Shining a light on university-industry collaboration

This blog gives me the opportunity to occasionally highlight developments on campus that are deserving of attention.

While much attention has been showered on the recent collaboration we announced with Foxconn (which I will address later in this column), an initiative that didn’t receive quite as much coverage was the launch of the Forward BIO collaboration, a collaborative effort to make Wisconsin a recognized center of excellence for biomanufacturing.

This initiative, between campus, a nonprofit lab facility at University Research Park and BioFoward Wisconsin, a group dedicated to creating partnerships between government, higher ed and private industry, will help incubate new start-ups by our faculty, staff and students, providing a space where entrepreneurial ideas in biotechnology can be tested.

We also recently hosted a celebration to mark the start of a $47 million renovation of the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant, as well as a new, three-story addition for the Center for Dairy Research. Funding for the project came from the state of Wisconsin, UW–Madison and donors. Nearly 200 individual and corporate donors — primarily from the state’s cheese and dairy industry — raised over $18 million to support the project.

We have long been deeply involved in working closely with the state cheese and dairy industry to test new ideas and there is space in this building that will only accelerate that collaborative work.

What do these stories have in common?

Each leverages our key long-term strengths at UW– working at the crossroads where multiple disciplines connect, sparking new ideas and building collaborations – not only within the bounds of campus but between the campus and our many partners in industry.

I have talked about the importance of university-industry engagement since I arrived on campus. I routinely meet with business groups like the Wisconsin Technology Council, local chambers of commerce and the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Board. I’ve also had the opportunity to visit important Wisconsin businesses like GE Healthcare, Cray Computers, Schreiber Foods, Oshkosh Truck and many more.

More and more of our peer schools are increasingly engaged in partnerships with businesses in their region. This can support important faculty research and also support students and create future job opportunities for them. It is one way in which we demonstrate our commitment to the Wisconsin Idea.

Increasingly, universities have become the R&D centers for American industry – corporations focus more on applied research and getting technologies and discoveries to market, while universities like UW-Madison are performing more basic research.

So, how do we build our efforts to work with corporate and industry sponsors?

• A group of faculty and staff collaborated in 2015 to write the Third Way report, which lays out a variety of policy options that can make it easier to negotiate sponsored research agreements at UW-Madison. We are still in the process of fully implementing this report, but it gives us a roadmap for dealing more flexibly with university/industry partnerships.
• A related effort has led to the rebranding of the Office of Corporate Relations to create the Office of Business Engagement. Since 2003, the Office of Corporate Relations served as UW–Madison’s central campus liaison to business and industry partners, helping them connect with schools, colleges and other units on campus. We recently hired Amy Achter, a former Nature’s Harvest and Oscar Mayer executive who will integrate business outreach with corporate development, creating a single hub for campus wide business partnership coordination.

We have just launched the search for a new Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, following Vice Chancellor Marsha Mailick’s retirement. The position description for this position is clear that the new VCRGE is expected to provide leadership in promoting entrepreneurship, tech transfer and university-industry research partnerships.

Research on big and complex problems requires collaboration. That means collaboration on campus among different disciplines. But it also means collaborations between campus and the Federal government (our main source of research funding), as well as between campus and industry. And these sort of projects also happen to be a great way to create extraordinary learning opportunities for our undergraduates and graduate students.

At UW, we’ve always understood that discovery is just the start of the process. Finding paths to apply knowledge in ways that change people’s lives is part of our outreach mission.

Finally, I’d like to address the launch of our new collaboration with Foxconn. Our faculty are engaged in research in many of the areas where Foxconn also has deep interests. In fact, we’ve already signed three agreements with Foxconn that relate to research projects in Engineering, the School of Medicine and Public Health and the Carbone Cancer Center.

We had a strong group of faculty and staff (including WARF representation) work with Foxconn to write a joint agreement about how we will proceed on research projects. This includes agreements about the assignment of intellectual property that is consistent with our agreements with other industry partners.

As you’ve also likely read, Foxconn is making a $100 million gift to UW. The majority of this gift will go to fund at least half of the cost of a new interdisciplinary Engineering building. It is a building that Engineering has been wanting to build and that fits well with their long-term renovation and expansion plans.

The precise uses of the remainder of the gift are yet to be determined, but will go to support faculty, staff and students working in the areas of engineering, health sciences, and computer and data sciences. I am pleased that Foxconn’s chairman, Terry Gou, wants to create a long-term partnership with UW-Madison.

I look forward to sharing more great stories over time as we continue to find opportunities to collaborate with the business community and advance the economy of the state.