INNOVATION AND THE WISCONSIN IDEA
Innovation, Jobs and the Wisconsin Idea
From the moment I arrived in Wisconsin last year, I loved the familiar energy, intellect and passion for doing things well. I was happy to return to my Midwestern roots to become the managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). For more than 90 years, WARF has funded researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to give rise to their amazing inventions, which WARF then patents and licenses to companies that turn those inventions into products. This work creates family-sustaining jobs in Wisconsin, grows the state’s economy, and provides revenue for the university.
Yet I believe we can do more. To maximize the positive effect the University of Wisconsin can have, we must find better ways to tap into the collective intelligence and energy of all of the campuses in the UW System. We must work together in building a continual feedback loop with the people of our state so the Wisconsin system universities can better understand the challenges they face and identify sustainable and valuable solutions.
This sense of responsibility to connect with our communities is summed up by the Wisconsin Idea, or the long-standing vision that the university’s positive influence should reach every family. And it is a value I share.
That’s why one of my highest priorities is to expand WARF’s contribution to the Wisconsin Idea.
We have tremendous potential for innovation in Wisconsin. Recently, UW-Madison engineering professor Daniel Ludois was honored by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation as one of five inventors in the United States working on ideas that will change the world. WARF is proud to have invested in his cutting-edge research on electric motors. Dan’s story is one of many that involves university researchers on our UW System campuses turning the seeds of their ideas into groundbreaking discoveries that positively impact people around the world. It’s a Wisconsin tradition and WARF is deeply proud to participate in it. As WARF continues to serve UW-Madison, we will work more closely with the other campuses to identify research and inventions that are complementary to one another. All of us who think about turning great ideas into marketable products should routinely compare notes so we can coordinate our efforts, whether it be in manufacturing, health care, information technology, agriculture or any other segment of our economy.
When we work with university researchers to turn their innovations into products, we are always thinking about who can help them grow their young companies. We know we can find the talent, resources and expertise in our communities. That’s why we’re committed to building capital to co-fund startups. One of WARF’s strategic priorities is to connect promising university technologies with new or mature companies that are led by savvy teams. All elements of that construct are necessary for success — intelligent enterprises with entrepreneurial horsepower and the interest in partnering with us on advancing university technologies to the market.
We also need to get better at tapping into the executives, workforce and capital that exists all over Wisconsin. By bringing the state’s resources together in a coordinated way, we can maximize their collective potential. There could be a talented entrepreneur in Eau Claire, Green Bay or Wausau, for example, eager to take a shot at manufacturing a new invention developed at the university, with an entire workforce waiting for the next opportunity.
But WARF cannot and should not make this happen on our own. In the coming months, we will redouble our efforts at outreach in partnership with the WiSys Technology Foundation, which performs a role similar to ours for most of the rest of the public universities in Wisconsin. We also hope to work with UW-Milwaukee, Marquette University and the Medical College of Wisconsin. Working together, we will create a forum that fosters this collaborative approach, involving school, business and political leaders, and people who have capital to invest.
To begin this dialogue, I am inviting leaders from throughout the state to contribute their perspectives on the role of innovation and the Wisconsin Idea, and will publicly share our collective recommendations over the next several months. You will hear from co-authors representing different regions and spheres of influence from across Wisconsin discussing their thoughts on the importance collaborative solution-building has if performed in partnership by our university researchers, industry leaders, policymakers and other community colleagues. WARF is proud to sponsor this series of articles and we hope to hear from readers as well. Join the dialogue by contributing your thoughts at email@example.com.
We know that by working together we can find the best, most efficient ways to solve the state’s challenges, create private sector jobs and private sector profits, and keep that revenue in Wisconsin to invest in our people and our economy.
Let’s draw on the strength and power of the Wisconsin Idea to make that happen.
Renewing the Wisconsin Idea
We first met two decades ago – a Republican governor from the small town of Elroy, Wisconsin, and a Democrat University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of biochemistry from New York.
It might have first appeared we had little in common, but we bonded over the Wisconsin Idea – the belief that the wealth of knowledge and research at the University of Wisconsin should be utilized to improve people’s lives across the state.
Now we’re joining together again to support a new Wisconsin Idea, one that builds on our state’s great history while addressing specific 21st century challenges.
Wisconsin is where the concepts of unemployment and workers compensation were first developed, along with Medicaid and social security. It’s where scientists discovered that vitamin D foods cure rickets and that warfarin prevents blood clotting. Campus research developed into constructive public policy and beneficial products – cooperation in the name of progress.
Twenty years ago, after an introduction by then-Chancellor John Wiley, we worked together to address a lack of faculty and lab space in the biosciences at UW-Madison. The result – with abundant help from many colleagues in both the political and academic arenas – was the $317 million BioStar Initiative, which included an addition to the Biotechnology Center as well as renovations and additional buildings for biology-related departments.
It was great for the university, and great for the state of Wisconsin.
Two decades on, however, we look around our state and find ourselves at a crossroads. Wisconsin’s population is growing older. Enrollment in the UW System campuses is declining. New jobs demand technology skills many of our people don’t have.
