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Friday, September 14, 2012

Tom Still: Town and gown -- Industry alliances on campus can drive growth, solve problems


By Tom Still
At a library that has served the UW-Madison School of Medicine almost since its birth more than 100 years ago, GE Healthcare executives and university researchers, practitioners and students gathered last week to unveil a $32.9 million partnership.

It wasn't the money alone that made the announcement unique. After all, the UW-Madison raises and invests about $1 billion per year on research and development, so a few million dollars more here or there on campus isn't necessarily news.

The 10-year partnership is significant because it represents a new level of collaboration between GE Healthcare and the UW-Madison, which have worked together for years to produce more than 200 invention disclosures, 80 patents and numerous license agreements. The agreement will help to launch, equip and staff a medical imaging facility that will move life-saving ideas from bench to bedside even more proficiently.

It's the latest Wisconsin example of a national trend – industry alliances with academia – that promises to speed commercialization of research while creating jobs and addressing human needs, from health care to engineered products to environmental science.

The GE Healthcare agreement with the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation will mine research within the Departments of Radiology and Medical Physics, which have been rich veins of discovery for decades. Technology that led to the invention of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, came out of those labs in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of GE Healthcare's imaging technologies today were developed by company scientists working, shoulder-to-shoulder, with academic researchers.

Companies such as TomoTherapy (now Accuray), Novellos and NeuWave Medical have emerged from those same UW-Madison departments. Other technologies are poised to break out, either as license agreements, products or startup companies.

Similar examples exist within other Wisconsin universities, public and private.

The UW-Milwaukee announced a $3-million partnership with GE Healthcare last week to create a new center that will focus on software development for medical imaging. The UW-Milwaukee is also home to a "dry room" laboratory, supported by Johnson Controls, that is building advanced prototypes of advanced lithium-ion chemistry cells. Batteries produced in that lab, which is unique to the United States, will power hybrid vehicles or fully electric cars in the not-so-distant future. The Milwaukee School of Engineering, Marquette University and the Medical College of Wisconsin have established similar partnerships.

The advantage for Wisconsin is evident: Industry partnerships with academic researchers can help pull innovation off campus and into the marketplace, where it is more likely to help people and create economic benefits.

Wisconsin has more than its share of first-rate research institutions, but it has historically lagged in converting discovery into development. The process of technology transfer here has too often been a big "R" and a small "d."

Partnerships such as the GE Healthcare agreement with UW-Madison are helping to change that equation – and signal to other businesses that Wisconsin universities aren't just research silos filled with cloistered professors.

"Universities are one of the top three competitive differentiators in this country," said Robert Hess, who leads the consulting practice for Newmark Knight Frank Global Corporate Services. Hess was one of two primary authors of a 2010 study of the Wisconsin economy.

"Universities play a key role in our competitive ability to stay ahead of the Chinese and Europeans," Hess told Site Selection magazine last year. "We cannot afford for the walls to get thicker and higher between universities and our applied economy. University professors need to sit down with corporate vice presidents of operations and discuss issues."

That's happening in Wisconsin and elsewhere as universities realize such partnerships need not be entangling but can enhance faculty retention, improve student placement, sharpen missions and increase revenues at a time when public support for higher education has slipped. It's not a formula that works for all universities or disciplines, but it has leveraged the discovery process in applied sciences.

Policymakers who question the value of higher education should bear in mind the economic benefits that stem from public-private partnerships. For major companies such as GE Healthcare and Johnson Controls, it's a major reason why they still call Wisconsin home.

-- 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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