The recent meeting of the Board of Regents at Union South included a dynamic, informative panel about the impact of UW–Madison’s business collaborations, moderated by Glenda Gillaspie, Dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
Lisa Johnson, CEO of BioForward Wisconsin and a veteran of Wisconsin’s biohealth industry, highlighted how UW–Madison research has helped build state companies into industry leaders. One such example is her former company Novagen, founded in 1989, acquired in 1998, and since evolved into Millipore Sigma. “Industry itself can’t support the broad base of R&D that is required to stay competitive,” she noted. “We are reliant on our universities to support our industry’s R&D efforts that bring life-saving products to market, create jobs, and have substantial economic impact throughout the state.”
The biohealth sector in Wisconsin generates employment for 129,000 people, $32 billion in economic output, and $1.2 billion in state and local taxes, according to BioForward’s 2022 economic impact report.
Dan Kelly, chief underwriting officer at American Family Insurance, highlighted the connection between UW–Madison and the company, which goes back to before its 1927 founding. (Its founder graduated from the UW in 1911.) Today, more than 500 Badger alumni—with majors from A (actuarial science) to Z (zoology)—are American Family employees. In 2015, UW–Madison & AmFam formalized their wide-ranging partnership through a holistic 10-year arrangement that identified key verticals and streamlined contact between the two organizations.
“I think the single point of contact that we have with the Office of Business Engagement (OBE) is really a strong point of our relationship,” says Kelly. “A university is tough to navigate, just like large businesses, and having that single point of contact really is beneficial.”
The 2019 creation of the American Family Insurance Data Science Institute at UW–Madison included a commitment to fund research in data science, a growing need for businesses that want to tailor their offerings to customers’ needs. Kelly notes that AmFam is “excited” to help train future Wisconsin graduates and produce research that allows companies to grow.
GE Healthcare, now a publicly traded company with 6,000 employees in Wisconsin, has a strong relationship with the UW School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH), formalized in a 10-plus year research agreement for more than 30 million dollars.
“Dr. Tom Grist [professor and chair of the Department of Radiology], to say it bluntly, is probably one of the most critical members of the GE Healthcare team,” said Tom Westrick, GE Healthcare’s president and chief executive officer of patient care solutions. “His collaboration with our group has provided numerous patient solutions, protocols within our imaging portfolio, that guide radiologists in how to use our equipment and serve as worldwide standards.”
Westrick, who described talent acquisition as a “revolving door” and a “limiter” for GE Healthcare, has experienced UW students as highly educated, hard-working, diverse thinkers and leaders. GE Healthcare hires Wisconsin graduates for highly paid positions because they are well prepared. “Retaining and obtaining talent in this state is one of our most important strategic initiatives,” Westrick said.
As director of UW–Madison’s center for Chemical Upcycling of Waste Plastics (CUWP), George W. Huber is innovating new ways to reduce waste and build the economy. He’s also the Richard L. Antoine Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and co-founder of startup companies Annellotech and Pyran. His campus lab is developing solutions for the world’s largest plastic packaging producer, Amcor, which has US headquarters in Neenah, Wisconsin.
Huber is working to scale up technology developed at his lab for recycling flexible plastic packaging and its manufacturing waste. “This kind of closed loop recycling makes business sense; we need to demonstrate the technology and bring it to the market,” said Huber. “Our goal is to get a commercial facility built in 2026-2027, so we’re three to four or five years out. Industry can’t focus on this right now—their profit structure doesn’t allow them to do that—but we can at the university.”
Huber adds, “When we’re trying to pioneer a process nobody has done before, we face challenges. Luckily, we can always go to someone in mechanical engineering or chemistry, or other professors in chemical engineering, and they can provide us with expertise.” (Read more about Dr. Huber’s work.)
Regent Scott Bechtel asked panelists what the state of Wisconsin can do to improve its support for industry-university partnerships, beyond existing government interventions including tax-increment financing at the local level, sales tax rebates, and corporate income tax rebates.
Lisa Johnson suggested increasing R&D tax credits and creating grants to help offset the cost of scarce lab space and other facilities. She also urged state officials to overcome partisanship and work to build awareness of everything Wisconsin offers, to counteract negative ideas that may exist.
“We do have some great products. We have some good programs in Wisconsin; we have good support for entrepreneurs. We have not made that investment in marketing and trying to change that perception.” Johnson concludes, “We need to get, you know, a little more arrogant here.”
UW–Madison has much to offer businesses of all kinds. Contact the Office of Business Engagement to find out more about how we provide seamless access across the university to meet businesses’ strategic needs.