Silence at WARF

Posted September 2, 2019 by meisen
Categories: TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus, UW-Madison Research Series

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What’s Wisconsin greatest public asset for doing good in the world? I’ll put a double-sawbuck on UW-Madison. Our world-class university is a standout for teaching, research and innovation. That’s why the performance of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation — the campus’s designated handler of intellectual property since  1925 — is so important to the state.

Getting a clear picture of WARF’s operation isn’t always easy. Here’s how I began a recent Isthmus story:

A preternatural silence has surrounded the departure of one of the highest paid executives on the UW-Madison campus. It’s one more sign of the big changes rocking the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, UW’s independent patenting and licensing operation.

Carrie Thome, WARF’s award-winning chief investment officer who rose to power under WARF’s previous managing director Carl Gulbrandsen, left her post in June after 18 years with the foundation. Her compensation package topped $1.2 million in 2017, the last year such data is publicly available.

Briefly noted in the niche financial media, Thome’s low-key exit has gone unmentioned by Wisconsin news outlets. On July 1, Chief Investment Officer magazine quoted a WARF publicist as saying that Thome’s “transition” was a personnel matter and that WARF would not comment beyond that.

Thome did not return my messages. (Her LinkedIn page describes her as self-employed and a consultant since July.) Erik Iverson, who replaced the retired Gulbrandsen in 2016, was not available for comment. WARF’s board chairman James Berbee did not respond to an interview request.

Thome, who joined WARF in 2001 after a stint with the Wisconsin Investment Board, presided over a huge investment portfolio — $2.78 billion as of 2017. Established in 1925, the WARF endowment supports various UW-Madison and Morgridge Institute for Research programs with sizable yearly grants. According to the 2017 federal disclosure form, the portfolio included $1.72 billion in hedge fund investments, $659.4 million in money market funds, $346.7 million in private-equity limited partnerships, $29.8 million in fixed-income vehicles, and $19.7 million invested in WARF startup companies.

Keep that $19.7 million figure in mind.

To read more, please go here.

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The Dairy Crisis, cont’d

Posted July 23, 2019 by meisen
Categories: Development, Wisconsin Examiner

Tags: , , ,

Sometimes you can’t shovel everything into a story.

I found myself in that position when I profiled investigative  farm journalist Pete Hardin for Isthmus. He’s an invaluable chronicler of the crisis in dairy farming. I just didn’t have the room to discuss his reporting on the cost overruns and construction delays in UW-Madison’s much-needed expansion of its Center for Dairy Research.

But as luck had it, I wrote what amounts to Part II of the Hardin story for the newly launched Wisconsin Examiner,  an online news bureau focused on covering state politics and government. Friends and former colleagues are running it.

I wrote a commentary on how Wisconsin politicians (as well as UW-Madison) have failed dairy farmers.

Imagine if Gov. Evers, Speaker Robin Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald had gathered at the onset of the January legislative session to say that Job One would be working out a rescue plan for Wisconsin dairy farmers before turning to the new state budget.

Not everything has to be draped in extreme partisanship. Our leaders could have rallied around family farmers. Right?

Chances are the pols would have found a common ground. Goodwill would have followed. The budget deliberations would have been less smash-face. Can’t you imagine a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya” breaking out as Evers signed the budget bill surrounded by the beaming Vos and Fitzgerald?

Okay, I am a fool.

These people have warring agendas and a preference for disingenuous arguments. That’s what they do. A few years ago, Republicans gave manufacturers a huge and costly income tax cut under the cover it would also help farmers. Democrats, meanwhile, are intensely committed to issues that appeal to Milwaukee County and Dane County activists. Yes, expanding Medicaid will help struggling Wisconsin farm families, but citing it as a cornerstone to the Democrats’ farm policy is such a clumsy sleight of hand.

Wisconsin farmers need more than lip service from the pols. They need smart policies broadly supported. Otherwise we ought to change the tagline on our license plates. “America’s Dairyland”? Not anymore.

To read more, please go here.

This Dairy World Watchdog Has A Bite

Posted July 9, 2019 by meisen
Categories: Organic Farming/Local Food, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

Tags: , , , , ,

Hell, I’ll just say it. Pete Hardin is one of the best reporters I’ve met.

You’ve probably never heard of him because he writes about the troubled world of  dairy farming. This is a vitally important economic and cultural topic. But in our cloistered worlds of digital siloes, well,  news stories about the real silos in farm country never quite trend.

In a profile for Isthmus, I make the case that Hardin’s monthly dairy report, The Milkweed, is essential reading:

Year after year, Hardin has been a hard-edged voice challenging exploitative food processors, errant farm cooperatives, bullying seed companies, and self-serving agricultural groups that he feels habitually abuse the farmers who enrich them.

“Most of the organizations that allege to support dairy farmers suffer from mission failure,” Hardin says, sounding very much like a seen-it-all judge gaveling a verdict….

