MIT Club of Wisconsin aims to boost technology transfer

By Brian E. Clark

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has generated billions of dollars of business activity and hundreds of spinoff companies – most of them on the East and West coasts.

“It’s part of the culture,” said Herb Zien, a Wisconsin native who earned a master’s degree from the Institute’s Sloan School of Management in 1973. He is president of ThermalSource, a Milwaukee-based energy company.

“The Institute has had a big impact on the economies of Massachusetts and California because the school is so good at commercializing technology,” added Zien, who is president of the MIT Club of Wisconsin.

“We’d like to see more of that happen here in Wisconsin because our state’s schools are no slouches,” he said. “In fact, UW-Madison produces an amazing number of patents.”

Unfortunately, Zien said UW-Madison patents often have been used by out-of-state firms or turned into businesses elsewhere in the country.

“That’s changing now,” he said. “We’d like to help move it along by working with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the Wisconsin Technology Council, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and others.”

Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of WARF, praised the MIT Club’s activities.

“We need all the help we can get,” said Gulbrandsen, who noted that many MIT graduates are on the faculty at UW-Madison. “And there is a pretty large contingent in Milwaukee, too.”

“I think it is great that that they are intent on helping out the high-tech community in our state,” he said.

Zien and his fellow alumni recently honored two high-tech companies and a UW-Madison biomedical engineer at its Technology Achievement Awards banquet in Waukesha.

The club also hosts Enterprise Forums via satellite to the state. The next one will be held at the UW-Madison Business School’s Fluno Center on June 1. The subject is angel investors, well-heeled financiers who invest in often-risky start-ups.

The companies honored by the club at the awards banquet were Rockwell Automation and NimbleGen Systems. The scientist was Nimmi Ramanujam, whose biomedical engineering group at UW-Madison has developed a device to aid cancer surgery. This was the third year the awards have been handed out.

The MIT Club also may start an internship program with high-tech companies. Initially, it would be for Wisconsin natives who are MIT students.

Eventually, Zien said the club would like to attract non-native MIT grads to come to Wisconsin for internships.

“Once they see what a great place this is to live, maybe they’ll be interested in coming back, working here and perhaps starting companies,” he said.

Steve Roe, a partner with the Lathrop & Clark law firm, is an Illinois native and MIT grad who recently moved to Madison.

Roe, who earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering in 1985, worked for nearly a decade in Washington, D.C. as an attorney.

Roe said he had grown weary of the “inside the Beltline” mentality and wanted to live in a small city where he and his wife could raise their two children.

When he was offered the opportunity to revitalize Lathrop & Clark’s patent practice, he said he jumped at the chance.

“It’s much more collegiate here,” he said. “There is a lot happening here and Madison is a great place for a family.”

Roe said honoring Wisconsin high-tech firms and individuals is a way to get them attention both inside and outside Wisconsin.

“And through the MIT internship program, we will be able to bring Wisconsin people back and show other MIT students and grads that there are opportunities with high-tech and bio-tech companies outside of New England and California.”

Allyn Ziegenhagen, club treasurer, said the goal of the awards is to boost the state’s business climate by celebrating and promoting technological innovation in the state.

“And the innovations don’t have to come from some place like UW-Madison or the Medical College of Wisconsin,” he said. “If an inventor creates an innovation in his or her garage, we’ll give it notice.”

Ziegenhagen, 69, grew up on a dairy and attended a one-room school near Wautoma for eight years. He earned a master’s in chemical engineering from MIT in 1959 and returned to Madison, where he’d gotten his bachelor’s degree, for his PhD.

He then taught at UW-Milwaukee – with a brief stint in Latin America – before pursuing a career in research at Shell, Stauffer Chemical Co. and other companies on the East and West coasts.

He and his wife now live in Pewaukee in a house that backs onto a nature conservancy.

“I say we live in ‘Milmadchi’ because we are close enough to Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago to enjoy all that those three cities have to offer,” he said.

Ziegenhagen said MIT has a student population of 10,000, some 6,000 of whom are doing graduate work.

“It’s a private school that describes itself as a ‘meritocracy,’” said Ziegenhagen. “It obviously gets lots of very bright students, lots of valedictorians.”

Ziegenhagen, who is equally proud of his UW-Madison degrees, said MIT also is home to world-renowned artists, musicians and writers.

Technology, however, is the Institute’s strong suit, he said.

“MIT is a special place,” he said. “And having an MIT degree opens lots of doors, especially in companies dominated by MIT alumni.

“The name MIT causes people to perk up their ears,” he said. “It gets a reaction and has a cachet. But an education is what you make of it.

“There is a lot of brain power there,” he said. “But there is lots of brain power here in Wisconsin, too. We’d like to help keep a little more of it at home and turn it into jobs and companies.”