UW – Milwaukee leads reinvention parade

Brian Thompson

Flash back six years ago: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee had almost no commercial intellectual property; then-Chancellor Carlos Santiago often lamented that there had been no construction cranes over his campus for decades; and academic R&D was at a low level.

Carlos is gone from UWM now, but he did his thing by laying out the vision of a second great research and development campus for Wisconsin. He knew that UWM had to become a great urban university that engaged the innovation economy if the Milwaukee region were to reinvent itself. He saw clearly that the manufacturing base of the city, which had produced prosperity for decades, could no longer carry the whole load.

He knew, as did Chancellor Nancy Zimpher before him, and Chancellor Mike Lovell today, that UWM had to step up.

There were only a couple of patents issued to UWM professor six years ago – rather remarkable for a 127-year-old institution with more than 800 professors. R&D wasn’t part of UWM’s view of itself.

Santiago, David Gilbert, head of the UWM Foundation, and Colin Scanes, vice chancellor of R&D and economic development, made some bold moves to change that picture. They created the UWM Research Foundation. They called for new PhD programs, shooting for a total of 30. They asked the governor and legislature for construction money and cranes. They engaged the business community in creating a culture of innovation, an initiative that has been fully supported by the likes of Rockwell, JCI, the Bader Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Blood Center, WE Energies, Badger Meter and A.O. Smith.

They dared to think big.

Soon, cranes will be sprouting over UWM – over a campus for a new College of Fresh Water Technology; a new Innovation Campus for the UWM College of Engineering, which will allow a closer collaboration with the next-door Medical College of Wisconsin, and a new College of Public Health. Two new student dorms have been added to the campus, and a striking new student union is in the works.

As of today, the research foundation has produced significant results in just a short five years: five patents issued and 19 pending; seven license deals struck; four start-up companies out of UWM IP, one of which has received angel funding; and $2.7 million awarded in 44 research grants.

Academic R&D hit $71 million in 2010, a new high. That contributed greatly to a new high for the M7 region of nearly $300 million, almost one-third of the $1 billion at UW-Madison, the third largest research institution in the country.

You can see a reinvented university emerging. You hear the UWM drum beat for innovation.

The major challenge going forward for Gilbert, Lovell, and Brian Thompson, president of the research foundation, will be to turn the growing trove of intellectual property housed at UWM into more prosperity for citizens. Patents and licenses are great, but the real pay-off from a university is startup companies. That’s where wealth creation and job creation come to life. That’s where the taxpayers get their return.

Even UW – Madison falls short on launching companies – relative to its immense intellectual property (IP) portfolio. Technology transfer is still a developing competence.
Some universities are coming to the conclusion that they can do much more in that domain. For example, Ohio State University and Ohio University have teamed up to create a $35 million venture fund to invest in entrepreneurs at their campuses.

Ohio State hired Brian Cummings vice president at the University of Utah, which has led the nation at turning university patents into startups. Utah has recorded 110 startup companies in the last seven years, attracting $300 million in capital. OSU president E. Gordon Gee said moving more university IP into the marketplace “will create jobs, keep talented people in Ohio and attract more people and businesses to a state that clearly believes values research and innovation.”

To that end, UWM is launching a Technology Entrepreneurship Hub. For, without entrepreneurs, IP isn’t worth much. Further, without capital, the entrepreneur can’t get traction. Our Wisconsin universities need to examine the emerging Ohio model.

The authors of a new book, Rainforest, who reveal the secrets of Silicon Valley, contend that it is the network of resources, smart people from different disciplines that makes all the difference in creating a deal-making ecosystem. Such teams combine break-through ideas with market smarts to create new products and companies – and the resulting good jobs.

We have that network growing in the M7 region now, and UWM is marching smartly to the front of that parade.

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