His reporting is intensely fact-based, assiduously sourced to the small-print revelations hiding in annual reports, nonprofit disclosure statements, court cases, and federal and state crop information.

He is a go-to source for other reporters, myself included. His observations on the dairy industry periodically are featured in national reports in The Washington PostThe New York TimesBloomberg Newsand such international outlets as Canadian and Japanese public television. He was also the subject of a 1984 cover story in Isthmus.

Rick Barrett, whose own deeply sourced reporting on the dairy crisis is receiving featured play in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, points out Hardin’s unique position in the dairy world.

“The farmers I meet on a day-to-day basis have a huge amount of respect for him,” Barrett says. “Pete Hardin is an icon in this state. There is no question about it. Even the people who disagree with him, or who don’t like his style of reporting, respect him….”

Hardin’s voice is more important that ever. I was tempted to add “in the dairy world,” but that would sell him short. With the dizzying decline of newspapers as a general news source, The Milkweed is essential reading for anyone — citizen, professor, activist, politician — who wants to understand the under-reported dairy crisis.

To read more, please go here.

Will UW Hear Its Wake-Up Call?

Posted April 26, 2019 by meisen
Categories: Development, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus, UW-Madison Research Series

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In this cover story for Isthmus, I did deeper into why UW-Madison, ranked sixth in the nation for research, scores poorly for business research (50th place) and in particular for hosting  medical-related clinical  trials  (51st place). The story begins:

By now it’s well documented that UW-Madison lags behind most of its peers in turning its esteemed research into marketable goods. The question is what would it take for the university to get on track and become a pacesetter in the lucrative development of pharmaceutical drugs and cutting-edge medical treatment? One answer: a “major culture change spearheaded by top leadership.”

That’s the wake-up call sounded in a provocative study commissioned by UW Health and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. Conducted by consultant Mary Westrick, who has 35 years of experience in clinical testing, the study lays out a series of stark challenges — both organizational as well as attitudinal — that threaten the campus’ declared goal to be a national leader in translating basic research into cutting-edge medical treatment.

Key to success, Westrick argues, is revamping the campus review of research projects that involve human subjects. UW-Madison’s existing clinical trial system, as Westrick and other critics describe it, is a quagmire of red tape that frustrates many campus researchers, while simultaneously failing to embrace standards that produce quality test outcomes.

UW’s existing clinical trials system places way too much emphasis, Westrick says, “on protecting the university from any risk, liability or adverse publicity.” This comes at a cost, she warns: “The result stifles potentially beneficial — even life-saving — research to patients with no counter-balanced benefit of increased patient protection.”

….Westrick’s negative assessment, while fiercely contested by some UW administrators, is part of a determined movement on campus to embrace the linkage of medical education, patient care and research discoveries to produce breakthrough treatments. The stakes are very high for UW-Madison both in terms of science and commerce.

Rock Mackie, an entrepreneurial-minded emeritus professor of medical physics who is UW Health’s first chief innovation officer, summed up the reformers’ challenge a few weeks ago at a luncheon meeting of Madison-area tech executives:

“How can we unleash the power of the medical university to incubate ideas into companies? To grow both the Wisconsin economy and to improve healthcare?”

To read more, please go here.

Memorable Concerts 2018

Posted February 8, 2019 by meisen
Categories: Music

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Here’s the recap of  my favorite  concerts of 2018. Yeah, I’m late in posting it. But 13 years into writing this annual piece for Isthmus online. I can say my passion hasn’t cooled for live music.

Take a bow Charlie Hunter, Rodney Crowell, UW Opera, Laurie Anderson, Chicago Symphony, Joe Lovano, Vijay Iyer, Dara Tucker, Emanuel Ax, Dave Alvin, Jon Langford, Jimmie Dale Gimore, Gil Shaham, Tracy Nelson, Ben Sidran, Boz Scaggs and, yes, other great artists.

I write:

In the course of 85 or so shows I saw in 2018, I found lots of momentsof transcendence, revelation, pure joy, mindless boogie and dark insights into the crooked timber of human nature.

That’s to say, the music I like is more than notes. It’s more than entertainment. It’s also about casting a spell. Where time seems to be suspended. Where the faithful gather around the campfire to hear stories of danger and epic romance. Where the magic falls gently over us like a mist. I had those moments in 2018.

None more so than hearing John Luther Adams’ minimalist masterpiece Become Ocean performed on April 7 by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee. There was no more perfect match of music and setting than hearing the shimmering tidal-like movements in the glorious domed basilica. The music floated up and around and washed over the audience like the waves of an ocean before slowly receding. Lost in the experience? That was me.

Adams (no relation to minimalist icon John Adams) deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Become Ocean in 2014. The Alaska-based composer is mightily influenced by the experience of raw, overpowering nature. This is compelling yet humbling music that left me in a state of awe.

