Gilbert: UW-Milwaukee Innovation Campus growing by collaboration

Some time down the road, David Gilbert, executive director of the UW-Milwaukee Innovation Campus, predicts there will be a “seamless continuum of research” that links his university, the Medical College of Wisconsin, clinical institutes at the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and other institutions.

That’s already happening to a degree, but there is much more to be done, he said.

“What we really want is there to be a clear path to commercialization in this region,” he said. “We want to help ideas go from the lab bench to the bedside to the marketplace, all right here in southeast Wisconsin. We want to keep that knowledge base and economic activity in this area so that we can continue to prosper.”

Gilbert said he also would like to see more collaboration with UW-Madison. “The stronger we become, the greater reason they have to work more closely with us. We’re excited about that. Despite what some people say, the faculty at UW-Madison has always been great supporters of enhanced research at UW-Milwaukee.”

Gilbert, who is also president of the UW-Milwaukee Foundation, said the genesis for the 72-acre Innovation Campus in Wauwatosa occurred about a decade ago. Around that time, he said the National Institutes of Health – which spends about $30 billion annually on scientific research funding – significantly altered what he called its “roadmap.”

Prior to that, he said the NIH would fund engineering and basic science projects separately from clinical research projects. Around 2004, he explained, the NIH changed direction and said “we are going to emphasize translational research.”

“Because the NIH is the leader in biomedical research funding, when they change their roadmap, so does everyone else,” he said.

“In Milwaukee we have a different situation than there is in Madison. On the east side of Milwaukee, you have a comprehensive research university in UW-Milwaukee and on the west side, you have an academic medical center, the hub of medical research in southeast Wisconsin. What the change in the NIH scientific roadmap meant was that we had to come closer together … and bring the lab bench closer to the regional medical center.”

The medical center, he noted, is home to the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Blood Research Institute, Children’s Research Institute, Froedtert Hospital, Children’s Hospital and a host of other clinical research entities, with a total research spending of about $200 million a year on the clinical side. And UW-Milwaukee is the largest research institution in southeast Wisconsin with about $70 million a year in research in engineering and the basic sciences, he added.

“The idea is, if we can come closer to the regional medical center and the Medical College of Wisconsin in particular, certainly we will be more successful, they will be more successful and we can help the region grow by attracting research grants, creating spin-out companies and attracting other types of biomedical companies to the region.”

Gilbert called the Innovation Campus a third-generation research park that is “really about blurring the line between the academic side and the business side of the house in the sense that you have academia, industry, non-profit and government agencies not only working in the same building, but often times in the same labs. You want to create a 24/7 activated community of science where people can live, learn, work and play. So on a relatively small piece of property, we are trying to accomplish an awful lot and I think we’ve made some great strides.”

He said the campus’ first building is the Innovation Accelerator, a twist on a business incubator.

“It’s predominantly a service building, where we provide services that are not otherwise easily available in southeast Wisconsin,” he said. “We have a prototype lab where we can build medical widgets and other devices for you if you are an inventor to see if they actually work. Or if you want to develop something further, we have a bio-sensor group that will help you put medical sensors on a computer chip for diagnostics. We have a whole rehab group that is inventing new types of rehab devices.”

In the past, he said start-ups that wanted those kind of services might have gone to the Argonne National Labs outside Chicago or other places around the Midwest.

“But when you spend a couple of years working in Illinois, say, by the time you spin out your company, it’s based in Illinois,” he said.

“So we are trying to create that type of environment right here in southeast Wisconsin,” he said. “That’s the basic premise: bring our basic sciences together with the clinical sciences at the Regional Medical Center. Then create a place where we can privatize and commercialize the outcomes of that research for the betterment of economic development and to get these new diagnostics and tools into the use into society.”

— By Brian E. Clark