WisBusiness: WARF Director Says Institutes for Discovery Risky, But Worth the Gamble

By Brian E. Clark


MADISON – The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery are a risky endeavor, Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), acknowledged Tuesday.

But they are worth the gamble because they hold the potential to produce breakthrough science that can improve lives and create new companies and jobs for Wisconsin.

“The centers also will strengthen UW-Madison,” said Gulbrandsen, who spoke at a packed Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon. WARF manages the patents for the university and is contributing $50 million for the institutes.

UW-Madison graduates John and Tashia Morgridge have given another $50 million. The state will pony up another $50 million for the first phase of the project, which will include a private research center named for the Morgridges. The institutes will be built on the 1300 block of University Avenue in the heart of the UW-Madison campus and should open by late 2008.

Gulbrandsen said the institutes are needed to leverage research grants from industry and the federal government because the competition with other top universities for funding is increasing.

With the Morgridge Institute for Research, the UW-Madison will be better able to compete with top universities like Stanford, which has its own private Clark Center – which may serve as a model for the Morgridge center.

Gulbrandsen said the Morgridge institute will be more nimble, have less bureaucracy and allow easier transfer of technology to private industry. In addition, because it will be funded with private dollars, Morgridge scientists will be able to work on unregistered stem cell lines.

Gulbrandsen said the centers – which will produce 500 new jobs – will stress interdisciplinary research because it has great potential for producing new discoveries. In addition, federal grants for interdisciplinary projects often receive priority over others, he said.

Because of Tashia Morgridge’s interest in education, Gulbrandsen said will have a special outreach to K-12 teachers and students around the state.

“The institutes will focus on advancing the Wisconsin idea,” he said.

The Morgridge institute will also have what he dubbed “hotel” lab space for visiting scientists on sabbatical or professors from other schools in the UW system.

In response to a question, Gulbrandsen said he hopes the institutes will be able to attract the “best minds in science” and compete with international research powerhouses like Singapore, which is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into stem cell programs.

“If we do this right, the brightest scientists will want to be here,” he said.

Gulbrandsen praised Gov. Jim Doyle for his support for the institutes and noted that former Gov. Tommy Thompson is a supporter of stem cell research.

But he said he believes he would be able to work with Doyle’s Republican opponent, Congressman Mark Green of Green Bay. Green has voted against expanding federal support to unregistered embryonic stem cell lines, but voted for increased funding for the National Institutes of Health.

Democrats have said the institutes would be in jeopardy if Green were governor and charge that he would criminalize life-saving stem cell research pioneered in Wisconsin.

They say Green has a record of consistently voting to restrict stem cell research in Congress, and is a supporter of legislation vetoed last year by Doyle that would threaten stem cell research and scientific advancement in the state.

Green, however, said he has never voted to criminalize stem cell research, but is opposed to the “dangerous, unethical questionable practice of human cloning.”

“Green’s father is a doctor,” Gulbrandsen said. “When the facts are laid out, I would hope he would support the institutes. He is supportive of registered lines. And I would assure him we will be responsible and follow all the National Academy of Science guidelines.”