There is a recognition of the problem – but little cohesion in finding solutions.
We bring both a political and academic perspective to this challenge, and have concluded that Wisconsin has slipped into a micromanagement mindset that undermines our strengths.
We need to think big, and have the courage to live up to our potential.
Today’s new Wisconsin Idea is all about how we can position our state to once again be a leader – in economic development, in innovation, in protecting our environment, and in graduating students who can make it happen.
We must also recognize that we all own this challenge. Let’s consider some components of the new Wisconsin Idea. The new Wisconsin Idea must begin by reexamining how we engage with each other – our universities with industry and industry with our universities. We must meet and talk and plan to address each other’s needs. Addressing an aging workforce as well as graduates leaving our state requires collaborative conversations that generate joint solutions. We should jointly discuss if we are matching resources to address employment needs and business growth while also sustaining the exceptional research and educational environment our universities are known worldwide for producing. Not unlike the Wisconsin Idea, the means, frequency and quality of our engagement and joint solution building must be reexamined and retooled for the next generation of mutual success.
We have areas of tremendous expertise and excellence. Several of our four-year universities should be turned into specialized centers of excellence for Wisconsin. UW-River Falls for agriculture, for example, UW-Stevens Point for natural resources, and UW-LaCrosse for health sciences. If we put in the resources, they could become specialty schools for the nation.
The future of education is virtual. In order to make education accessible, we need our universities to develop into a whole new integrated system, using correspondence courses, video and telecommunications to create online courses and instantaneous discussions with professors that can reach everyone in the state and beyond. At the same time we should not underestimate the importance of the physical interactions and socialization that our children receive in schools. If we want to raise children who can engage each other in civil discussions of opposing opinions rather than bloodshed, we must nourish the rich discourse that takes place in our classrooms, and help them recognize and avoid the social isolationism inherent in using phones and computers.
There is potential for a powerful alignment between Madison and Milwaukee, combining research prowess and economic power. In the manner of the research triangle in North Carolina, it could attract economic development that would benefit an entire region, as well as the rest of the state.
The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which patents, licenses and commercializes innovations from our university inventors, should draw on its expertise and share its knowledge in entrepreneurialism and how it positively affects economic development.
We need to make innovation a priority. The scientist’s job is to winnow and sift, without any trepidation, revealing scientific truths and teasing the secrets out of nature. In biology, for example, we are thinking boldly by trying to develop a method that will tell us which protein has had its three dimensional structure changed when a cell becomes cancerous or is treated with a drug. That has never been achieved before, and would allow labs all over the world to make important new discoveries and hasten drug discovery for disease treatments and cures.
Finally, we need to make sure everyone knows what happens when Wisconsin thinks big. We propose having a series of economic summits around the state, to generate enthusiasm and excitement about the work coming out of our universities. We envision people standing and cheering. Our scientists and innovators can be the heroes, and walk their constituents around their labs, to build excitement about what they are doing. It would be a tremendous opportunity to reinforce the new Wisconsin Idea, from Platteville to Superior.
We know this can work in Wisconsin because it has worked in Wisconsin. The opportunity is there, we need only embrace it. Now there’s an idea.
*** Tommy G. Thompson’s long list of accomplishments as governor included the construction of $2 billion worth of buildings across the UW System. Michael Sussman, UW professor of biochemistry, helped launch a successful technology startup company and regularly addresses groups on the importance of university outreach across the state. This commentary is part of a series of articles organized by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). For over 90 years WARF has promoted a cycle of innovation through advancement of University research discoveries to the market and reinvestment in research at UW-Madison.
On the Shoulders of Giants: Innovation and the Wisconsin Idea the Old-Fashioned Way
More than a century ago, Wisconsin served as the birthplace for a series of blue chip industrial giants. The likes of Harley-Davidson and Johnson Controls, or engine makers like Fairbanks Morse and Briggs & Stratton, were the bold startups of the day.
We believe that living the Wisconsin Idea is about using our skills at the university as inventors and engineers and in the trades as machinists, electricians and other specialties to revitalize this industrial heritage in a modern context. We believe that to achieve that it is a priority to teach our local children, and to encourage them to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Let’s work together to develop our students and fortify our companies because the whole world will benefit from the innovations coming out of the University of Wisconsin system of campuses, as well as our technical schools, with the greatest impact felt here in the state.
We share this love of manufacturing and faith in the capabilities of Wisconsin, even though we had very different pathways to this partnership.
Dan was born in, and raised near, Beloit, once home to a great manufacturer of papermaking machines. A core part of his identity was attending local fairs to see once state-of-the-art equipment of a century past and hear his grandparents reminisce about the Midwest at the peak of its industrial might. He dreamed of one day contributing his engineering skills for something productive that will be used by the citizenry of the state, and now that has become his life’s work.
Cecil, originally from Sri Lanka, was trained as a mechanical engineer in Russia and as an electrical engineer in Germany. He moved to the United States and eventually settled in Wisconsin because it was home to some of the world’s greatest makers of machine tools and other serious, industrial manufacturing products. Cecil and his wife Irina started Velicon in Milwaukee to make high-performance electric motors for testing and other special applications.
