Walsh's unsung roles demonstrate importance of behind-the-scenes work in building a knowledge economy
Entrepreneurs deserve high praise for putting themselves on the line to start a business.
Yet the spotlight rarely shines on the investors and board members who contribute to the success of technology startups by providing critical capital and strategic advice. It is this behind- the-scenes work that is increasingly necessary for a fertile entrepreneurial ecosystem.
At a time when some consider the latest economic development initiatives to be signs of an improving business climate, Walsh offers a longer-term prescription for fostering business vitality. In his view, investment in education and basic research hold the key.
Through his service on the Board of Regents – he was appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle -- Walsh recalls a long history of efforts to engage the business community in education, including the successful series of statewide economic summits held under UW System President Katharine Lyall. Yet he's concerned that in recent years, the state's own contribution to higher education has declined as a percentage of the total UW System budget.
"The university has always been great…year in and year out on peer-reviewed grants from the National Institutes of Health," and other federal research agencies, Walsh says. "That's starting to dry up. And what's happening is we're not getting reinvestment from the state in the basic scientific areas."
"This is going to be a serious problem if we don't keep feeding (the research and innovation cycle) from the beginning because that is our strength," he adds. "I am probably more passionate than anything about the need for this state to invest in knowledge. Not commercial exits, but knowledge."
Through the years, Walsh has been willing to commit his own money to the challenges of basic science with support for research into retinitis pigmentosa as well as startup companies involved in the development of research tools and therapies. For Walsh, the need for such basic research hits close to home; he has two sons affected by early vision loss.
For more than a decade, Walsh has supported research into blindness including the work of Dr. David Gamm, a University of Wisconsin–Madison associate professor of ophthalmology and director of the McPherson Eye Research Institute. Walsh has raised significant funds on behalf of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, which focuses on treatments and potential cures for macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, Usher syndrome and other retinal diseases.
Thanks to $900,000 in funding from the foundation (which raised some $250,000 from Madison's first Dining in the Dark event), Gamm is now collaborating with stem cell pioneer Dr. James Thomson of the Morgridge Institute for Research and Cellular Dynamics International. Using induced pluripotent stem cells, blank slate cells reprogrammed from adult cells that can be differentiated into any cell in the human body, the team is working to create key elements of a human retina that could be used as a patch for patients with degenerative eye diseases.
Importantly, Walsh notes, the cells being created for the project also could be used as a means of testing other potential therapies – an important market opportunity that offers a more certain path to commercialization than developing cells for transplant. The life sciences test market has emerged as an important industry sector in the region thanks to the leadership of companies such as Cellular Dynamics, Promega and others.
Yet even among technology companies with proven management and solid market opportunities, maintaining success is never a sure thing. Walsh cites TomoTherapy, now part of Accuray, as an example of a company with a leading technology that has nonetheless encountered significant swings in its business through the years.
"It's a good example to me of a product that you really have to keep investing in to stay ahead," says Walsh, who was involved in the company' second round of funding. "It's considered a home run, especially for those who were in at the beginning. (But) it's why we have to be careful and why we have to focus on knowledge and when we do commercialize, we've got to be nimble."
Walsh offers high praise for Judy Faulkner, who years ago sought his legal assistance in establishing medical records giant Epic. Although he eventually referred her to another law firm with more experience in the field, Walsh says her mission-driven commitment and determination left him with a strong impression about the role of individuals in establishing environments that breed further success.
"We can all go off on our own and do our best until we wear ourselves out, but if we don't leave the legacy of a group or an organization or a business plan, we haven't really done much other than be a Band-Aid for a short period of time," Walsh says.
Through his own efforts to invest in technology startups, support the university's research enterprise and establish important channels for philanthropy, Walsh has set his own powerful example of the ways in which individuals can help shape Wisconsin's knowledge economy.
-- Sereno is a former business editor of the Wisconsin State Journal who has written about new economy
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