By Tom Still

MADISON – Quick quiz: Which Wisconsin institutions spend the most on research and development in the life sciences?

Naming No. 1 is relatively easy: the UW-Madison ($764 million) is perennially among the top academic R&D centers in the United States. Second on the list is the Medical College of Wisconsin ($139 million), which ranks among the nation’s top 100 medical research centers. Next up is the UW-Milwaukee at $28.3 million.

Give yourself bonus points if you guessed the Marshfield Clinic is fourth on the list. Although geographically removed from the Madison-Milwaukee research corridor, this private medical system is one of the largest of its kind in the United States and a strong fourth when it comes to Wisconsin research spending (about $25 million) in any given year.

But Marshfield has historically shown more “R” than “D” when it comes to research and development. The clinic’s investment in research spending hasn’t sparked the kind of tech-based spin-off companies that have been the norm at UW-Madison and, more recently, the Medical College of Wisconsin. That is calculated to change, however, with Monday’s announcement that Marshfield Clinic has signed an agreement with the UW System’s patenting and licensing arm to handle its technology transfer.

The clinic will work with the WiSys Technology Foundation, a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, to leverage its research base. Marshfield is effectively “out-sourcing” specialized patent and licensing services to WiSys and WARF, which perform those tasks as well, or better, than any academic tech transfer office in the nation.

What is tech transfer? It is the process of developing practical applications for the results of scientific research. It moves scientific discoveries from the lab to the marketplace to benefit society and the economy.

WiSys will provide patenting and licensing services to Marshfield Clinic scientists as well as facilitate collaborations between UW and Marshfield Clinic researchers. It marks the first time WiSys has entered into a collaborative agreement outside the UW System, which includes 13 four-year universities.

“Just as the UW Medical School has long offered research expertise to UW-Madison, the goal of this enterprise is to bring together Marshfield Clinic, a premier clinical research organization, and the UW System, a world-class teaching institution, for the common good,” UW System President Kevin Reilly said.

The agreement is expected to benefit researchers at both institutions by enabling them to work together, to jointly develop intellectual property, and to create advancements in human health.
It shouldn’t be hard to ways to work together. The Marshfield Clinic is known for its work in research areas that fit well with expertise within the UW System. Spread over 41 sites and 86 medical specialties, the clinic has 736 physicians. Its research foundation, located in Marshfield, has 30 scientists, another 180 staff and the $40 million Melvin R. Laird Center for Medical Research. Marshfield Clinic’s research work covers clinical research, human genetics, agricultural health and safety, bioinformatics and epidemiology.

Researchers at the clinic were the first to isolate the “monkeypox” virus in the summer of 2003 and have become leaders in the fight against West Nile virus and Johannes’ disease, which can devastate cattle herds. The clinic sponsors the National Farm Medicine Center.

In one of the largest studies of its kind in the world, the clinic is recruiting 40,000 Wisconsin citizens for a personalized medicine project that will help physicians better predict illnesses and design drugs that are less risky and more effective for specific individuals. It is essentially a “genomics bank” that will help tailor drugs and treatments to a person’s specific genetic code.

The UW System has about 200 researchers working on developing therapeutic molecules for various diseases, medical imaging technologies for diagnosis, equipment to assist the disabled, and research tools for medical research.

“A key component of this agreement will be research that brings together the unique strengths of each organization,” said Dr. Robert Carlson, director of Marshfield Clinic Applied Sciences. “Together, we can facilitate the timely transfer of medical discovery to patient care. It brings the ‘a-ha!’ discovery moment closer to solving the ‘Oh, no, I have cancer!’ problem.”

The agreement may not produce business start-ups overnight, but it will accelerate the process of exposing Marshfield Clinic innovation to business experts who can help create companies. With the help of WiSys expertise, look for Marshfield to attract more research – and do more to help the economy of central and northwest Wisconsin.

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