By Brian E. Clark
MADISON – Spinning out new businesses is the goal of many a university in the 21st Century.
UW-Madison has been doing that for more than 100 years, helping start roughly 250 companies that have gross revenues today of more than $1 billion.
“It’s our responsibility as a major research institution to push ideas into the marketplace to create companies, good jobs and wealth,” said Noel Radomski, an official in the university’s Office of Corporate Relations (OCR).
“One of our missions is to facilitate and accelerate technology transfer and start-ups,” said Radomski, who is also a member of the Madison City Council. The OCR, he noted, was created three years ago to carry the vaunted Wisconsin Idea to the business community around the state and beyond.
A key ally in creating new businesses from research is the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which manages the university’s patents. It has equity in more than 30 companies, including TomoTherapy, Deltanoid Pharmaceuticals, Nimblegen Systems and Platypus Technologies.
To better understand how technology, ideas and human capital are turned into companies, the OCR is working closely with researchers from the University of California at Davis.
UC-Davis Prof. Donald Patton spoke to a recent UW-Madison INSITE (Initiative for Studies in Technology Entrepreneurship) gathering and presented some of his preliminary findings about the genealogy of companies that have spun out of the university.
“If we can learn more about how these enterprises are created, then perhaps we can speed up the process to create more companies in our community and state,” Radomski said.
The career of UW-Madison biochemistry professor Hector DeLuca should be grist for any study of this kind, said Radomski and Alan Dines, assistant director of the OCR.
DeLuca, an internationally acclaimed scientist and vitamin D expert, has hundreds of patents and created at least five drugs.
One of them was the backbone for Bone Care International, which was founded in the 1990s. It developed and marketed a drug to treat vitamin D deficiencies in patients with kidney disease. It sold last year to Genzyme for $700 million.
DeLuca and his wife, fellow biochemist Margaret Clagget-Dame, founded Madison’s Deltanoid Pharmaceuticals in 2001 to develop drugs. According to published reports, DeLuca’s drug discoveries have resulted in more than $5 billion in worldwide sales.
Academics aren’t the only ones interested in the role of universities in technology transfer and the commercialization of research.
The Federal Reserve Board of Chicago will host a conference on the topic Oct. 30 in the Windy City. The title of the gathering is “Can Higher Education Lead Economic Growth.”
Dines, the former head of two Madison high-tech start-ups, said he hopes the UC-Davis study will turn into at least a partial road map that other companies can follow.
In other words, if each new company doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel, it might have a better chance of success.
When Dines was in the business world, he said it was difficult to find insurance companies that would work with the start-ups he represented. Now, he noted, there are brokers who specialize in that aspect of the insurance trade.
He said he would be especially interested in a list of high-tech and life science company executives in the region that would include where they had worked.
Dines said he believes Wisconsin has solid leaders at its high-tech firms, though lack of those executives is sometimes seen as a reason why venture capitalists are reluctant to invest in fledgling Badger State companies.
Jan Moen, executive director of Accelerate Madison – an organization of information technology and software professionals, said she would be keenly interested in seeing the results of the UC-Davis study when it is finished.
“There is a lot of innovative activity going on around here and great research coming out of UW-Madison, Marquette and other universities,” she said.
“Our group would be especially interested in learning about outcomes and best practices that could help people manage or grow.
“I think our economy is going to change a lot in the coming decades,” she said. “If a study like this could help guide other people along the way to create and keep jobs here in Wisconsin, we’d definitely want to use it and disseminate it.”