New WARF director praises ‘very strong’ Madison startup ecosystem

Incoming WARF Managing Director Erik Iverson says Madison can’t compare itself to larger tech hubs like Seattle or Austin.

Instead, Iverson said, Madison’s “very strong” startup ecosystem must continue to develop its own identity.

“Madison is Madison, and there’s so much greatness here,” Iverson said at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference yesterday. “Be yourselves, and let’s build it together.”

Iverson, who’ll replace Carl Gulbrandsen in July after he retires, was most recently the president of business and operations at the Seattle-based Infectious Disease Research Institute. He’s also worked as life sciences lawyer and was associate general counsel at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program.

Seattle was similar to Madison a couple of decades ago, he said, before the area became home to companies like Amazon or Microsoft.

He said one of the lessons to learn from Seattle’s growth is that it failed to develop a real community.

The city’s infrastructure makes it difficult to get around, he said, and it wasn’t able to fully retrain all the workers that were “displaced because [of] innovations.” That’s where the UW System could make a real difference, he said, noting that the campuses are more tightly knit than Washington’s disparate higher education institutions.

Iverson, who arrived this week, said he’s still meeting with stakeholders to evaluate what changes he’d like to make to WARF, though he praised its “masterful” team and Gulbrandsen’s 16 years at the helm.

But he did say he’d like to see more alumni involvement — and not necessarily through donations. He said the UW community could tap into the “massive number of world-class mentors” in its alumni, helping young entrepreneurs develop their companies.

That’s in line with the “mission investing” approach the Wisconsin Technology Council recently suggested in a report on higher education.

Iverson also said he wants to expand WARF’s use of “creative commercialization,” saying there are more ways of commercializing technology than the traditional approach of licensing that WARF is well-known for.

“That is an opportunity WARF has and needs to nurture,” he said.

— By Polo Rocha,