—music, English. “I wanted a career, not just a job. But if I wasn’t going to medical school, what would I do?”
He tried pharmaceutical sales. Hated it.
He took a job with a paper seller. Went to training and was told, “I thought you were White.”
He sold hospital supplies. Found he was wasting time driving over a huge area, so bought himself a computer, learned programming, and figured out how to maximize sales. He carried his computer skills into an insurance company, where he served as the operations coordinator. His promotion kept being delayed.
“One day I was having lunch with a coworker and his wife, and she said WRF needs a technology transfer specialist. They wanted someone with a life-science degree and a sales background who knew how to program,” says Howell, who lives in Seattle with his wife of 42 years, Darlene Howell (’80 Finance). “That kind of describes me.”
Howell was hired in 1989, joining a new field. In 1981, Tom Cable, Bill Gates Sr., and Hunter Simpson started the foundation because they were frustrated that researchers would invent things in a lab but never see a return on their investments. “We wanted to ensure that [the University of Washington] would benefit from the commercialization of intellectual property resulting from UW research,” Cable said in a news release about Howell’s recent retirement.
A technology transfer specialist manages intellectual property to help researchers get licenses and patents so that their innovations can be commercialized. “I had to learn some of everything—grants, litigation, patent law, big data,” Howell says.
There were so many aspects to analyze, he explains. “Is this innovation worth paying for a patent application? Can it be turned into a useful product? Is there enough market for it? Will the technology last? Is it different enough from other innovations? If it’s a medical application, will it get through clinical trials and FDA approval before the patent expires?
“When you’re trying to guess the future, you ask, ‘Is this even going to be a problem that needs addressing in 10 years?’ It’s like building a tollbooth in the desert and betting there’ll be a road and businesses around it in the future.”
But “there was actually an advantage to being a nonexpert,” Howell told the WSU Foundation. “I didn’t have to prove how smart I was. Instead, it was, ‘Tell me about your technology. Why is your innovation important and what are its limitations?’”
Howell thrived on the challenges, becoming president and CEO of WRF in 1992. Under his leadership, the foundation grew from an intellectual property licensing organization with $13 million in assets to one of the state’s largest private foundations with assets of $300 million. It has paid out more than 1,000 individual grants worth more than $136 million. The grants went to university and nonprofit researchers in the life sciences and supporting technologies, all based in Washington state.
During the 1993–1994 fiscal year, Howell started WRF Capital to invest in start-ups, and it has invested in 118 companies since 1996. The endowment to fund the investments got a huge shot in the arm from a patent portfolio WRF managed for UW genetics professor Benjamin Hall and his company, Genentech. Hall and his associates perfected and patented a method of growing engineered proteins in yeast. Companies have applied the method to the development of hepatitis B, HPV, and other vaccines, as well as insulins manufactured by Novo Nordisk and diagnostic proteins used to evaluate the safety of blood products.
Companies backed by WRF Capital are bringing innovations to market, ranging from tailored cell therapies and body-worn diagnostic tests to opioid withdrawal treatments and cloud-based virtual labs. There’s even a company that produces a nano-laminated alloy stronger and lighter than steel that may eventually replace conventional metals and composites.
Georgina Lynch, an assistant professor at WSU’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, is developing a tool to screen toddlers for autism with WRF funds.
The foundation also invests in young people. Five years ago, it began awarding fellowships to 10 postdoctoral scientists a year in natural science and engineering with three years of salary support. Recent WSU recipients include Ellie Armstrong, biological science; Molly Carney, anthropology; and Ian Richardson, mechanical and materials engineering.
Fellowships are also granted to UW and WSU graduate students in STEM fields, UW undergraduates, and WSU’s Team Mentoring Program.
Of his own time at WSU, Howell says, “I will be ever grateful for the beginning of my education at WSU. It was a necessary start to a lifetime of learning from the best and brightest, which is what I really love.”
Now in retirement, Howell enjoys motorcycle riding—he recently took a 10-day western US trip—playing saxophone, and spending time with family. He and his wife have three adult sons: Spencer, Brenden, and Darrin.
He says he hopes WRF’s continued investments in young people will help make the upper levels of research and start-up companies more diversified. “You see fewer and fewer Black people in the sciences as you go from undergraduate to graduate to postdoctoral levels,” he says. “As I did, young people make all the decisions for their older selves, often without enough guidance.”