Forward Fest Panel: UW-Madison Could Do More to Support Tech Transfer

In the early 2000s, JoAnne Robbins was considering turning her research on swallowing disorders into a company.

But Robbins was “not really encouraged” by her superiors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to commercialize her research. “There was an unspoken message that you don’t go into entrepreneurial activities until you have tenure,” she said. “It was a really cloudy time.”

Robbins became a tenured UW-Madison professor of medicine in 2003, and a year later she founded Swallow Solutions, a Madison-based company that sells medical devices that help guide the rehabilitation regimen of patients trying to overcome swallowing disorders. Swallow Solutions employs six people, has raised around $4.2 million from investors, and counts more than 100 hospitals and healthcare facilities as customers, the company has said.

Robbins is one of only two women faculty members at UW’s medical school who have tenure, have been granted patents, and have turned their research into a startup, Robbins said. (Stratatech’s Lynn Allen-Hoffmann is the other, she said.)

JoAnne Robbins

JoAnne Robbins

In the decade since Robbins founded Swallow Solutions, UW-Madison’s entrepreneurial culture and the administration’s attitude toward university spinouts have gotten better, according to Robbins and others who spoke on a panel on campus during last week’s Badger Startup Summit, which was part of Forward Festival. But there is still room for improvement, panelists said.

“Industry partnership is becoming less of an albatross,” Robbins said. “We see evidence that [entrepreneurship is] starting to be acknowledged in a positive way.”

The health of UW-Madison’s entrepreneurial culture is important because the university is often touted as a driver of innovation, startups, and economic development in Madison and Wisconsin as a whole.

Rock Mackie, a UW-Madison biomedical engineering professor emeritus who moderated the panel discussion, agreed with Robbins. He began working at the university in the 1980s and went on to start several companies, including Geometrics and TomoTherapy. Mackie described the evolution of UW-Madison’s stance toward university spinouts as “hostile,” then “benign,” and now “mild enthusiasm.”

One of the turning points was when the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which manages the patenting and licensing of UW-Madison research, took an equity stake in Third Wave Technologies, said Venture Investors managing director Scott Button. That marked the first time WARF took equity instead of just an upfront licensing fee for a patent, which is now the norm, he said. Third Wave went on to be acquired by Hologic in 2008 for $580 million, although the new parent company later shuttered its Madison operations.

Mackie noticed increased encouragement of faculty entrepreneurship under former Chancellor John Wiley, who held the university’s top post from 2001 to 2008.

Rebecca Blank, who became UW-Madison chancellor in 2013 after serving as acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has made entrepreneurship one of the top items on her agenda. Some of the initiatives enacted during her tenure include launching the Discovery to Product (D2P) program to help shepherd campus ideas to the point of licensing the technology or forming a startup, and opening a research and development lab on campus in partnership with Johnson Controls.

Mackie said the university does a good job of nurturing entrepreneurship from the top—noting the support of Blank and programs like D2P—as well as with bottom-up, grassroots support through programs like the Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, Merlin Mentors, and the Advocacy Consortium for Entrepreneurs, which he helped start.

The problem, Mackie argued, is the middle. College deans and department chairs don’t have enough incentives to encourage entrepreneurship by their faculty and to make economic development a priority, Mackie said. “Their careers aren’t advanced by those numbers,” he said in an interview, referring to the number of university spinouts and jobs created by those companies.

Faculty are still being told by some administrators that National Institutes of Health grants, despite federal funding cuts in recent years, remain “the coin of the realm”—and a bigger priority than forming startups, Robbins said.

UW-Madison Provost Sarah Mangelsdorf, contacted by Xconomy after the panel discussion, acknowledged in an e-mail that there are “no formal mechanisms to incentivize academic administrators, such as deans and department chairs, to support” research commercialization. But she pointed out that “patents and startups based on patented discoveries return resources to campus through” WARF. “So, there is some incentive for campus leaders to encourage” research that can be patented and commercialized, she said.

And there are “plenty of informal motivators” to encourage such activity, Mangelsdorf said, “including … Next Page »

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