We are collaborating to develop and test ideas coming out of the electrical engineering department at UW-Madison, and our project together is a prime example of the Wisconsin Idea in action.
Electric motors are essentially made out of three things: steel, copper wire and magnets. Magnets replaced the old way of making motors because the copper coils and other individual pieces had to be supplied with electricity and would wear out. We are trying to leverage old manufacturing techniques with a high-tech twist to get rid of the need for rare earth magnets that are almost entirely sourced from China and really bad for the environment. We aim to improve the design and performance of electric motors via techniques such as replacing the magnets and using wireless power transfer.
Working with existing companies is one pathway from university research to jobs in the community, and Velicon will now seek out more opportunities for such collaborations.
Another university project to build better electric motors is testing electrostatic force to power them – like what holds your clothes together when you pull them from the dryer – and has been spun into a startup instead. Most of the funding is from government grants and support from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). The Moore Inventor Award offers a nice infusion of cash and validates Wisconsin’s creativity.
Compared to 1990, when Velicon just started, Wisconsin today offers a much more positive business landscape for high-tech manufacturing. But it’s still hard to get local funding because we have a different culture of money here. Potential investors want to see products going out the door immediately, and brand new technologies may take longer time spans than other business ventures.
A hardware startup is a slow burn by nature, requiring capital expenditures for machines to make physical things. Velicon was able to get around this challenge at the start by securing commitments from suppliers and investing on its own.
Fortunately, success requires a number of factors, and we can find the right people and partners right here in Wisconsin.
And this brings us back to the importance of preparing our next generation of technicians, engineers, scientists and business entrepreneurs. They are across our state. We love to work with students, and we look for people with a good GPA who also worked on a farm or a factory, or made something with their hands as a hobby. They have a deep appreciation for the artistry and the skills that go into hands-on fabrication.
In addition to educating young people we must encourage them to invest their skillsets and entrepreneurial mindsets right here at home. Wisconsin’s location is first class. Why go to the coasts with a hardware startup idea when we have everything we need right here? The Midwest has an outstanding manufacturing base, robust customers, and well-trained and educated machinists and other skilled workers. Our investment in their education should be teamed with investment in their ideas for business development. That is the continuum we should adopt if we are to ensure a skilled, entrepreneurial workforce grows in Wisconsin.
The respect we hold for the strength and skills of the industrial heartland may sound somewhat romanticized. Yet heritage is a powerful force, and Wisconsin is well-positioned to create a 21st century version of a manufacturing industry that we can pass on to future generations in our state.
UW/Industry Partnerships Yield Better Solutions
Wisconsin agriculture is making big news. As we embark on new global partnerships and get set to break fresh ground, let’s take a moment to reflect on the Wisconsin Idea. One of the principles of this idea is that university accomplishments can change lives across our state and have an impact on society.
As the Dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and as a co-founder of an innovative processed meat business who is currently building a new company with UW technology, we believe a key to successfully living the Wisconsin Idea is to link new knowledge with the problems that industry and communities want to solve.
This is especially important in agriculture. Roughly one in nine people working in Wisconsin holds a job related to agriculture, including farmers and their employees, service providers like veterinarians and fuel suppliers, and workers in related businesses like food processing. In addition to those working in agricultural sectors, all of us eat, and we expect our food to be safe, nutritious, delicious with environmentally responsible production.
In order to achieve these objectives, industry and universities need each other. Businesses need the new discoveries generated in university labs, and university scientists need the practical challenges and perspectives from the marketplace to inspire and inform their research. Industry is always asking: How do we leverage our product stream to best serve consumer needs and deliver more value? University researchers are always asking: How does the natural world work, and can we apply what we learn about it to improve health, agriculture and businesses? These are mutually beneficial conditions that create strong partnerships to drive innovation.
Innovation, in our view, is different from discovery and invention. We define innovation as the implementation of something new and beneficial, making an invention available in the marketplace. It’s the commercialization of entrepreneurial science, which is at the root of the Wisconsin Idea. More than a century ago, CALS researchers and industry partners fought rickets with vitamin D fortified foods and ensured consistent quality of Wisconsin milk with the Babcock butterfat test.
That brings us to the exciting news about Ab E Discovery – a young company that grew out of University of Wisconsin innovation. The company is developing state-of-the-art nutrition technologies that apply science to key challenges, including replacing antibiotics and improving animal health.
To take one of these technologies—an egg antibody focused on supporting animals’ gut health, and thereby growth and welfare—a step further, Ab E Discovery recently formed a global in-licensing agreement with Elanco Animal Heath, a division of Eli Lilly and Co. The company will also break fresh ground this month on a manufacturing facility in Waterloo. The 25,000 square foot facility will employ about 20 production scientists and engineers in Jefferson County.
One of the founders of Ab E Discovery was the late Mark Cook. A passionate professor of animal science, Mark was skilled at challenging the status quo and pushing for answers. He partnered with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation on some 50 U.S. patents and more than 150 international patents, and he started several companies.
