By Brian E. Clark
MADISON – The University of Wisconsin has a reputation for being a
national leader in technology transfer.
Now a bill is making its way through the Legislature that proponents say would make it easier
for faculty and researchers to turn their ideas into start-up companies.
It should be up for a vote in the Assembly today.
The legislation – SB 338 – also would remove some sanctions that backers
say have dampened the enthusiasm of faculty members to start businesses.
Those penalties include $10,000 fines and up to three-and-one-years in
“I support this bill because it would knock down barriers for
scientist/entrepreneurs who want to turn their ideas into companies,” said
Mark Bugher, who runs University Research Park on Madison’s west side.
“This would help with the implementation of the Wisconsin Idea, which is
all about transferring technology to the private sector,” he said.
Under current law, UW researchers can be prosecuted for commercializing
their disclosures. The law bans public employees from performing a
contract in their official capacities if their official involvement in the
contract requires the exercise of discretion.
SB 338 would specify that the prohibition does not apply to a contract
between a research company and the UW System, within certain parameters.
The Assembly substitute bill, authored by Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater,
exempts contracts between research companies and the UW System from review
by the Attorney General’s office if they have a value of less than
Contracts worth more than that would have to be reviewed in 30 days,
though that could be extended.
Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, praised the
legislation, which has a five-year sunset clause.
“This bill retains some oversight by the state, but we won’t be sending
professors to jail for doing what they should be doing, which is
commercializing their work through proper channels.”
Still said he believes the legislation would enhance technology transfer,
which is a stated goal of the university.
“The old law was probably designed to prevent conflicts of interest, but
it conflicts with campus policy of trying to get scientific breakthroughs
out into the real world.
“It has had a chilling effect on scientists,” he said. “If they were
unsure about where they stood, they often chose not to proceed with
ventures for fear of getting into trouble.
Still said the current law inhibits investment in technology.
“But I think Nass did a good job of listening to the concerns of the UW
system without giving away the store,” he said.
Mike Mikalsen, a spokesman for Nass, said his boss did not want to make UW
officials completely immune from review, but wanted to boost the
commercialization of research.
“He wanted a balanced approach,” Mikalsen said.
Don Nelson, a spokesman for the university, said he did not know of any
scientists who had been prosecuted under the current law.
“But it held some people back,” he said. “We hope this will help create
more start-up companies, that’s the goal.”
“It will streamline things, and that is why it is supported by the
university administration and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation,”