WARF director wants more industry-sponsored research

Erik Iverson, managing director of WARF, wants to see more industry-sponsored research at UW-Madison.

“I think this campus has done an okay job of collaborating with industry; I think this university could do better,” he said as part of the WARF’s recent Entrepreneurons event. “We need industry engaged, and the earlier we can have them involved and partner with us, the better off we are all going to be.”

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation is the nonprofit technology transfer organization for UW-Madison, though it operates as an entirely separate entity from the university.

“Unlike any other tech transfer office, really in the world… we do not report up through the chancellor of the university,” he said. “And it’s that separate-ness that gives us a lot of latitude that no other university really has.”

As part of the commercialization process for inventions and discoveries, WARF takes revenues that are generated and shares them with the department from which the invention came, and also with the inventors. The rest of the money goes into WARF’s portfolio, from which the organization makes large grants back to the university each year.

Iverson says WARF receives about 400 disclosures a year, and makes about 50 license agreements each year. The yearly revenues from licensing alone is about $20 million a year, and though some valuable patents have recently expired, he says WARF is “working very diligently” to make up that lost revenue with other new inventions and commercialization efforts.

WARF also manages an investment portfolio of about $2.7 billion — something Iverson says the organization is “extraordinarily good at.”

“It’s our responsibility at WARF not just to manage and commercialize technologies, but we have this significant amount of funds, and it’s our responsibility to manage those wisely and productively,” Iverson added.

As part of the Entrepreneurons event, Iverson moderated a panel discussion with leaders in Madison’s entrepreneurial community, focusing on the benefits of bringing a product to market through WARF’s model.

John Neis, managing director of Venture Investors, pointed to the advantages of “baking” a product idea within the world of academia before bringing it to market.

“When it’s evolving, when it’s still in the university, you have a certain amount of luxury of time,” he said. “And once you throw it over the wall into a company and you have to raise money, you’re in this constant race against insolvency… if the idea can come out more fully formed, I think it bodes well for its long-term success.”

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, echoed Neis’ sentiment, saying “if WARF can do some things to keep the fledglings in the nest longer, that’s going to help with survivability.”

And Rock Mackie, co-founder of TomoTherapy and a UW-Madison professor of physics, said this “de-risking” process for a product is the most important part of the Discovery to Product accelerator program.

“The longer you can keep something with pressure being put on it for a longer period of time, you’re going to come out much, much further ahead,” he said, noting that TomoTherapy, a radiation therapy equipment company that’s since been sold to Accuray, lived in the university for a decade.

“That does make a company a lot more successful, because you get the cross-section, really, of professionals who can evaluate and help you on campus,” Mackie said.

Mackie added that to get the university fully involved with the entrepreneurial process, it’s going to take more than students, department faculty and the chancellor getting on board.

“What’s missing, I think, is the deans and the chairs,” he said. “Until they’re really asked to report on entrepreneurial companies that are spinning out of their colleges or departments, and have metrics… Once they get it that that’s part of their mission, these folks are going to deliver.”

He says the focus should be on engagement of the university with society, and that spin-off companies are relatively easy for engagement metrics to measure.

“That’s the number one thing that would change the climate on this campus,” Mackie said.

Looking forward, Iverson says he is very interested in collaborating with other systems’ schools, identifying how certain combinations of technologies could result in new startups.

“I’m very interested in becoming close friends with a lot of investors — angel investors and otherwise — whether it’s in Milwaukee or Eau Claire or Green Bay, wherever it is in the state,” he said.

–By Alex Moe