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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Ten who helped take Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery from concept to reality


By Tom Still
From the first conceptual glimmer in the mid-1990s to its grand opening last week, the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery has been a model of partnership – not to mention innovation – in academic research and development.

These kinds of public-private partnerships usually have many fathers and mothers: People who provide the ideas, the energy, the implementation strategies and, yes, the money and political willpower.

As this $150-million addition to Wisconsin’s research landscape embarks on a new chapter in the University of Wisconsin’s reputation for supplying first-class research to the world and economic benefits to the state, it’s worth celebrating 10 people who helped make it happen.

The donors: John and Tashia Morgridge are high-school sweethearts from Wauwatosa East High School and UW graduates who bleed Badger red. After building Cisco Systems to one of the world’s premier networking companies, the couple decided to give back – starting with their home state. It was John Morgridge who first noted the success of the interdisciplinary Clark Center at California’s Stanford University and asked, “Why not Wisconsin?” The couple’s donation of $50 million to create the private Morgridge Institute for Research, a part of the Institutes, served to answer that question.

The governors: Govs. Tommy Thompson and Jim Doyle rarely agreed on much, but they were united in their belief that Wisconsin’s R&D foundation – built over more than 100 years – was vital to the nation and the state. Thompson engineered the $360-million “BioStar” program during the 1990s to help jumpstart a series of building projects on the UW-Madison campus, and Doyle continued the process by extending $50 million in unused BioStar bonding authority to an interdisciplinary building to tie it all together. Progress can be bipartisan.

The idea managers: Carl Gulbrandsen, the managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, was the glue who held the idea together. Because WARF is the non-profit intellectual property arm of the UW-Madison and much of the UW System, it was a natural “home” for a concept that would involve public and private visions. Gulbrandsen’s quiet style and lawyerly patience allowed the idea to grow steadily over time. Marsha Seltzer, who guides the UW-Madison’s Waisman Center on a full-time basis, joined Gulbrandsen in managing the overall process – including the important process of faculty involvement – when she became interim director in 2006.

The implementers: With nearly $1 billion in UW-Madison construction projects under way or on the drawing board, Al Fish could be excused if he had treated the Institutes for Discovery as just another building. Instead, the associate vice chancellor for facilities management worked to find the perfect location – in the center of a research cluster representing biotechnology, computer science, engineering and more – as the home for the twin Institutes. Project manager George Austin later brought to bear his experience in managing major construction projects such as Madison’s Monona Terrace Convention Center and the city’s Overture Center for the Arts. The combination kept the project on time and on budget.

The research directors: John Wiley was chancellor of UW-Madison when the Institutes for Discovery started its long road from drawing board to construction, and he used his encyclopedic knowledge of UW-Madison’s research centers to make sure it was truly an interdisciplinary center. Wiley also served as a tireless fundraiser for the Institutes and other projects, making certain a single building didn’t eclipse other university needs. He is now interim director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, the public side of the building. Sangtae Kim, a respected scientist with experience at UW-Madison and within the private sector, has returned to lead the private Morgridge Institute for Research. His role is making sure research gets transferred to the marketplace, quickly and effectively.

Those are 10 people who made a difference – but hundreds more touched the project in other ways, from researchers to architects to construction workers to state legislators who recognized its value to the larger economy and society. Their legacy: A building and an innovative process that will keep Wisconsin at the forefront of research and technology transfer for years to come.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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