A detailed article on UW-Madison’s Promoting Industry Collaboration funding initiative appears in the March issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has started a new fund, with a total of $2 million initially available, to support research collaborations with industry and internships for graduate students. The initiative, called Promoting Industry Collaboration, is being funded by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the university’s tech transfer and commercialization arm. The grants, available in increments of $50,000 to $200,000, can be used for projects of one or two years, in addition to internships associated with the projects.

“When I became vice chancellor, we started looking at industry research funding and it was not as high as that of our peers — which was kind of surprising, notes Steve Ackerman, vice chancellor for research and graduate education. “Over the years there have been a variety of activities we’ve worked on to try to make collaboration easier. We’re now at the point where we’ve said, ‘Okay, we’ve removed some roadblocks; let’s see if we can inspire new collaborations with industry,’ and part of that is to try and seed-fund relationships.”

“The other aspect of the initiative is the training of graduate students, giving them more opportunity to get an idea of what it’s like to be in industry,” adds Cynthia “Cindy” Czajkowski, associate vice chancellor for research in the biological sciences. “It gives them experience in the private sector, they develop professional skills, good lab practices, and good manufacturing practices. You can’t get that in our labs.”

Proposals for funding can focus on fundamental research in science, engineering and technology; developing applications for university-industry cooperative research centers; and pilot studies for future proposals that specifically target partnerships between UW-Madison and industry. The initiative also supports semester or semester-plus-summer internships for PhD students with dissertator status. IP related to the projects must be assigned to WARF.

The awards can’t be used to fund industry personnel, but they can be used to fund services and products. Some level of matching support is required, and the cost of industry personnel is expected to be covered by the industry partner, although it can be applied as matching funds. One key exception, notes Czajkowski, is that funds cannot be used by faculty to support their own start-ups.

Ackerman emphasizes the fact that this initiative is totally internal. “We’re a little unique in our office; we get up to $60 million or so from WARF, which can be used to invest in research across campus,” he explains. “What we typically do is have initiatives, trying to seed funds into new research in new areas; this year’s strategic initiative is working with industry.”

There was not a huge amount of input from industry partners into the development of the fund, he continues, but adds it was launched out of a pre-COVID conversation with some biotech industry professionals in Madison. “They said, ‘Hey, we need to find some way to work together in developing more collaborations,’” he recalls. “COVID hit, but we still had it in our minds to work this problem, so we launched it off.”

Ackerman adds that when he first began focusing on designing the fund, he had reached out to some other Big Ten universities to see if any of their research offices had done something similar. “Nobody responded that they had,” he shares.

“NSF and NIH do have some funding for university-industry collaborations — especially in clinical research, developing new instruments for medical use,” adds Czajkowski. “That’s the template of this idea. But an initiative where as a university we supply dollars and industry supplies dollars? That is unique.”