By Tom Still

MADISON – There are 115 universities in the United States that can lay claim to an “R1” rating from the national organization that ranks research institutions, and Wisconsin is now home to two of them – the UW-Madison and the UW-Milwaukee, which joined the elite Research Level 1 list in February.

That’s great news for Wisconsin’s two largest universities, and it doesn’t diminish the efforts of the state’s smaller colleges and universities – both public and private – that are fulfilling their respective academic missions to provide teaching, service and research.

A recent presentation in Appleton demonstrated how other four-year schools in the University of Wisconsin System are enhancing their research agendas, not only in applied work that can lead directly to company and job creation, but in basic research that is a necessary foundation.

It served as a reminder that state policymakers underfund the R&D missions of colleges and universities at the state’s economic peril.

At the Feb. 11 meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network in Appleton, listeners heard about the work of Algoma Algal Biotechnology, a company that is turning wastewater into “green chemicals” through a process that involves algae and a solar reactor. Possible products are chemicals that can be used to produce synthetic rubber, medical latex, lubricants, solvents, glues, animal feed and even flavors and fragrances. High on the product list is a system for capturing isoprene gas, which is used in making tires.

The technology and the company are tied to the UW-Oshkosh, which is the third-largest research university in the UW System in terms of dollars spent on research. It is also an example of how the WiSys Technology Foundation is helping to move research ideas from the laboratory bench to the marketplace.

Created as an offshoot of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which has handled UW-Madison invention disclosures and licenses for 90 years, WiSys performs a similar role for the rest of the UW System outside the UW-Milwaukee. It manages disclosures from professors, other faculty and students; obtains patents where possible; and generally supports inventors as they move toward licensing their ideas or building a company.

“(WiSys) is the missing ingredient from where I was before,” said Chancellor Andrew Leavitt, who took the top job at UW-Oshkosh in late 2014 after working in Georgia’s public university system.

The numbers appear to back Leavitt’s impression. Invention disclosures on UW System campuses outside the Big Two in Madison and Milwaukee have climbed steadily of late, with 56 invention disclosures in the 2014-15 fiscal year. Three patents were issued that year and others are in the pipeline; seven licensing deals were executed; about $560,000 in grants were awarded and 12 campus-based proposals were funded. Executive director Arjun Sanga, who came to Wisconsin after working in similar technology transfer roles in Texas and Kansas, has expanded the role of WiSys through outreach on individual campuses and through regional directors that understand links to industry.

While the pipeline is producing more inventions, disclosures and companies such as Algoma Algal Biotechnology, observers worry it could run dry in future years if state support for higher education declines.

Faculty members won’t have time to conduct research if teaching loads become heavier, and the value of what they teach will be diminished if there’s not a balance of research and “service,” which is broadly defined but includes starting young companies.

“The number one resource is time,” said Leavitt, who has led efforts in Oshkosh to make resources such as the campus Business Success Center and Small Business Development Center readily available to faculty and students alike. As a result, UW-Oshkosh students are increasingly well-represented in contests and other activities tied to undergraduate research.

While economists don’t often agree on much, there’s not much dissent over the notion that research universities contribute to the prosperity of cities, regions and states around them. Studies by the Federal Reserve Bank and others have cited the power of academic research and development in the economy, from direct spending tied to such research to the transfer of knowledge to companies of all sizes to the “human capital” that comes with creation of a highly skilled workforce.

Wisconsin’s economy may not feel the difference next year or even the next, but continued erosion of support for higher education will prove costly over time. A strong system is emerging to pull out the best campus ideas; let’s invest in it.