By Tom Still
MADISON – Carl Gulbrandsen is so understated that even some people close to him didn’t know he played in a band growing up in Viroqua – or that his cousin is rocker Butch Vig of Garbage, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins fame.
Those were just two tidbits that emerged during a recent retirement event honoring Gulbrandsen, whose 16-year tenure as managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation officially drew to a close last week.
Gulbrandsen was a vital figure in Wisconsin’s innovation economy – and probably someone who was unknown to the average Badger citizen on the street. Perhaps it was his small-town upbringing or his self-deprecating Norwegian heritage, but Gulbrandsen rarely put himself in the spotlight even when it was merited.
His legacy, shared by others on WARF’s team, is nonetheless worth noting as successor Erik Iverson takes the reins of one of Wisconsin’s most important innovation and economic development assets.
Those accomplishments include advancing WARF’s historic role as the independent manager of intellectual property produced at the UW-Madison, expanding that mission to University of Wisconsin campuses across Wisconsin, increasing WARF’s role in the startup economy, shepherding discoveries such as human embryonic stem cell research, and orchestrating the construction of the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery.
Established in the 1920s around discoveries in Vitamin D therapies, WARF applies for patents on discoveries of UW-Madison faculty and staff and then licensing those patents to companies, large and small, that want to commercialize them. The foundation manages more than 1,700 patents, which speaks to the depth of campus research and development efforts.
A percentage of the licensing revenues is shared with the inventors and the balance becomes part of WARF’s $2.6 billion investment portfolio. The foundation provides annual grants ($92.5 million in fiscal year 2015-16) to campus and affiliated organizations, making it one of the larger pieces in the UW-Madison budget puzzle.
In fact, WARF has returned about $2 billion in today’s dollars to the campus over time, which is a major reason why it routinely ranks among the nation’s top five R&D universities.
That $2.6 billion portfolio also makes WARF one of the larger gorillas at the dance when it comes to protecting intellectual property from infringement, most recently evidenced by a $234-million federal court judgment in favor of WARF and against Apple.
Not without its critics over time, mainly because it has driven tough deals with license holders, WARF became more internally innovative during Gulbrandsen’s tenure.
It created two spinoff organizations, the WiSys Technology Foundation and WiCell, to handle two distinct projects.
WiSys was established to help faculty and staff on campuses outside Madison and UW-Milwaukee manage their discoveries, a process that has led to a doubling of disclosures in recent years on the state’s 11 non-doctoral campuses.
WiCell was created at the dawn of human embryonic stem-cell research to nurture the discoveries of researcher Jamie Thomson and others, who pioneered that research in the late 1990s on the UW-Madison campus. Most work with stem cells today, on campus and globally, involves reverse engineered cells produced from skin samples. At a time when there were attempts to shut down such research over moral and political objections, Gulbrandsen and WARF stood firmly behind what stem cells would mean to human health over time.
Although WARF’s charter was silent on contributing to the state and local economies, WARF became a player in the tech-based startup economy during Gulbrandsen’s time and earlier under his predecessor, Dick Leazer. It invested directly and indirectly in selected startups, in part because larger companies and many investors wouldn’t take the initial risk. More recently, WARF has been a part of supporting campus-based efforts to spur entrepreneurism, such as the Discovery to Product initiative.
The biggest physical manifestation of Gulbrandsen’s work is the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, which was built with a combination of private and public dollars, with much of the private support coming from WARF itself and philanthropists John and Tashia Morgridge. It is one of the largest centers for interdisciplinary research in the United States, if not the world.
“The House that Carl Built” is becoming one of the UW-Madison’s major lures for talent, as evidenced by some recent hires by its private side, the Morgridge Institute for Research.
Unassuming but tough-minded, Gulbrandsen guided a Wisconsin asset that is unlike almost any other in the United States. As WARF moves into a new era, more people – and state policymakers – should know what it means to the Wisconsin economy.