By Tom Still
MADISON – The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is best known for its work around global health and development, education and energy, but it’s also home to the equivalent of a venture capital fund that invests in emerging biotechnology and health companies.
Erik Iverson, who will become managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation this summer, helped get that fund off the ground during his seven-year stint at the foundation. Launched with about $400 million, the fund is now in the billion-dollar stratosphere and reaping returns on its early investments.
“I remember the day when (Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates) asked: ‘So, how can we better follow up on our own grants?’ Before long we started making equity and debt investments,” Iverson recalled this week.
That’s one example of Iverson’s connections to the worlds of venture capital, technology transfer, academic research, law and business – all qualities he hopes to bring to his new role at WARF.
Iverson, who is now president of Business and Operations at the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle, Wash., will succeed Carl Gulbrandsen, who will retire this summer after more than 15 years in WARF’s top management seat. Iverson’s selection by WARF’s board of directors signals a recommitment to initiatives pioneered by Gulbrandsen, especially in connecting large and small companies to WARF patents and licenses.
“Working with companies is near and dear to my heart,” Iverson said. That includes startups and emerging firms as well as some of the world’s pharmaceutical leaders, some of which have partnered with IDRI to develop vaccines and other technologies to fight infectious disease.
Iverson’s combination of well-rounded expertise and global connections should make him a strong fit at WARF, which is one of the oldest and largest technology university-affiliated tech transfer offices in the United States.
WARF was formed in 1925 to commercialize a Wisconsin professor’s vitamin D discovery that essentially wiped out rickets. Today, it manages more than 1,700 patents and an investment portfolio of $2.6 billion. It returns tens of millions of dollars to the UW-Madison each year; works with campus startup companies; underwrites the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery; and helps to support the WiSys Technology Foundation, which manages intellectual property for other UW System campuses outside the UW-Milwaukee.
As respected as WARF is, nationally and internationally, it faces challenges in a world where development of drugs, diagnostics and medical devices takes time and lots of money. It’s also a world in which patents are not the preferred source of intellectual property protection for software companies, which have shorter shelf lives. In addition, the rise of Internet-based peer review is changing traditional pathways for validating scientific research.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the flattening of federal aid for academic research since the mid-2000s has meant less funding for basic and applied research, which translates to fewer disclosures and patents. Still, WARF ranked seventh in the world in a review of 2014 U.S. utility patents filed by universities.
Iverson said he believes his contacts with countries outside the United States, a product of his work with the Gates Foundation and IDRI, could expand WARF’s relationships around the world while building on “The Wisconsin Idea.” Recent examples at IDRI include the creation of Afrigen to transfer vaccine breakthroughs to nations that need them, and a partnership with Sanofi Pasteur to establish the Global Health Vaccine Center of Innovation.
It’s also likely his knowledge of information, agricultural and “cleantech” technologies will help Iverson better understand how scientific disciplines can work together to remove procedural speed bumps.
When this native of Moorhead, Minn., packs his bags in Seattle for the move to Madison, he should bring with him an outsider’s perspective that will help Wisconsin better define its economic future, and a Midwestern sense of getting things done. That’s promising news for Wisconsin.