By Charlie Hoslet
Another national news article on college rankings appeared in September just as the new school year was getting underway, and with it came another top spot for UW-Madison. 

In its new college guide, Washington Monthly named the University of Wisconsin-Madison the nation’s top research university.  The fact that this publication is based in the nation’s capital and has a high readership among the political players and policy-makers within the Beltway made the ranking all the more important to those of us out here in the heart of the country. 

The top ranking is based on the total number of science and engineering doctorates and research expenditures in fiscal 2004.  The guide, which emphasizes outcomes of university work such as public service, promoting social mobility and advancing the economy, ranks UW-Madison 12th best in the country across all categories.

High rankings are always nice, and certainly appreciated by all those at the university who carry out research every day (and lots of nights).  But how does this research impact the business community in Wisconsin?  What does it mean for economic development?  As it turns out, quite a bit.

As reported by the Wisconsin Technology Council last year, research done at academic and other research institutions across Wisconsin is responsible for more than 31,000 jobs, directly and indirectly, in the state.  But that’s just the beginning.

UW-Madison, along with other institutions in Wisconsin such as the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, are also taking the technology developed out of that research and licensing it to Wisconsin companies for their use.  For example, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation – the technology transfer organization for UW-Madison – has itself licensed technology developed on campus to more than 90 Wisconsin companies.  Indeed, many of these companies have licensed multiple technologies from WARF.

We are also translating research into new companies.  More than 230 companies with direct ties to UW-Madison have been created, with most of those occurring in the last 10 to 15 years.  In fact, in the last 10 years alone, approximately 12 new companies per year have been started.  Some of these are companies you’ve probably heard about, such as TomoTherapy, which was formed in 1997 and has a revolutionary cancer treatment device that delivers targeted radiation to affected tissue, yet leaves surrounding cells unharmed.  Others are companies you will be hearing more about, such as Mithridion, which was formed in November of 2004 to develop drugs based on groundbreaking UW-Madison research in Alzheimer’s disease therapy.

And new UW-based companies are getting a lot of encouragement and support.  For example, the “UW New Business Start-Up Initiative,” which our Office of Corporate Relations launched last fall, is designed to assist faculty, staff and students considering startup ventures based on their research or based on ideas derived through their campus experience. 

As part of this initiative, we have kicked off the “First Look Forum Series” for venture capital and angel investors. This forum serves as a venue for early-stage and concept-stage UW-Madison entrepreneurs to discuss their business concepts with representatives from the investment community and gain feedback on how to advance business ideas toward a fundable opportunity.  It also gives area investors an opportunity to see the latest cutting edge research that is ripe for commercialization.  At the most recent First Look Forum in September, a number of UW-Madison faculty members discussed their plans for taking the technology they developed in their labs on campus and building Wisconsin companies around it.  The ideas ranged from a spray cooling method for cooling high speed computers and other electronics that generate significant amounts of heat to a device that can analyze a person’s breath and detect infection hours and even days ahead of current technology.

And to help those new companies, we have started a “CEO Breakfast Series,” which provides peer-level networking and information for CEOs whose companies are in early stages of establishing their business operation.  More than a dozen early stage company CEOs regularly attend these events.

Of course, all you have to do is drive through University Research Park and take a look around.  It’s not just a field of dreams out there, it’s a Field of Dreams Come True for UW researchers who are proving that the worlds of academics and commerce are no longer separate worlds.  University Research Park is crowded with evidence (including more than 100 companies and over 5,000 employees) that the two worlds are connected like the principal of cause-and-effect, in ways that are driving forward the modern economy.

So having UW-Madison recognized as one of the best universities in the country – by the Washington Monthly and many other college guides – has a positive impact on morale for all of us in Wisconsin.  It’s nice to be Number One, although our Midwest humility keeps us from boasting too much. 
The real good news here isn’t just the top ranking.  It’s the story behind the rankings, with all the ways UW-Madison research has a positive impact on the Wisconsin economy.  

That’s what is helping put Wisconsin among the leaders of the new, technology-driven economy of the 21st Century. 

Charles Hoslet is Managing Director of the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations.