Q&A: How WARF Plans to Stay Relevant in Lean Times for Tech Transfer

12/20/13Follow @angelashah

Quick, name one of the oldest—if not the oldest—university tech transfer institutions in the country.

If your brain automatically took you to a spot in New England or sunny California, think again. It’s the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF, which was founded nearly 90 years ago in 1925.

What would become WARF started when Harry Steenbock, a University of Wisconsin biochemistry professor, discovered a way to increase the vitamin D content of food, which could eliminate rickets, a crippling bone disease in children caused by a deficiency in that vitamin. Quaker Oats offered him $900,000—worth almost $12 million today—for the rights to his invention.

But Steenbock believed that the university should benefit from research he had conducted there. And so, he began to petition regents to set up a foundation composed of alumni that would manage patents from university research, and license the inventions to people in the business world who could make them into useful, profitable products. Any royalty income from the products would flow back to the foundation, and be put back into additional UW research, creating what WARF founders envisioned would be a virtuous cycle.

Two years later in 1927, WARF completed its first licensing agreement, with Quaker Oats, which used Steenbock’s irradiation process to fortify breakfast cereals. The foundation also licensed the process to pharmaceutical companies to develop a medicinal preparation of vitamin D called Viosterol. And UW-Madison started to see some income from its earlier inventions.

The passage of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 created a uniform patent policy across the country, which enabled universities to retain commercial rights to the inventions they created using federal research dollars. That law sparked universities around the country to patent more of their inventions, and create tech transfer offices much like the one developed at WARF decades earlier. But most of those offices are managed by on-campus administrators, and just a handful of those are set up as separate foundations like WARF. Today, the Wisconsin foundation has an endowment of $2.4 billion, a portfolio of 1,500 patents, and almost 1,000 patent applications pending. Since 2000, administrators say, about 50 WARF companies, most of them startups that were spun out of UW-Madison research, have attracted about $900 million in investment capital.

Even in such a crowded field, WARF stands out from its tech transfer peers. “None of them have the financial strength that WARF has,” says Carl Gulbrandsen, the foundation’s managing director (who’s an Xconomist.). “I think our success is attributed to the fact that we had an independent board of people who have been successful business leaders. We have the ear of industry.”

Still, a tight federal funding environment and a shrinking pipeline for the earliest stage of capital, has meant that WARF has recently partnered with other organizations or created new programs within itself to better boost fledgling entrepreneurs at the university.

In recent years, UW-Madison … Next Page »

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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  • jim hill

    Good luck niw colleges are going to become start up companies. Big pharms has the infrastructure but is strangled by the regulations and the restrictions on what they can charge. Thanks be to obama.