Hector De Luca, Rock Mackie and Richard Davidson have the kind of academic credentials their academic colleagues at UW-Madison and far beyond admire. DeLuca is synonymous with innovation in Vitamin D research and the advances it has brought to human health; Mackie is a medical physicist who has pioneered cancer-fighting solutions; Davidson is a neuroscientist known worldwide for his work on the brain's ability to "learn" emotional health.
They're also not afraid to engage with business leaders and corporations, which means they're probably suspect in the eyes of some ivy-covered purists.
Crossing the chasm that often separates academia from the business world was the topic of an Aug. 22 panel discussion featuring DeLuca, Mackie and Davidson at the second annual "Corporate Open House" held on campus. The conversation highlighted the need for the university to make its value better known to industry – and for industry to not be shy about seeking academic partners.
DeLuca has about 200 U.S. patents to his name and was part of developing eight Vitamin D drugs that have accounted for billions of dollars in sales, much of which has filtered back to the university through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Now in his seventies, DeLuca is part of the Vitamin D legacy at the UW-Madison that dates to Harry Steenbock and the founding of WARF in the 1920s.
DeLuca remembers a time when he and his colleagues were practically academic outcasts for transferring technology to the marketplace, but he told a crowd predominantly comprised of business executives that those days are happily gone.
"The test of the duration of an idea is whether it can live in the real world," he said.
Mackie was a founder of TomoTherapy, since acquired by Accuray, and remains active in companies such as CPAC, Novelos, SHINE Medical Technologies, Bioionix and HealthMyne. In all, he's been affiliated with 12 companies over time – all while cranking out patented discoveries, mentoring doctoral students and doing what academics love to do most: publish.
Mackie said he sees the relationship between academia and business as being akin to that between a mine and a mill. Ideas tend to come from the academic "mine" and are refined in the marketplace "mill."
Despite many reasons for academia and business to work together, he said, it doesn't always happen because of resistance within the university culture. Skeptics say such relationships dilute productivity, lower standards, create conflicts of interest and otherwise smack of impurity.
"In 1992, starting a UW spinoff was like pulling teeth," Mackie said, but the culture has changed enough over time that most faculty – especially younger members – recognize how technology transfer meshes with the mission of a modern research university.
That doesn't negate the need for basic researchers, he said, and there will always be differences in how academics and business people think, communicate and manage projects. However, it's possible to find common ground to help both camps. "The cultural gap between the university and companies hurts both types of organizations," Mackie said.
Davidson's research around the brain's ability to learn new behaviors is considered a breakthrough for people suffering from depression and other affective disorders. It turns out his work may also have applications in the business world.
Effective business executives may not be the managers who have the most technical expertise or internal process experience, but those who have the best overall people skills and the right "emotional leadership qualities," Davidson said, citing other research as well as his own. He plans to work through the UW-Madison School of Business to partner with companies on specific projects tied to leadership and productivity.
UW-Madison Chancellor Becky Blank has made better relationships with business a priority, and with good reason. While the UW-Madison is among the nation's leaders in attracting R&D dollars in the form of federal grants, it lags in attracting industrial research dollars. Other universities are forging ahead on that front, recognizing the decline in federal R&D spending, relatively stagnant state funding and the need to hold tuition costs stable.
If the likes of DeLuca, Mackie and Davidson can conduct world-class research, work with students and reach out to business, so can many others inside one of the nation's finest research universities.
-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.