Science funding = new invention = job creation

UW–Madison’s impact on Wisconsin and the world comes in so many forms. Two of the most visible are the scientific contributions of our faculty and academic staff, and the remarkable employment opportunities available to graduates of our science and engineering programs. Often, those benefits work hand-in-hand, as with the many companies and jobs created to develop and market discoveries emerging from UW–Madison laboratories.

Recently, two of those companies were featured in a report compiled by the Science Coalition, a group of more than 50 leading American research universities. “Sparking Economic Growth 2.0” features 100 companies, each showing how federally funded research conducted in academic labs helps drive the U.S. economy and keep it ahead of its competitors. (For the full coalition report, visit

Cellular Dynamics International (CDI) was founded by four UW–Madison professors, including stem cell pioneer James Thomson, and now produces induced pluripotent stem cells for experimentation with new drugs, stem cell banking, and research in new stem cell therapies. Much of the basic research that enables the company’s products was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Two UW–Madison chemical engineers turned their work on plant sugars into Virent, a company that is using plant materials to develop replacements for plastics and fuels traditionally made with hydrocarbons from oil and natural gas. Grants from the U.S. Department of Energy supported the science that produced the first molecules of these new materials.

On top of the next-generation technology they are taking to market, CDI and Virent employ more than 200 people. The 100 companies included in the Science Coalition report are providing work for more than 7,200 people, as well as making better batteries, portable X-rays, new drugs, industrial diamonds, surgical tools, software to run our networked systems, and many other technological developments that once seemed impossible but increasingly seem indispensable.

All this was funded by $330 million of federal investment in research and development at Science Coalition universities.

Beyond this report, there are scores of spin-off companies that have turned UW–Madison science into economic growth. This includes TomoTherapy’s advances in radiation treatments for cancer, NimbleGen’s products for sequencing DNA, and Stratatech’s unique skin cells that improve treatment of wounds and provide alternatives to animal testing.

Colleges and universities like UW–Madison have become the majority partner in research and development in this country. More than half of all basic research in the United States is conducted by scientists and scientists-in-training at our colleges and universities. Industry, which has disbanded major corporate research centers like those that bolstered RCA and Bell Labs in favor of shorter-term applied research, now performs only 20 percent of the basic research.

I’ll talk more in future posts about the role of federal research dollars in supporting innovation and invention in this country. For now, suffice it to say that this recent report underscores the ways in which university-based research has led to new products and new businesses. Nowhere is this more visible than in Madison, Wis.