Mark took a challenge from industry and framed this objective: How can you get more value out of food animals and benefit human and animal health? One result of this inquiry was his discovery of a protein in chicken eggs that could be blended with animal feed as an antibiotics replacement. He brought his innovation to the marketplace by helping to found Ab E Discovery and develop this protein for human and animal health benefits.
Mark was a leader in the boardroom and the classroom who included hard-working students on his patents. Through his mentorship and teaching, he inspired a new generation of researchers to become entrepreneurs, stoking their interest in commercializing their discoveries.
The Wisconsin Idea reminds us that, with collaboration and innovation, we have the ability to change the world by matching academic interest with a real need. This is also the legacy of Mark Cook. We encourage those of you in industry to find a university collaborator to translate a discovery for a new innovation. For university scientists, we hope you will follow Mark’s lead and reach out to an industry partner who can help to frame your inquiries to guide new applications. Such partnerships can both change lives and improve communities.
From lab to bedside, the Wisconsin Idea is all for the good of the patients
As doctors and leaders of health care systems, we are in business for only one reason — the patients and communities we serve.
The Wisconsin Idea to us is the conviction that science, discovery and innovation can improve our lives individually and collectively as a community. It’s about combining exceptional patient care with innovative technologies, and encouraging people and organizations to think broadly about where they can collaborate to improve the state of Wisconsin as a whole.
Community benefit can come in multiple ways. It could be coming together to understand and address the social determinants of health, access to care for the people of Wisconsin, or general health needs of the broader population in areas like opioid abuse, obesity or diabetes. Success can only be measured by whether we’ve moved the bar on safety, quality, cure rates and patient experience.
Competition can push us to work harder and innovate faster, but in health care, collaboration is a critical component of discovery and advancing innovation. We can’t always work in silos because so much of scientific discovery is predicated on sharing ideas and best practices. Marshfield Clinic and UW Health offer a modern example of how to come together for the good of the state. While we each have our own insurance company, hospitals and comprehensive medical group, we are partners in many ways. Marshfield provides an academic campus to UW-Madison in the northern part of the state, for example. We also look for areas to collaborate clinically.
Our relationship started 90 years ago, fueled by the Wisconsin Idea of people joining together to solve problems. Since 1927, Marshfield has been training UW medical students, starting with a practical experience program and expanding over the years to include residents in internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics and other areas.
Research is also an important part of our collaboration. We have jointly received a $5 million precision medicine grant to explore ways to personalize health care for individuals based on genome research and therapy. This approach brings digital health care together with cutting-edge research around the genome to better understand the individual patient and how to tailor care to that patient’s needs.
To us, innovation is also about translating critical research from the university and Marshfield’s research facilities with products and processes that lead to better patient care. UW Health has the know-how and the regulatory and compliance infrastructure to help create that connection. Marshfield Clinic has the educational programming, research capabilities and array of specialists to provide fertile soil for innovation.
We believe the purpose of innovation is ultimately all about creating the best care and care environment for patients. Some of the innovations we’ve collectively been focused on involve harnessing information technology to reduce the burden on medical providers and make care more seamless. We’re pursuing diagnostic tests that are more cost effective and accurate for patients. And we are working on innovations to deliver care when, where and how patients want it.
All of our efforts ultimately come back to a simple goal – serving our patients and their families.
Innovation and collaboration are crucial, but above all, the Wisconsin Idea is about optimism. Research and education can improve and transform our lives, and the commitment to this idea lives in the hearts and minds of the people of Wisconsin.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained: Investing in Wisconsin innovation
The Wisconsin Idea – the concept that the knowledge and innovative ideas from the university reach to the borders of our state and beyond – highlights the preeminent role that our university system plays in creating a better quality of life for the citizens in our state.
The Wisconsin Idea is a beloved concept that we believe needs to be lived as much as loved by taking a very deliberate step of participation. We should all seek ways to help our university innovators turn their great ideas into companies that people want to buy into, creating jobs and helping the economy grow.
We see the opportunity to participate in the Wisconsin Idea across the life cycle of Wisconsin businesses that our firms back. Venture Investors has backed 25 companies that have come out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Generation Growth is a private equity firm investing in mature industries that represent the core of Wisconsin’s economy.
Wisconsin isn’t opposed to the bold initiative. We believe in the possibilities and like the idea of others taking those actions. This is the bane of our existence. We can’t afford to wait for others to act. Wisconsin needs a cultural revolution, one that fosters taking risks and thinking like an entrepreneur. If we wait for others to do it instead of leading, we are left with modest incremental progress where we lose ground in a rapidly changing world.
There is no shortage of ideas, thanks to the major strength of our university system. While many institutions talk about interdisciplinary collaboration, it really happens here. You can find connectivity, you can find resources, you can find experts in any field, and there’s an openness to dialogue. The smaller sense of community creates an advantage.
But living in a state that sometimes feels like a small community works to our disadvantage in other ways.
We have a density issue in Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest. Our great universities were created when we were an agrarian society, so they are not in the commercial, population or financial centers. Boston and San Francisco are the hubs of the venture capital industry because they are metropolitan areas and financial centers with a cluster of major research universities and lots of commercial expertise. All of the starter material you need is there in one place and boom, lightning strikes and you have a new form of life.