It was my favorite concert of the year.

To read more, please go here.

As you’ll see, all of the concerts s are within driving distance of Madison. That excluded a quick trip to Austin where I managed to squeeze in shows by R&B stalwart Lou Ann Barton, the magnificent Shelby Lynne and Mike Flanigin’s greasy organ trio featuring Jimmie Vaughan. Marvelous one and all.

What Next For WARF?

Posted December 18, 2018 by meisen
Categories: TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus, UW-Madison Research Series

Tags: , , , , ,

Like a giant iceberg in the North Atlantic, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation is intimidatingly large yet mostly  hidden beneath the waves. It  looms over the local tech economy.

In this Isthmus cover story, I take a crack at examining WARF’s ups and downs in moving the discoveries of UW Madison researchers  to the broader world. I find it struggling to maintain its competitive edge, criticised by venture capitalists,  but gearing up its entrepreneurial game under managing editor Erik Iverson.

The story begins:

For an executive who just watched a half-billion dollars swirl down the drain, Erik Iverson is a cool cucumber. Just maybe the right guy at a crucial moment for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

Iverson, a youngish 50 and a bit of a jock, is now two years into his role as the change-minded managing director of UW-Madison’s banged-up but still powerful technology licensing operation with 3,000 patents in its portfolio.

That’s to say, Iverson sits atop a 93-year-old independent nonprofit that for decades has been fabulously successful in bringing campus discoveries to the public and, not incidentally, socking away $2.9 billion in assets to benefit UW-Madison.

WARF’s contributions to UW-Madison programs this year? About $86 million, including $12.5 million to subsidize the privately run Morgridge Institute for Research.

But now WARF finds itself vulnerable and somewhat weakened. It faces a transformed marketplace that is not pliable to WARF’s old and settled ways of doing business.

In September a federal appeals court threw out a monumental $506 million award WARF received in a patent-infringement suit brought against Apple. (WARF has appealed the reversal, but Iverson admits such challenges are seldom successful.)

WARF’s licensing revenue dropped from $57.7 million in 2011 to $20 million in 2017 — stark evidence that for the first time in memory it no longer has a lucrative patent burnishing the bottom line. (Zemplar, a kidney disease drug discovered by legendary UW researcher Hector DeLuca, generated a humongous $500 million in royalties before the last of its patents expired in 2016.)

And for all the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of UW-Madison researcher James Thompson’s stem-cell breakthrough, WARF has found that the related patents are not the huge moneymakers once envisioned. (Stem cells are basically a tool used in the search for new therapeutics; it’s the successful life-changing treatments, if they emerge, that will be mega-valuable.)

Iverson gets how serious WARF’s challenge is.

“Tech transfer is bloody hard. Really, really hard,” he says of moving basic academic research to the marketplace. “If you can find one diamond in the rough every 10 or 15 years you’re ahead of the curve.”

Yet Iverson, a veteran of Seattle’s vibrant tech scene, is confident that WARF’s newly expanded entrepreneurial program will solidify its success in the 21st century.

That diamond in the rough — the next Zemplar — will be found, he predicts.

To read more, please go here.

This is the last of five stories on tech transfer at UW-Madison. You can find the earlier pieces on this website or check out the special Isthmus landing page.

UW’s Missed Opportunity

Posted December 16, 2018 by meisen
Categories: Development, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus, UW-Madison Research Series

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I wrote early about UW-Madison’s Discovery 2 Product program. I was mostly impressed by what I saw as a serious effort to turn UW discoveries into viable  businesses. Given the UW’s paradoxical standing as a top-tier research industry with a ho-hum record  for entrepreneurialism, D2P seemed like a crucially needed step forward.

Three years later I checked back to find that, despite some successes, D2P had fallen out of favor and now “exemplifies what the campus keeps getting wrong on entrepreneurialism.”

From the story:

Over the past five years D2P has — at different times — been heralded, well funded, disparaged, put on ice, reconfigured and revived at a far more modest scale than originally envisioned.

Along the way D2P also became an archetype of both the university’s talent at spinning a good story (UW is flush with publicists) and of UW-style Game of Thrones palace intrigue that sometimes leaves blood on the floor.

The program was created to assist both seasoned faculty researchers and ambitious students to get their bright ideas to market. Its boosters included campus notables Paul DeLuca, spotlighted in our story on UW med school innovations, and Mark Cook, a revered ag school researcher and serial entrepreneur. D2P’s decline, in part, can be connected to DeLuca’s retirement as campus provost in 2014 and Cook’s death in 2017 at age 61. Two important D2P sentinels were gone, and the effort suffered.

“It was slow death by a thousand cuts,” recounts former D2P staffer Will Robus. He cites how budget cuts, a hiring freeze and the overt hostility of its campus overseer, Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education Marsha Mailick, crippled D2P. (Mailick, now retired, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

To find out how D2P went wrong, please go here.


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