By AnneMarie Hunter
“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
— Nelson Mandela
By every measure, Ron Howell has made a difference in the lives of others.
As CEO of the Washington Research Foundation (WRF) for nearly three decades, Howell led programs to benefit public health across the state of Washington and around the world.
A Washington State University graduate with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry (’80), Howell joined WRF in 1989 to execute the Foundation’s licensing strategies. In 1992, he was promoted to CEO and held that role until his retirement this April.
During his tenure as CEO, Howell led WRF with a vision to advance pioneering scientific and technology research. He guided the organization through an expansion of its licensing programs which has earned more than $445 million for Washington’s nonprofit research institutions. The group has also disbursed more than $115 million in grants to top researchers, projects, and students across Washington state. WRF Capital, formed in 1994 to invest in local early-stage STEM ventures, has backed more than 100 companies with returns supporting the Foundation’s grant-making programs and other investments.
“From the beginning, Ron saw a critical need to fund innovations, start-ups, and university technologies, so they could be commercialized to provide public benefit and also generate income for the institutions,” said Tom Cable, WRF co-founder and Board vice-chairman.
In order for WRF to achieve the potential Howell envisioned, he recognized it was essential to connect all stakeholders involved in the innovation process.
“Ron is great at making introductions between researchers and entrepreneurs because they often work together to make sure these technologies become available,” said Dale Wadman, WRF communications manager.
“Ron not only did an outstanding job of building relationships, he was able to maximize whatever potential was involved with a particular piece of research,” he said. “Ron is also absolutely honest and direct. And, he’s humble. He gained the respect and admiration of researchers and entrepreneurs everywhere. Ron is the reason WRF is what it is today. We were a small organization with a narrow focus but with Ron, we expanded exponentially.”
When Howell joined WRF, he made a commitment to learn everything he could about business practices, as well as cutting-edge scientific research.
Howell Meets Challenges Resourceful Resilience
“I didn’t have business school training when I went to work at WRF, so I studied organizational management,” he said. “I made it my business to learn our goals and objectives and found who could help me achieve them. I also needed to learn about science and technology, so I could talk with scientists and engineers about their projects. Every day I would ask, ‘What can I learn today?’
“There was actually an advantage to being a non-expert. 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?’”
Wadman believes Howell’s enduring passion for learning contributed significantly to WRF’s success.
“One of Ron’s strongest qualities is that he approaches everything as a student,” Wadman said. “He wants to be educated about all he is involved with and attain more than a passing understanding. He can speak to scientists on a very deep level in pretty much any field. This is because he’s genuinely interested in science and the work scientists do and wants to speak to them in an educated way.”
From the time he was a child, Howell’s life has been deeply rooted in learning. Courage was often integral to that pursuit.
Howell was born in Detroit and moved to Spokane with his family in 1959, where his father practiced psychiatry and his mother worked as a surgical nurse.
“As a young black couple, it took a lot of courage for my parents to move across the country then. My father traveled with an auto repair book because he knew he wouldn’t receive fair treatment as a black person, if he had car troubles along the way. My parents experienced overt racism on a regular basis and race has shaped my own life.
“Still, my parents never complained or made excuses, but focused on their education. They were first-generation college students and education was a big part of how our family came to have the life we have.”
A Focus On Others
Though Howell believes education is key to opportunity, he has built his life on a foundation of service.
“The bottom line is to get your education, but learn about people and how to make yourself beneficial to others,” he said. “Understand people beyond their work. It’s part of my character to think about others and help them succeed.”
In his role, Wadman experienced Howell’s generous encouragement.
“Ron was always supportive,” Wadman said. “He encouraged us to explore our interests and pursue areas where we could be of benefit to WRF. Ron wants everyone to experience professional growth because he, himself, always wants to be challenged and continually grow.”
Over the years, Cable watched Howell build this supportive work atmosphere.
“The WRF offers intellectual challenge,” Cable said. “People come and do what they do best here and accomplish a lot more that they thought they could. This is the culture Ron built and one we want to maintain.”
Four years ago, Howell and the WRF team expanded opportunities for intellectual challenge outside the organization through the creation of WRF Postdoctoral Fellowships. Each year, 10 three-year fellowships, worth more than $275,000 each, are awarded to fund STEM projects by promising researchers.
In 2018, Ian Richardson, Washington State University Postdoctoral Research Associate, was selected as a WRF Postdoctoral Fellow. His fellowship funded a project to commercialize liquid hydrogen fuel tanks for the aerospace industry.
“The WRF fellowship provides financial freedom for postdocs to solve problems they’re truly passionate about,” Richardson said. “This opportunity led me to work on liquid hydrogen fuel tanks and fueling systems which will enable the aerospace industry to use clean, renewable hydrogen as a fuel for zero emission hydrogen-electric aircraft.”
Throughout his years leading WRF’s transformational initiatives, such as the Fellowship program, Howell encountered challenges along the way. In the face of these obstacles, he consistently responded with the same agility and resourcefulness that defined him throughout his life.
“Managing, administering, and legally enforcing valuable patents and intellectual property is very difficult and takes a lot of research and effort,” Cable said. “Ron managed WRF in a very constructive way across all of our different areas, including grants, scholarships, and startup investing. He and his team did a magnificent job.”