By Tom Still:

It’s a common question, often voiced inside the Capitol and within Wisconsin’s business community: How can the University of Wisconsin System better align itself with the state’s economic future?

Some of those linkages take place routinely, starting with the fact the UW System churns out thousands of graduates for Wisconsin’s workforce each year.

Some connections to economic growth are less visible, embedded in academic research projects that often take time to yield tangible results.

However, many economic ties and benefits are virtually untapped by businesspeople who may need — but don’t always seek or know how to find — help from university experts.

Read this commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.

Better connecting the UW System with Wisconsin’s economy is the goal of a $22.5 million “incentive grant” program, funded by the Legislature and aimed at attracting matching private and public dollars. The program stands to serve as an example of what happens when higher education, the private sector and government work together.

To be formally announced Monday, the 12 grant recipients are the survivors of a process that began with 56 applications reviewed in rounds by a panel of judges — mostly from outside the university. The private-sector list included company founders and CEOs, entrepreneurs, an engineer, a venture capitalist and (for full disclosure) me.

The process was not an attempt to spread cash around like peanut butter throughout the UW System. It was designed to reward merit and innovation, mainly in educating tomorrow’s workforce and fostering economic growth. Some UW campuses were shut out of the top 12, while others (UW-Milwaukee, UW-Stevens Point and UW-Eau Claire) had multiple winners.

The common threads in the top 12 proposals were collaboration with private partners, leveraging existing UW resources and demonstrating the project could live on long after the initial grant dollars were spent.

While the theme wasn’t readily apparent from the initial 56 applications, the finalists all connected with Wisconsin’s existing or emerging economic clusters. Here are some examples:

■ The Southeast Wisconsin Applied Chemistry Center of Excellence, led by UW-Milwaukee and UW-Parkside, will stimulate economic growth in industries dependent on chemicals and trained chemists. In Wisconsin, those industries include health care, food, consumer goods and manufacturing, for starters. This project was awarded just under $3 million.

■ Two UW-Stevens Point projects are tied to the future of Wisconsin’s paper industry and a related sector, biofuels produced from cellulose. A specialty papers, packaging and converting project was awarded $1.44 million and a proposal for cellulosic biorefinery project was awarded $2.84 million.

■ Led by UW-Eau Claire, a project involving three other campuses was awarded $3.2 million to address Wisconsin’s nursing shortage, a critical need for the health care industry.

■ Two projects were tied to aquaculture and aquaponics, emerging sectors in a world with ever more mouths to feed. UW-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside and UW-Whitewater will lead a $2.45 million effort that includes research, workforce training and direct industry ties. UW-Stevens Point and UW-Extension will work with other partners on a similar $677,000 project.

■ Mining in Wisconsin, which ranges from the prospect for renewed iron mining in the far northwest and “frac sand” mining in much of western Wisconsin, will be the target of UW-Eau Claire’s $451,000 “Responsible Mining Initiative.” That project will focus on workforce development and environmental sustainability.

■ UW-Milwaukee and UW-Whitewater will work together on a water technology accelerator designed to speed new companies and ideas into the marketplace. That’s a $3 million project.

A number of strong proposals were not funded, sometimes because the potential economic benefits weren’t readily apparent to the judges or because the partnerships were not fully developed. If this crop of finalists measures up, however, the Legislature could elect to keep the program alive for other good ideas.

On the UW System’s end, the grants are a major test for the Board of Regents, which has heard loud and clear the complaints that higher education must be better connected to the state’s economic success. That is why the Regents created a Research, Economic Development and Innovation Committee, headed by Fox Valley businessman Tim Higgins, to support efforts such as the incentive grants.

The process proved there is no shortage of good ideas for collaboration throughout the UW System. Now, the burden falls on the recipients to turn those ideas into economic reality.