By Tom Still


Bruce Block, a lawyer who leads the private foundation that recently bought 89 acres for UW-Milwaukee’s Innovation Park, is characteristically cautious when he talks about how long it will take to get the research park to get up and running.


But he’s emphatic in declaring when that process will begin: Now.


“Until you actually own the land, it’s a dream,” said Block, chairman of the UWM Real Estate Foundation, at a recent meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network in Milwaukee. “It’s now a real deal.”


The mid-February purchase of the land, which is within sight of Milwaukee County Research Park and the Medical College of Wisconsin on Milwaukee’s west side, is the latest step forward for the research and development hopes of UW-Milwaukee. While some payments on the land have been extended until 2014 and beyond, work will begin soon on converting the site into a research park that could spark high-tech growth in Milwaukee for years to come.


Early actions will include converting some historic buildings into high-end residential units; preserving sensitive habitats; putting in roads and other support structures; and building a 25,000-square-foot accelerator building to house university and business research activities. Next in line is a $75 million engineering research building, the prospect of which has already helped to attract a fresh crop of researchers to UW-Milwaukee.


As Innovation Park develops, it will help forge relationships between UW-Milwaukee, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Blood Center of Wisconsin and, most important, businesses large and small as they look for cutting-edge ideas and research partners.


The evolution of Innovation Park is a reflection of the growth of R&D at the UW-Milwaukee, which is the second-largest campus in the University of Wisconsin System but for years a research backwater. That changed with successive chancellors who decided to invest more in UW-Milwaukee’s research base in engineering, medical technologies, fresh water technologies and more.


Private and federal research grants to UW-Milwaukee have grown from $21 million per year in the early 2000s to $68 million this year, with a goal of $100 million within a few more years. That’s still dwarfed by the $1 billion in research conducted each year at the UW-Madison, but the growth of R&D on the Milwaukee campus is significant when matched with other institutions such as the Medical College, the Blood Center, Marquette University and the Milwaukee School of Engineering.


Collectively, those Milwaukee institutions spend about $250 million on research each year – a number that represents an opportunity for the region to convert technology into economic growth and jobs.


Innovation Park stands to be a catalyst for that kind of growth. That’s not unlike what has happened 30 years ago in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, or more recently at Madison’s University Research Park. The Madison research park was an experimental farm in 1984; today, it is home to 120 companies with more than 3,500 employees who earn an average of $60,000 per year.


Milwaukee’s Innovation Park will be patterned after what David Gilbert, president of the UWM Real Estate Foundation, called “third-generation” research parks. A leading example is the Centennial Campus at North Carolina State, which was designed to facilitate collaboration across a number of academic, corporate and community lines.


What does Innovation Park mean to the rest of Wisconsin? Milwaukee is the state’s largest city and UW-Milwaukee is Wisconsin’s second-largest campus. A healthy economy in Milwaukee is vital to all of Wisconsin, for reasons ranging from tax generation to job creation to attracting young professionals who can help reverse Wisconsin’s “brain drain.”


It’s also an example to watch as the debate emerges over splitting UW-Madison away from the rest of the UW System. A plan advanced by Gov. Scott Walker, at the urging of Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin, would give the Madison campus more freedom from state oversight to chart its own course when it comes to hiring, building, tuition and more. If UW-Milwaukee proves it can successfully manage projects such as Innovation Park, it could help make the case for independence for the rest of the UW System.


Innovation Park is now a “real deal” in a real-estate sense. In time, it will become a symbol of the research-to-jobs growth of Milwaukee.


Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Innovation Network. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.