Tom Still column No. 13-07
“Tapping Wisconsin’s hidden assets: Researchers who can help create jobs”
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By Tom Still

 MADISON – In a recent report that probably went unnoticed outside the academic world, the Association of University Technology Managers released figures that show why the rest of us should be very happy that Wisconsin is a hotbed for scientific research. The numbers demonstrate that investment in research is not just about professors working in labs; it’s about creating jobs for the 21st century economy.

 The AUTM report looked at universities that “license” their intellectual property to private companies, which use that technology to launch new products, improve the human condition and create jobs. In 2005, U.S. colleges and universities spent $42 billion on research and development and signed 4,932 license agreements. Those agreements created 628 spin-off companies and introduced 527 new products to the market in 2005 alone.

 Here’s the most impressive figure: Academic institutions in the United States have more than 28,000 active licenses of their technology. Each one of those licenses represents a relationship between a business and a college or university. Each one of those licenses means something discovered or created on a college campus has either found its way to the market, or is in the works. 

 Wisconsin universities and research centers are a big contributor to that innovation pipeline – and with modest investment, they can do even more.

 The AUTM survey looked at UW-Madison, which in 2005 conducted $798.1 million in sponsored research (meaning, research funded mainly by federal, industry or private dollars). Through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and most respected patenting and licensing organizations, the UW signed 216 new licensing agreements in 2005. It filed 203 patent applications, and 89 patents were granted.

 All of those metrics put the UW-Madison and WARF in the nation’s top 10. But here may be the most impressive number of all: the UW-Madison and WARF hold 963 active licensing agreements. That’s a significant share of the 28,000 active licenses nationally, and it disputes the notion that the UW-Madison doesn’t work hard enough to transfer its technology to the marketplace.

 Most of this “technology transfer” gets done without direct state funding. While the state helps support the general infrastructure for the UW System, it spends relatively little on research – even though the numbers indicate that kind of investment pays off.

 Outside the Madison campus, other UW System campuses and the state’s private research institutions are working to transfer more technology to the marketplace. The Medical College of Wisconsin has cracked into the nation’s top 100 academic research institutions in terms of its R&D spending. The Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation signed an agreement last year with WiSys, a subsidiary of WARF, to mine its research storehouse for patents and licenses. The UW-Milwaukee is trying to grow its research base and work more with other institutions – Marquette University, the Milwaukee School of Engineering, UW-Parkside and MCW – as part of a regional Biomedical Technology Alliance.

 The state budget awaiting action in the Legislature includes dollars to expand UW System research activities beyond UW-Milwaukee. Campuses such as Stevens Point, Oshkosh, La Crosse, Eau Claire and Stout are positioned to do more – especially if they can free key professors from more classroom duty and provide more time in the labs.

 There is plenty of talent available to make that happen. There are several hundred professors in the larger UW System who are capable of doing research; they simply need the time and, in some cases, the facilities to do so.

 Academic institutions are a source of innovation for the 21st century economy, and Wisconsin has resources that most states could only wish they had. If Gov. Jim Doyle, the Legislature and UW leaders can work together, innovative campuses across the state can do more to build their own regional economies.

 Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.