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Tech Transfer: With $1 Billion in its Coffers, WARF Trumps Transfer World

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In the tech transfer world, there’s a special tone reserved for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, a nonprofit company that has found a better way to transfer technology from its designated school, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, to companies looking for those techniques and tools.

More commonly known as WARF, the group has been transferring genomics technology for several years now, including a recent license agreement for customized arrays based on micromirrors that went to NimbleGen, a Wisconsin-based startup.

One of the main differences between WARF and most tech transfer offices is funding, according to Bryan Renk, director of patents and licensing there. Its endowment is more than $1 billion. “As far as I know, there’s no other technology transfer office that comes close,” Renk says. The budget is a major issue for such offices, where it generally takes seven to 10 years to see technology pay off.

The endowment is due partly to a strong portfolio and partly to WARF’s history: it began in 1925 when a professor and eight other alums contributed $100 each as initial capital, and it was set up as a separate entity because at the time the university didn’t see a need for it. Aside from alleviating problems with conflicts of interest because WARF employees are not allowed to work for the university, the situation enables the company to be more flexible and nimble, says Renk, by avoiding standard administrative red tape.

Other differences at WARF: “We really went out of our way to try to hire industry expertise to come in here to transfer technology,” Renk says. It speeds the process along when insiders truly understand the tech and its applications and possibly even have contacts with potential interested parties in industry. Also, most transfer offices assign one staff member to a particular technology from start to finish. At WARF, there are two people — one for handling patents and one for licensing. That promotes higher-quality patents from the IP side and more creative marketing from the licensing department, Renk says.

WARF lives off the interest and dividends from its endowment and the royalties from its licensing stream. After taking out operating expenses, the rest of the money — consistently more than 85 percent — gets donated back to the university.

— Meredith Salisbury

 

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