Venture capital operates as a social network. VCs like to stay close to their projects, spending time counseling and guiding in addition to just writing the checks. That’s one of the key reasons 80 percent of American venture capital is managed and invested in just three states: New York, Massachusetts and California.
It’s easy to blame those VCs who won’t get on a plane for Wisconsin startups, but we have to take responsibility. We have to demonstrate our belief with our actions by seeding the opportunities, playing the hands-on local role, building the social network to the coasts.
If we are to achieve this transformation, the tone must be set at the top in the boardrooms and executive suites of our leading corporations and institutions. We need broader institutional participation in capital formation, investment, collaboration, mentoring and encouragement of our innovators. It would only take a few bold leaders – like Badger Meter and the Water Council in Milwaukee – to start it by serving as catalysts, committing to the effort and actively seeking the consensus and participation of their peers.
It is more than just money. Institutional commitments at all these levels are the first step in addressing our human capital challenge, signaling that we embrace creativity and risk-taking, accepting that occasional failure is part of trying to achieve something great. We need to show that we are not limited to a conservative approach, in our Germanic way, to making the mouse trap a little better; we also encourage blowing it up to make a whole new one. Demonstrate we are embracing the emerging entrepreneurial generation and we can begin to transform brain drain into brain gain.
Participation in the entrepreneurial economy is in the self-interest of the mature companies in our leading industries. Attraction and retention of risk takers and engagement with entrepreneurs is contagious. It encourages intrapreneurship, returning these companies to the cultural roots that made them leaders.
Wisconsin’s political leadership can help with the kind of policy decisions around startups that can spur jobs and growth, long-term commitments that take more than a two-year election cycle to pay off. For example, consider how the state could further encourage broader participation in capital formation and create opportunities for the State of Wisconsin Investment Board to increase its venture capital allocation. What policies will help attract and retain the necessary human capital? What more can we do to encourage the licensing of our intellectual capital in Wisconsin, instead of letting it go out of state to the highest bidder?
WARF could play an important role in keeping innovation local – a Grow Wisconsin, Invest Wisconsin approach – by licensing new technology here or, if licensing elsewhere, encouraging that they commercialize in the state. There is an opportunity to measure the return beyond royalties, such as entrepreneurial faculty retention, research collaboration, job creation, wealth creation, and the philanthropy from successes. We should give serious consideration to the total benefit of building entrepreneurial capabilities at home.
Finally, we need to engage the participation of all of our stakeholders. UW-Madison has 400,000 living alumni fanned out across the globe. We need to keep them engaged for their advice, access to their networks, to attract their investment, or recruit them to return home. If we engage them as participants in the Wisconsin Idea, it will increase their philanthropy.
When you have a chance to help take something out of a lab and bring it to the market, and it impacts the health of people and the economy of the community, the rewards go way beyond financial. This is what brings the Wisconsin Idea to life.
How University Innovations Change the World
Just last August, we stood together in Janesville to commemorate breaking ground on the first building for SHINE Medical Technologies, a spinoff from technology developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering. While it may have looked like just another ribbon-cutting ceremony with speeches and dignitaries, to us it was steeped in deep meaning.
The University of Wisconsin produces some of the best engineers and most innovative research to be found. It is capable of solving major problems that have not only state and national impact, but worldwide impact as well.
But it’s not enough just to come up with top technologies. The Wisconsin Idea guides us to ensure these technologies benefit the entire state. As dean of the College of Engineering and a former student (now founder and CEO of SHINE), we believe this also means that the University has a role to play in translating new ideas into real life and real jobs.
All the faculty believe it’s part of their mission to impact the state and beyond. But it’s also part of the character of the people of Wisconsin, who are friendly and want to help, making supporting the Wisconsin Idea even easier.
Let all of us – community members and professors – use our shared voice to reinforce success, to tell the stories that motivate everyone from students with their own ideas to potential partners and investors. When we advocate for our neighbors we put innovation to work and live the Wisconsin Idea.
With a recent hiring initiative, the composition of the engineering faculty is changing and with it, there is an increased emphasis on ‘translational’ research, which means research meant to solve real-world problems. This emphasis provides direct solutions to technological challenges facing society. It also leads to an increase in industrial interactions and to the launching of research-inspired startups. We believe these technologies and companies will be absolutely essential for solving the big challenges we face as the world’s population continues to grow and industrialize.
The engineering college works with faculty to allow them to pursue growing their company, accepting that some will be successful and others not. Irrespective of the outcome, bringing the knowledge gained from the experience back into the classroom enhances the ability of the college to better prepare future entrepreneurs.
From the perspective of the researcher, the University fosters a culture that encourages innovation. It holds you up and tries to help you do difficult and ambitious things. There’s a feeling of wanting to create greatness, and very high performance.
The story of SHINE is a great example of this relationship in action. As a graduate student in engineering, Greg took a class called Resources in Space from a former astronaut, which inspired him to think about ways to create nuclear power without nuclear waste. He built his graduate thesis research work into a new method to produce the medical isotopes used to diagnose and treat heart disease and cancer.
