Posted tagged ‘unions’

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.

Advertisements

The Great Lucey Legacy

May 21, 2014

Former Gov. Patrick Lucey was the most impressive political figure I’ve reported on. His shrewd understanding  of the sausage-making of legislation was matched by a visionary yet practical program for redefining state government in Wisconsin in the second half of the 20th century. In November 2012, I reviewed the Lucey legacy for a column in Isthmus:

Governing from 1971 to 1977, Lucey merged the two university systems, enacted consumer protection laws, strengthened ethics provisions for officials, revamped campaign finance laws, shifted mental health treatment from institutions to community programs and, perhaps most importantly, retooled government aid programs to reflect the progressive vision: Poorer communities, especially their schools, should get more state aid than richer communities. Republicans howled at how Lucey threatened their low-tax enclaves.

Jesuit educated, Lucey saw the moral end in politics. Linda Reivitz, who worked in the Department of Natural Resources, recalls briefing Lucey on the pros and cons of a policy matter only to be interrupted when she veered into its politics. “He put up his hand and said something like, ‘Young lady. I will worry about the politics. You just tell me about the policy options.'”

Notes Jim Wood, another aide: “Pat knew you only walked through this valley once. Politics wasn’t about getting elected. It was getting elected to do something.”

To read  that column, please go here.

When Lucey died on May 10, 2014, at the age of 96, I revisited and expanded the column for a post on the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute website. In a nutshell, I argued that the Democrats need a leader like Pat Lucey:

     It was Lucey, stealing a page from the GOP playbook, who exempted manufacturers from the machinery and equipment tax as an incentive to re-invest in their plants and then removed business inventories from the property tax. All this was hugely beneficial to Wisconsin’s economic wheelhouse in manufacturing.

            In 1977, the Wall Street Journal surveyed Wisconsin’s economic success and proclaimed the state “the shining star of the Snowbelt.” Those days are long past.

           For most of the next 35-plus years Wisconsin’s economy has struggled under Democratic and Republican governors alike. The ferocious 1981-’82 recession laid waste to manufacturing in southeastern Wisconsin and triggered a fundamental economic decline that bedevils the state to this day. For sure, there was a brief boom in the 1990s. But the new century has been a bust. It’s May 2014, and Wisconsin still has fewer jobs than it did in December 2007, just before another ugly recession rattled the state’s economic foundation.

            For Democrats, Wisconsin’s fiercely contested but decisive swing to Republican domination suggests that the powerless liberals need another Pat Lucey. That is, a nextgen leader who understands the imperative of building a vibrant 21st century economy in a state mired in an Old World Wisconsin re-enactment of yesteryear’s political wars. Where is the Democratic leader who recognizes that unions, as vital as they once were, are all but a spent force? Traditional labor is crippled by hostile economic trends, while public unions are reeling as much from their own cupidity and stupidity as from the conservative pummeling.

To read more, please go here.


%d bloggers like this: