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Wisconsin Task Force Aims to Improve Academic R&D in Bid to Drive Economic Development

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On the heels of a Wisconsin Technology Council report released last month examining academic R&D deficiencies in the state, the University of Wisconsin system is organizing a task force to examine how UW system campuses can better parlay their research into industrial partnerships and state-based startup companies.

The task force, called Research to Jobs, will comprise members of the Badger State's tech-transfer, venture-capital, and business communities, and will begin working in early March to develop specific recommendations for Wisconsin universities, research institutions, companies, and government organizations that it expects to release by early summer, task force leader Carl Gulbrandsen said this week.

UW system President Kevin Reilly is convening the task force one month after the WTC, an independent, non-profit organization formed in 2001 to advise the state's governor and legislature on science and technology matters, released its report, entitled "The Economic Value of Academic Research and Development in Wisconsin."

Gulbrandsen, who also heads the Research to Jobs initiative, told BTW this week that the overarching goal of the task force is to unlock the potential in the state's universities to use R&D prowess as a driver of economic development.

"We get some criticism because we spend a lot of money on research, particularly at UW-Madison," said Gulbrandsen, who is also managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the non-profit patenting and licensing arm of UW-Madison. "We file a lot of patent applications, but we don’t start the number of companies that our peer institutions in San Francisco or Boston do.

"I do think we have some environmental conditions that are quite different from those regions," he added. "We don't have the venture capital money that they have, and we don’t have the number of entrepreneurs that they have. But I still think that we could do a better job."

The report highlights the fact that academic science and engineering research activities in Wisconsin totaled about $1.067 billion and were responsible for creating more than 38,000 jobs in 2007, according to statistics from the National Science Foundation, US Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis, and other sources.

These figures, which do not include some $42 million in research expenditures by the Marshfield Clinic and the Blood Center of Wisconsin’s Blood Research Institute, place Wisconsin 13th nationally in science and engineering research activity.

However, the report also notes that state support for higher education has been weakening over the past 25 years. In the past decade alone, state appropriations as a percentage of the total UW system annual budget have declined from 33.75 percent in 1997-98, when an $880 million state appropriation was applied to a $2.6 billion UW system budget, to 24.21 percent in 2006-07, when a $1.04 billion state allocation covered less than one-fourth of the $4.3 billion UW system budget, according to the report.

In addition, the $3.8 billion that Wisconsin allocated for all R&D expenditures placed it 23rd among all US states. "If not for Wisconsin’s relatively high ranking in academic R&D, the state would slip out of the top half of all US states in total research and development spending," the report stated.

Also, the report noted that approximately one-fifth of the total $1.04 billion in academic science and engineering research activity was centralized at UW-Madison, the UW system's largest campus, highlighting the need to better tap into R&D activity at the other 12 US campuses. It also noted that despite pocketing the lion’s share of the UW system’s cash for these disciplines, UW-Madison has not taken full advantage of its R&D activity for economic development.

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Wisconsin's universities "tend to be underutilized assets from the standpoint of research and development and technology transfer," the report stated. "Without a broader foundation in academic R&D, Wisconsin will find it difficult, if not impossible, to leverage these assets in pursuit of a robust, high-tech and knowledge-based economy for the 21st century."

The UW system has made a concerted effort to spread the wealth from UW-Madison to other campuses in the system. One example is the WiSys Technology Foundation, which WARF established in 2000 to manage intellectual property for all other campuses in the UW system.

This had included four-year campuses at Eau Claire, Green Bay, La Crosse, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Parkside, Platteville, River Falls, Stevens Point, Stout, Superior, and Whitewater; and a number of two-year campuses. However, in July 2007 UW-Milwaukee said it would manage its own IP in an attempt to contribute more to local economic development (see BTW, 7/30/2007)

Nevertheless, Gulbrandsen said that through WiSys "we've learned that there is a lot of talent at all of the campuses of our university system. We need to work better at linking this talent to the businesses we have in the state. That’s really the focus of this: How can we use the technology that’s being developed in our universities to help improve Wisconsin businesses and start Wisconsin companies?"

As with university tech transfer in general, an overwhelming percentage of the activity is in the life sciences arena, particularly at UW-Madison, which is an internationally recognized leader in areas such as stem cell biology, and which holds multiple key patents that form the basis of commercial research programs in that area.

Gulbrandsen said that "there is good life science research going on at all of the UW campuses. We also have institutions like the Marshfield Clinic, [the UW]-LaCrosse/Gunderson [Lutheran Medical Foundation], and the Medical College of Wisconsin, all of which can be tapped to help with this effort."

Despite the biomedical R&D prowess at UW institutions, Gulbrandsen stressed that it was important not to ignore several other important areas of research within the UW system, such as physical science, nanotechnology, and materials science.

"The newspapers like to write about the life sciences, but we’ve got great physical sciences technologies coming out of Madison, too," he said. "These physical sciences and materials sciences technologies sometimes have a much shorter product development life cycle and time-to-market than the life sciences. We shouldn’t lose sight of those when we’re thinking about economic development."

Gulbrandsen said that Research to Jobs will likely begin its activities in early March, and will make a formal announcement about the various members of the task force sometime before that. However, he did specifically mention the names of a few members who have committed to the task force, including Brian Thompson, president of the UW-Milwaukee Research Foundation; Mark Bugher, director of the University Research Park at UW-Madison; and Tom Still, president of the WTC.

The task force hopes to produce specific recommendations for state economic development players sometime in the early summer. "We're setting aside 10 weeks to do this," he said.

Besides providing proposals to UW system schools and regional corporations, the task force is considering recommendations "with respect to legislation that could help encourage collaborations between companies in Wisconsin and our universities in the area of product development," Gulbrandsen said.

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