This has the potential for solving a national problem because the United States is currently relying on supplies coming from outside the country. From a seed planted in the head of one University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student, the SHINE medical isotope production facility will reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism and improve the health of over 1 billion people over its lifetime.
The University was deeply engaged helping support that vision and became part of the story, all the way through to ultimately starting a company. The Fusion Institute became seriously involved in developing what they thought was a game-changing, globally significant technology. The institute was a great extension of the University to help this company be successful while trying to do something extremely difficult. Support from the people in the University network provided the courage required. Funding was secured from the government, venture capitalists and the Morgridge Institute for Research.
In addition to the global impacts, SHINE will have an impact on the Wisconsin economy. It expects to create over 100 permanent jobs and to spend over $100 million on its facility construction project alone. From start to finish, SHINE is sourcing as much material, labor and service as it can from Wisconsin companies, which at present numbers over 75 local firms.
Certainly, there are hurdles to face in replicating the scope and ambition of SHINE. We have a Midwestern culture, a Wisconsin culture, where people are very modest. We are probably more risk-averse and we’re not very good at accepting that failure is part of the learning curve. There is also a scarcity of organized financing. Both of these hurdles are slowly improving.
We’re upbeat about how we’re changing the culture within the University and we will soon have several more success stories now that people have gone out to try making a difference in the economy as well.
SHINE is in Janesville, an economically recovering city that was hit hard by the loss of a major employer and tough economic times. Janesville’s on the mend and doing very well, and SHINE’s been part of that story, hopefully a beacon of light.
We believe our combined voices in advocacy of University-inspired ideas help people understand the crucial link between the University and the community – the story of the Wisconsin Idea.
Tapping into the creativity of our students for the good of Wisconsin: Contributions to the Wisconsin Idea across generations
There is no shortage of creativity among the students and professors of the University of Wisconsin System. They come up with great ideas every day, from a new way to teach physics out of UW-Green Bay to a mechanism that lets a paraplegic at UW-River Falls saddle her own horse.
But when it comes to finding a home for their products, they need a little guidance from the professionals. Consider whether that guidance could be from you.
This is where the Wisconsin Idea comes into play. Translating academic ideas into real companies requires plenty of support, but it’s much broader than securing patents and licenses to generate revenue. It’s also about transferring innovation to benefit society and improve lives.
In our respective roles as head of WiSys, an organization inspiring Wisconsin innovation throughout the university system, and the co-founder of software startup Jamf, we are deeply impressed by the energy we see coming out of our universities and look for ways to help take it forward.
The creative brain power available in Wisconsin was obvious when we served together on the investment committee for Ideadvance Seed Fund, a program run by the UW System. The objective is to identify people with business ideas and fund them early, but in two stages. The condition for the second stage is to have startup training, with the hope that this gives them a greater shot at success.
A number of other programs, some involving student ambassadors, are designed to help explore such potential. At UW-Platteville, for example, students from the engineering college noted how computer science colleagues get together in hackathons to write code to solve a problem. So they organized a prototype hackathon, huddled in a lab with 3D printers over a weekend to create product ideas.
A speed networking session was the highlight at the Big Idea Tournament at UW-Madison, where teams of students competed over business ideas. Investors and executives spent five minutes with each group, mentoring and sharing knowledge on how to be an entrepreneur.
These ideas from our state’s students are very early stage. That’s when WiSys steps in to help fill the gap between innovation and the point where investors are ready to pay attention. It supports the best ideas by counseling on everything from mission and strategy to planning, process and building a management team. Then, once there is a clear value proposition, it helps to license the innovation and bring it to the marketplace to secure investors. WiSys is also looking into ways to co-invest in small startups statewide.
WiSys is all over the state and in the last few years has been developing programs on every campus. It has just been recently that support for budding entrepreneurs has been more evident at UW-Eau Claire. By contrast, as a student, Zach tried to launch a software startup in 2002, but was initially sent away to write up a lengthy business plan rather than being coached through the process. His business idea, now fully formed, was based on the need for better software to manage the use of Apple’s technology on campus. In his case, it was tenacity rather than tactical assistance that prevailed. We must consider if direct guidance is an area to improve on other Wisconsin campuses as well.
Despite all the energy around transforming ideas into companies, we still see areas for improvement. At our universities, for example, there is room to build out entrepreneurial studies on campus. There could also be better coordination across majors. Successful startups need people from the business school and the school of art as well as the computer science department.
More broadly, we have to build a stronger support structure and generate a level of excitement for innovators within the state. Policymakers have stated this as a goal across Wisconsin but one that each of us should consider how to influence in execution. We believe in working to connect local ideas with local businesses and investors. We’d like to build more bridges within Wisconsin, because if we can create stronger links between the regional UW campuses and companies, we might see our excellent students stay within the state. We need our 22-year-old graduates to believe they can have an innovative startup in our state. We believe that as a community of people committed to young innovators we can help our students achieve and stay.
