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Kim: Morgridge Institute will speed delivery of discoveries to marketplace

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Sangtae Kim knows a thing or two about technology transfer, having worked as a UW-Madison and Purdue University scientist, a drug company executive and an official with the prestigious National Science Foundation.

So he’s an excellent choice to lead the Morgridge Institute for Research, the private half of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. The $210 million research center will open Thursday, with special events running through Dec. 11. See the schedule.

Kim, a native of Korea who grew up in Canada, said Morgridge scientists, including stem cell pioneer Jamie Thomson, will collaborate with researchers on the public side of the 300,000 sq. ft. building to help move drug, medical device and other research breakthroughs from the lab bench to the marketplace.

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“At the highest level, the Morgridge Institute is an attempt to try new structures to this overarching problem because the road to commercialization, especially in the case of biomedical discoveries, has gotten longer and more difficult,” said Kim, who was a chemical engineering professor at UW-Madison for 15 years.

He left UW-Madison in 1997 and spent six years working for Eli Lilly and Parke-Davis as the head of research information technology before joining the faculty at Purdue. He was named executive director of the Morgridge Institute in 2008 and has helped oversee its creation. The research facility got its name thanks to a $50 million gift from John and Tashia Morgridge, both UW-Madison graduates.

“I had the good fortune to be working in the pharmaceutical industry during the golden age of the information technology revolution,” Kim said. “With the pending sequencing of the human genome, the role of information technology as an enabler was very much in the limelight. It was an exciting time.”

By 2003, however, he said the role of information technology was entering a new plateau.

“I felt it was time to head back to academia because you are always on the leading edge of research there, trying to create new knowledge and innovation,” he said.

He said working for the drug industry gave him an appreciation for the other side of the technology transfer coin.

“Definitely, one of the great mysteries in the earlier part of my career at the university was why all these great ideas weren’t immediately taken up by industry and commercialized,” he said. “But having spent six years (working for drug companies), I realized what is involved in taking those great ideas and transforming them into solutions that meet the rigors of the marketplace.”

He said in the case of pharmaceuticals, it can take 15 to 20 years to go from a theory to making an actual pill that a patient can take.

For stem cell technologies, the timeline could be much longer because researchers are using new scientific paradigms, he noted.

But Kim said he hopes Morgridge, because it is a private institute, will be able to speed things up a bit working with not only the scientific and business communities, but regulatory agencies like the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Kim said the public side of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery – headed by his old friend and former UW-Madison chancellor John Wiley – will have a broader mandate than Morgridge.

“They will be looking at all the interesting interfaces between nanotechnology, information technology and biotechnology as a great discovery engine,” he said.

“But there will be a natural partnership between the Morgridge Institute and Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery working side by side to develop new paradigms from discovery to delivery,” he said.

“The expectation is that the private side could be faster and more nimble,” he said. “But I think the real focus should be on this partnership.”

Though there is a physical property line dividing between the public and private sides of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, Kim said it will be invisible to visitors.

Kim said he is also pleased that the UW-Madison law and business schools will have a presence at the institutes.

“The entrepreneurship clinic is an exciting concept and an opportunity for students from those two schools to interface with scientists who have innovative ideas from the very beginning and help them get going in the right direction,” he said.

“Having it all in one building is really a great idea. That is one of the big benefits of this building that will play out in the next few years.”

He said he is also pleased that Morgridge will group discovery-based start-up companies together at the institute.

“All of them have a common heritage in that they are founded by university faculty, students or alumni so they are very much part of the local science-based entrepreneurial ecosystem here,” he said.

“The premise here is that if you bundle together in a collaborative consortia companies that have the same scientific foundations, the whole, the entirety, could be better than the sum of the parts,” he said.

Kim said Morgridge also has a special role to play in times of down economic times and tight budgets.

“Tight budgets don’t just refer to university and federal government research budgets, they also refer to budgets of start-up companies,” he said. “So any time you can do science more efficiently by pooling resources together and collaborating, then I think that’s a big win for all the parties involved.”

Kim also said he sees Morgridge playing an important role in educating the next generation of scientists, especially in the area of computational technology.

“We’ll have, hopefully, a very strong partnership with the computer science department at UW, one of the very best in the country,” he added.

“Information technology and computational technology are pervasive in modern research,” he said.

“But at the Morgridge Institute, we expect that to be a well thought-out and architected strategic plan, not just something you do in an ad hoc or as a byproduct. It is something that will be very much the focus as part of our design for enabling leading-edge science.”

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