By Tom Still
GREEN BAY – At a time when some legislators and citizens are questioning whether the University of Wisconsin System is still in touch with the needs of the state, the new Paper Technology Transfer Center in Green Bay is a reminder that the “Wisconsin Idea” is alive and well.
Launched last week with the help of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, two UW campuses, the paper industry, the state technical college system and local officials in Brown County, the UW-Green Bay Paper Technology Transfer Center is an example of how academic know-how can be leveraged to drive economic innovation.
Funded in large part with a $500,000 federal grant, the center will encourage researchers to develop patent-worthy technologies that may rekindle the growth of the paper industry in Wisconsin. That may not necessarily mean better or different kinds of paper – the companies themselves generally conduct that research on the inside – but it could lead to other products and processes that would open new markets.
Non-woven materials and fabrics, nano-composites, environmental protection, new forms of packaging and energy derived from forest products before they are pulped are examples of research areas that could produce patents – and licenses that would spin off new businesses and jobs.
“We will produce patentable technology through (the center) that will be licensed back to the private sector,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Green, R-Green Bay, who helped persuade Congress to fund the center. “We take what we’re already good at, which is papermaking, and combine it with one of our greatest resources, the (academic) research community.”
Wisconsin is the nation’s leading papermaking state and has been for decades, but global pressures have reduced the number of paper-related jobs in Wisconsin from about 50,000 in the late 1990s to about 40,000 today. While the industry appears to be stabilizing after a long run of global oversupply, there’s a need for more innovation in a very mature business.
“We hope to be a nexus for information and innovation for the paper industry,” said Dr. David Hollenberg, director of the center and a veteran of 25 years in the paper industry. If part of the definition of nexus is location, the center couldn’t be more ideally placed. More paper is produced within 100 miles of Green Bay than anywhere else in North America; more tissue is produced with 60 miles of Green Bay than anywhere else in the world.
This isn’t the first time a paper research institute has existed in northeast Wisconsin. More than 20 years ago, a paper chemistry research lab at Appleton’s Lawrence University closed and moved to Georgia Tech University in Atlanta. The Atlanta institute has since closed, as well, but the void left by its departure from Wisconsin gnawed at many paper industry experts here.
“We believe the creation of the Paper Technology Transfer Center will strengthen Wisconsin’s position as an industry leader and sharpen our competitive edge by encouraging more cutting-edge research,” said Patrick J. Schillinger, president of the Wisconsin Paper Council, the association for the state’s pulp, paper and allied industries.
Maliyakal John, general manager of WiSys Technology Foundation Inc., said his organization will assist the center with patenting and licensing and finding expertise within the University of Wisconsin System. In addition to UW-Green Bay, UW-Stevens Point will play a strong role in the future of the center. WiSys is a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.
“One of the ways we can help is look at what we can do to bring a new lease of life to this industry,” John said. “We have access to 600 faculty members.”
The Paper Technology Transfer Center (www.uwgb.edu/pttc) isn’t tucked away on campus, but located in downtown Green Bay adjacent to the city’s convention center. That was a deliberate choice by UW-Green Bay, city and county officials, who wanted to send a clear message that the work of the center is tied to the vitality of the community.
“We have three articles of faith,” UW-Green Bay Chancellor Bruce Shepard said. “They are connecting learning to life, partnerships, and connecting campus and community… It only made sense for this center to be located downtown.”
The combination of academic resources, private involvement and community support will give the Paper Technology Transfer Center a strong foundation. In turn, the center may help one of Wisconsin’s oldest and largest industries build a new foundation of its own.
–Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.