It is also crucial to continue funding higher education. This leads straight to innovative ideas that grow our economy. We applaud recent legislation for increasing university funding as a good first step.
We have all the right ingredients for innovation – great universities, initiatives to fund startups, and entrepreneurs who want to help make Wisconsin a stronger state. Above all, we must direct our professional expertise to help unleash the creativity of our students.
Innovation for the public good: How the Wisconsin Idea makes people healthier
We are close collaborators who became good friends while serving the Wisconsin Idea and our state.
We are proud to have recently created a truly integrated academic health system, UW Health. As, respectively, dean of the School of Medicine and Public Health and a state senator on the UW Health Authority Board, we navigated a lengthy process of integrating our hospitals and clinics with our physicians’ group. UW Health is now a more seamless organization caring for patients across the full continuum of community-based primary care to highly technical, state-of-the-art specialized services.
We have been committed to innovative thinking for awhile. More than a decade ago, we pursued another innovative integration that is paying dividends for patients across Wisconsin and beyond. We wanted to integrate the principles of public health, with its emphasis on disease prevention and health promotion, into the traditions of medicine. To achieve this radical vision, we transformed the state’s public medical school into the UW School of Medicine and Public Health – a school that fully intertwines medicine and public health in training the next generation of clinicians and scientists and in its research programs.
This innovation for the public good is the essence of the Wisconsin Idea: taking the resources of this great university and extending them to serve the people of the state and beyond. Our state’s investment in our universities makes extending and building on this public good possible, and we both endorse that.
We arrived at our partnership from different paths. Dean Golden pursued a career in academic medicine, eager to be part of a public organization that looked outward, making a difference in the lives of as many people as possible through clinical care, research and education. Senator Olsen and his brothers were the third generation of a farming family that ran an agriculture supply business and experienced firsthand the discoveries coming out of the university system, which shared practical information on pesticides or crop yields that helped farmers make their decisions.
The Wisconsin Idea is equally meaningful to each of us. When it comes to health, it means going beyond the student or patient in front of you and developing outreach programs and new innovative discoveries that will affect all of our communities and populations, as well as individual patients and their families. As we train the next generation of physicians and health professionals, we want to expand and diversify the pipeline of prehealth students and support practicing clinicians in every community in our state.
Our state is a tale of two cities. If you live in Madison, you can’t walk down the street without running into a doctor, nurse or other health care professional. But if you’re living in rural Wisconsin or in the zip codes in Milwaukee that suffer from terrible health disparities, it’s very difficult to get access to medical care, let alone the health promoting activities and environment that may decrease your need to see a doctor. The UW School of Medicine and Public Health applies the Wisconsin Idea to our educational mission, reaching across the state into rural and urban areas that need more physicians.
We expanded in strategic, targeted ways, first by creating the Wisconsin Academy for Rural Medicine (WARM). We now have 26 students who come to us each year, selected for their interest in rural health care. The vast majority of our WARM graduates pursue careers in rural Wisconsin where more physicians are clearly needed.
We also created an urban counterpart, Training in Urban Medicine and Public Health (TRIUMPH), in partnership with Aurora Sinai, a component of Aurora Health that serves disadvantaged communities in Milwaukee. Our TRIUMPH students spend most of their clinical training years in urban settings. They complete long-term community service learning projects that advance health through innovative approaches ranging from nutrition programs for preschoolers to interventions that allow geriatric patients to continue to live in their homes.
TRIUMPH and WARM students will become the doctors who care for children, families and the elderly across our state of Wisconsin in underserved rural and urban communities. Like all of our graduates, their clinical practice will be shaped by a deep understanding of the principles of public health. They will address the social, behavioral and environmental determinants of health, along with traditional medical approaches.
Research is also one of our foundational missions. In 2006, we created a new approach to innovation in research and entrepreneurship that brings together researchers from different disciplines and perspectives. The Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (ICTR) is a partnership that includes scientists from the UW schools and colleges of engineering, medicine and public health, nursing, pharmacy and veterinary medicine, as well as the Marshfield Clinic. Together, they cover the entire spectrum of laboratory sciences, clinical research and public health discovery. Their goal is to move discoveries in the laboratory into the clinic and then the community as quickly as possible. At the same time, the perspectives and needs of patients and caregivers in communities across the state are directed back to help shape the research agenda.
Take breast cancer, for example. Faculty in the College of Engineering develop nanotechnology approaches to deliver chemotherapy more precisely to the cancer cells. Physician-researchers explore specific dietary changes that might increase the effectiveness of medication while decreasing side effects. Translational researchers find the best ways to integrate these treatment innovations into community clinics. Population health experts design the most cost-effective ways to make all of this available for everyone, regardless of where they live.
Another innovative feature of our approach to discovery can be seen in our new research facilities. The Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research (WIMR) brings together basic biomedical scientists, clinical investigators and public health researchers from different departments and schools. The buildings are designed to advance what we call “science without walls.” WIMR provides open access, with benches of scientists and no physical barriers, so these diverse researchers can share ideas in a way that will accelerate discovery, create new approaches to diagnosis and treatment, and create entrepreneurial spinoffs.
