For decades, it has felt like Milwaukee and Madison are
separated by much more than 80 miles of highway and fields. The divide between
Wisconsin’s two biggest cities—economically, culturally, and psychologically—has
at times felt impossible to bridge.
It’s a dynamic that’s not unique to Wisconsin (the relationship between Colorado’s Denver and
to mind): how does the state’s largest metropolitan area and economic engine
(Milwaukee, in this case) interact with a smaller city (Madison) that is home
to a top-notch research university and all the innovative ideas that come from
Cultural differences and attitudes won’t shift overnight, but
there are efforts popping up, although small, to better align the two cities’
economies. Entrepreneurial groups, for example, have hopped on buses from Madison to Milwaukee
and vice versa to interact more with peers in other cities.
And today, the head of the state’s flagship university, University of
Wisconsin-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank, spoke to a group of Milwaukee-area
business leaders and investors about how she wants to find more ways for
companies and educational institutions in Milwaukee and Madison to work
Read this Xconomy story here.
Wisconsin’s economic future depends on it, Blank argued
during the luncheon in Wauwatosa hosted by the Wisconsin Innovation Network, an
arm of the Madison-based Wisconsin Technology Council. She assumed her post in
July 2013, after serving as acting U.S. commerce secretary under
President Barack Obama.
“I keep hearing from people…that these two places just don’t
cooperate,” Blank said of Milwaukee and Madison. “We’ve just got to get over
the competition story. It just does nobody any good.”
Blank was scheduled to spend a couple of days in the
Milwaukee area touring businesses and research centers, including GE
Healthcare’s local operations, the University of
Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences, and the Global Water Center.
During her speech, Blank highlighted examples of UW-Madison
partnerships with Milwaukee businesses and educational institutions, including
an advanced battery research project with
Johnson Controls and UW-Milwaukee. She wants to form more of
those types of collaborations. “They are absolutely critical, those types of
partnerships, for growing the state’s economy,” she said.
Another central piece of her agenda at UW-Madison: boosting
tech transfer. To that end, the university announced in November a new
initiative called Discovery to Product, or D2P, which is charged with shepherding the most promising
campus ideas to the point of licensing the technology or forming a company.
D2P was started because UW-Madison consistently ranks among the top-spending
schools for research, but administrators think it needs to hike up its number
of annual licensing agreements (currently about 50) and spinout companies
“In all those measures, there’s room to improve,” Blank said.
“It’s one of the reasons why I’m trying to step it up.”
Blank isn’t the only head of a major research university
making tech transfer and university spinouts a priority. Xconomy Seattle’s
Benjamin Romano has shed light on the challenges for University
of Washington president Michael Young and his school’s Center For Commercialization,
which is trying to fund commercialization efforts during a time of shrinking
state dollars for higher education, resistance to tuition increases, and the
loss of millions in annual revenue from a crucial university technology license
that went off patent this year.
Many schools around the country have struggled to achieve
success with tech transfer, Blank said, and university leaders realize they
need to get more creative now to successfully commercialize campus innovations,
especially in light of cuts to federal research dollars. Other countries’
governments are investing more in research, and “we’re shrinking—and that’s a
problem,” Blank said. The consequences will be visible 10 or 15 years from now,
when American businesses are less competitive, she added.
Time will tell if UW-Madison research commercialization
efforts like D2P are successful, but “that rate of success is going to be
higher than if” faculty researchers and students “were just out there on their
own,” Blank said.