Archive for the ‘UW-Madison Research Series’ category

Silence at WARF

September 2, 2019

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.

Will UW Hear Its Wake-Up Call?

April 26, 2019

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.

What Next For WARF?

December 18, 2018

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

December 16, 2018

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.

UW Fireworks Over Sponsored Research

December 16, 2018

Here’s more in my Isthmus series on the ups and down of UW-Madison’s efforts to popularize cutting-edge research. This online-only story illustrates the campus’ hands-off policy towards participating in industry-sponsored research.

In this story I looked at an example: The Waisman Center’s pointed refusal to work with the Dane County biotech startup Stemina Biomarker Discovery in its search for a blood test to identify children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

In contrast to Waisman, eight other clinical sites, including the University of California-Davis, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, agreed to conduct  Stemina’s testing.

I report that the early findings of the $8 million study are promising. Certain expressions of autism spectrum disorder could be identified by a blood test.

I write:

This holds the promise of earlier diagnoses and treatment geared to a child’s biology, [Stemina co-funder Elizabeth] Donley says. She told the tech website Xconomy Wisconsin that Stemina’s business division will begin shipping the test to “early adopter” laboratories before the end of the year.

Donley is bullish. “The CAMP study is going to change the way kids are diagnosed. It’s a big deal,” she told me.

[The Waisman Center’s Albee] Messing is not impressed. When I contacted him in August, he sent me a statement that he said represented his thinking as well as the judgment of the Waisman Center and UW Health:

“We share the goal of developing diagnostic methods that allow early identification of individuals at risk for these disorders. However, the approach advocated by Stemina Biomarker, Inc., a for-profit company that necessarily combines scientific and commercial interests, is not one that the scientists at the Waisman Center believe to be valid.”

Donley was furious.

She emailed Messing, copying the chancellor and others: “You know nothing about our approach because you never looked at it. You know nothing about our .. study because you never participated in it. You know nothing about the results or what we’ve accomplished because you’ve never seen them.”

There were more fireworks and also a retracted statement from Messing. To read more, please go here.

UW Success… And Failure

November 12, 2018

In this dispatch on UW-Madison’s struggle to champion its groundbreaking discoveries and inventions, I frame the issue in these terms:

“UW-Madison is one of the great universities in the world, spending more than $1 billion in research funding a year. But increasingly there are complaints of sclerotic bureaucracy hampering research, indifference or hostility to business-supported projects, and an undistinguished record of launching tech startups from that bounty of research.

This story holds up the UW medical school  as a campus leader in commercializing  research, particularly with GE medical scanning devices. I explain how the creation of a health-care cluster in the west end of campus has paid off in better medical care by bringing together researchers, UW Hospital clinicians, patients and medical students.

This is the good news.

The bad news is how [other] business relationships continue to vex the campus. More typical is UW’s failure to reach a research agreement with the Ford Motor Co.

The auto giant had wanted a “master agreement” with UW-Madison that set the terms for joint research projects not just for a particular department or center — as is the Madison custom — but across the full campus, which has upwards of 200 separate research entities.

Ford’s interest is potentially huge for UW. The auto industry is facing an existential crisis as Silicon Valley disrupters — including Google’s Waymo, Uber, Lyft, Tesla, and others — try to push their way into the car industry’s driver’s seat. Led by a TED-talk kind of innovative leader named James Hackett, Ford continues to look for more strategic/holistic relationships with top-tier universities for research….

In late 2017, Susan LaBelle, then head of the UW’s Office of Corporate Relations, cited the failed Ford contract in a candid memo to her boss, Charles Hoslet, in explaining the “stagnant corporate sponsored research at UW-Madison.”

….That’s a big problem for Ford. “Almost all top-tier research universities are now willing to negotiate cross-campus master agreements,” says Ed Krause, Ford’s global manager for external alliances. He describes negotiating with the campus as “uniquely difficult.”

To read more, please go here.

UW-Madison’s Research Challenge

November 9, 2018

I’m late in posting the stories I’ve written for Isthmus on UW-Madison’s struggles as a great research university to get its inventions and discoveries into the broader world.  Here’s how the first story begins:

It’s a story that Madison loves to hear.

Two plucky entrepreneurs, Kevin Conroy and Manesh Arora, are hired in 2009 to revive a moribund health-tech startup in Boston. They have the temerity to move it from the best-known metropolis in the country for medical innovation to the much smaller Madison, where Conroy had run Third Wave Technologies. Their company had but two employees.

“Without the UW-Madison, Exact Sciences would not be in Madison,” Conroy says flatly. “We came here because the UW’s biochemistry program is one of the top in the country. It enabled us to hire really strong Ph.D. level scientists.”

Flash forward nine years: Exact Sciences has about 1,600 employees, 200 job vacancies, a stock market valuation of around $8 billion, and a fast-selling non-invasive colorectal cancer test called Cologuard. Other cancer tests are in the works.

Exact Sciences personifies the rise of the new Madison. It rides a wave of tech innovation that is closely tied to the UW’s fabled research prowess. But Cologuard was not tested at UW Hospital and Clinics, as you might expect, but at Mayo Clinics, which is Exact Sciences’ long-time partner. Exact’s other medical trials were conducted at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Three years ago, when I wrote a mostly upbeat Isthmus cover story on technology transfer at UW-Madison, Conroy was a brooding presence. Doing clinical trials with the UW School of Medicine and Public Health was just too complicated, too prone for delay with the clinical trial review board, he complained. Both Anderson and Mayo were easier to work with “for a company operating at the speed of light.”

Conroy was heard. Exact Sciences is now doing preparatory research with the UW med school, but not yet a full-blown federally approved clinical trial.

Conroy sees progress. He considers himself a UW-Madison booster. But his impatience remains, and he’s definitely not alone in feeling the campus doesn’t yet have its act together on embracing the 21st century innovation economy. “C’mon, we can do better,” he says, sounding like a football coach at half-time.

To read more, please go here. And while you’re at it keep an eye out for other stories in the series.


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