Does a culture of innovation like ours face hurdles? Of course. There will always be skeptics who are uncomfortable with the team approach and favor the old individual way of operating. But the future, we believe, lies in breaking down barriers. The people of Wisconsin expect us to make the best use of resources and create linkages among researchers, physicians and patients that will accelerate the progress of research, advance patient care, and promote the health of our communities.
We constantly ask ourselves: “How can we make people’s lives better?” That is the true challenge of the Wisconsin Idea. We fully embrace the challenge.
Dr. Robert N. Golden is the Dean of the School of Medicine and Public Health and Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and also serves as Vice Chair of the UW Health Authority Board. Luther Olsen is a Republican Wisconsin State Senator serving the people of Senate District 14 (Ripon) and he serves on the UW Health Authority Board. This commentary is part of a series of articles organized by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). For over 90 years WARF has promoted a cycle of innovation through advancement of University research discoveries to the market and reinvestment in research at UW-Madison. Comments on this piece are encouraged at firstname.lastname@example.org. See warf.org or WARF’s Cycle of Innovation for more details on WARF.
The Wisconsin Idea and Regional Economies: Apples Falling from Many Trees
The Wisconsin Idea is traditionally understood to mean the boundaries of the University of Wisconsin extend to the boundaries of the state, a philosophy that knowledge should be shared with communities in ways that directly benefit them. Historically, for many Wisconsinites, the University of Wisconsin only meant UW-Madison. Through its commitment to promoting that university’s discoveries, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation – WARF – is one of the primary catalysts for advancing the entrepreneurial side of the Wisconsin Idea.
Increasingly, the Wisconsin Idea has translated into an innovation mindset that extends beyond Madison to UW-Milwaukee and the 11 UW regional comprehensive campuses, which primarily provide undergraduate and master’s degree programs in smaller, more individualized settings.
That’s why today the concept of innovation and the Wisconsin Idea applies to all regions of our state. It is especially powerful at the comprehensive campuses embedded in communities across Wisconsin.
At the Wisconsin Technology Council, several of the corporate members have ties to UW-Madison, either in their initial formation, or over time as research partners. Many were apples that fell close to the tree. About 300 companies have spun off the UW-Madison campus and most have planted roots within a 30-mile radius.
The “falling apple” theory holds true whether you’re at UW-River Falls, UW-Platteville or UW-Oshkosh. The chances are that any companies emerging from our regional comprehensive campuses will take root within a half-hour’s drive, a phenomenon being demonstrated across Wisconsin.
Such companies may benefit from statewide partner WiSys, a supporting organization of the UW System formed to facilitate the creation and transfer of innovations from the UW comprehensives to the marketplace. WiSys assists the more than 12,000 employees and nearly 107,000 students on the regional campuses as they work towards commercializing their ideas.
We sit together on the Advisory Committee for WiSys, and we believe WiSys is a tremendous connector for technology transfer and innovation at all our comprehensive campuses. It is also creating a culture of innovation through Quick Pitch competitions, Innovation Challenges and the involvement of student ambassadors who learn the basics of intellectual property and can interact with other students and faculty about the opportunities. WiSys amplifies innovation statewide.
UW-River Falls is embracing this burgeoning spirit of partnership and entrepreneurship. As the westernmost campus of the UW System, UW-River Falls is embedded in one of the fastest-growing regions of the state, benefiting from the dynamic border with Minnesota and proximity to the economic engine of Minneapolis-Saint Paul.
The university has worked with the city of River Falls, the River Falls Economic Development Corp. and the Chippewa Valley Technical College to develop a business innovation center to support 25 new and existing businesses or startups, many having connections to the university. Within five to 10 years, we expect it will include businesses launched by university students and alumni who are creating economic development and jobs for the region.
Innovation is often at the crossroads of disciplines and it can just as easily come from art, dairy science, data science or education as from engineering or computer science. In universities throughout the country, entrepreneurial studies that once belonged to a single center are now rooted in a variety of schools and colleges. At UW-River Falls, innovation and entrepreneurship are infused into the curriculum through a three-course sequence open to all students: Imagination and Creativity for Innovation, Design for Innovation, and Innovation and Business Models.
Universities across our UW System are taking a focused approach to engaging our outstanding faculty and students in entrepreneurial endeavors and helping “falling apples” grow roots in our local communities. This requires collaborative thinking with our state’s business community and partners like WiSys, and a commitment to building an infrastructure that mentors and incubates early ideas into actionable enterprises.
It is important for university leaders to demonstrate that a UW campus is not an ivory tower or an island – it is the people’s university. We are connected to our communities, and innovation and economic development are among the many ways we live out the Wisconsin Idea, and seek to improve the lives of citizens across Wisconsin and the world.
UW-River Falls Chancellor Dean Van Galen is the second longest-serving chancellor in the UW System. Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. This commentary is part of a series of articles organized by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). For over 90 years WARF has promoted a cycle of innovation through advancement of University research discoveries to the market and reinvestment in research at UW-Madison. Comments on this piece are encouraged at email@example.com. See warf.org or WARF’s Cycle of Innovation for more details on WARF.