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New office to foster university collaboration with industry

September 22, 2011 By David Tenenbaum

The Graduate School has established a new Office of Industrial Contracts to negotiate a growing number of research contracts with the private sector. 

The office is intended to help professors and academic staff work more efficiently with industry, says interim director Bill Barker, an associate dean in the College of Letters & Science. 

“Industrial contracts amounted to $26.4 million in fiscal year 2010, and we must continue to build on that,” says Barker, who is currently involved in technology transfer and research-contract policy. “It’s not just the bottom line of research funding; it’s about building stronger and deeper relationships between faculty research groups and industrial partners.”

A strong relationship with industry provides myriad opportunities in research, teaching and outreach, Barker says. “When corporations sponsor research, ideally these relationships broaden and we see students going out for internships and ultimately employment, faculty consulting and perhaps donations of equipment or money for a building campaign or scholarships.”

UW-Madison now receives more than $1 billion per year in research funding, primarily from the federal government, but with little prospect that the federal research budget will rise, it’s logical to think about collaborations, Barker says, especially given cutbacks in internal corporate research. “That’s a golden opportunity for industry and the university to work collaboratively, to leverage their resources to meet everybody’s needs. Everyone wins if this works.”

“We’ve been considering how best to carry this out for quite some time,” says Bill Mellon, professor and associate dean for research policy at the Graduate School, “and we believe this new office is the best way to ensure that the university and the private sector can enhance their relationships to mutual benefit.” 

To this end, Mellon has been a member of the University-Industry Demonstration Partnership (UIDP), convened by the National Academies, since its inception in 2006. The UIDP was launched with a singular focus: to advance university-industry research partnerships that provide significant benefits to both parties.

Mellon points to successful collaborations between the Department of Medical Physics and GE Medical in Waukesha and between the Department of Computer Sciences and Microsoft Corp. as examples of collaborations that have benefited both sides, but adds that fruitful collaborations come in all sizes.

One goal of the new office is to speed the negotiation and signing of cooperative research agreements, a process that can take months. But the agreements that specify roles in the collaboration and ownership of any resulting intellectual property (including patents) often need individual attention, Barker says. “Oftentimes, contract negotiations involve unique situations, which is why I compare them to artisanal cheesemaking. These deals can have legitimate issues that take a while to resolve.”

Existing contracting offices in the School of Medicine and Public Health and the colleges of Engineering, Letters & Science and Agricultural and Life Sciences will continue operating, Barker says, in cooperation with the new office. Barker intends to work with other bodies on campus, including the Office of Corporate Relations and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, in the effort to smooth the contracting process and protect the interests of the university and its creative faculty and staff.

University traditions and standards are not compromised as contracts are signed, Barker says. “The crown jewels for us are academic freedom and the ability to freely publish, and we will never give those up. I don’t see where working collaboratively will undermine them or compromise the integrity of the university.”

In Wisconsin, hundreds of university spinoffs that provide thousands of good jobs are among the firms that sign research contracts, and so the collaborations are part of a larger picture of the university’s economic impact, Barker says. “The economic engine of Wisconsin requires these perspectives and relationships. But although technology transfer and economic development are very important to the university and the state, they are happy byproducts of what we do best, which is to create new knowledge and broadly educate people to think creatively. After all, we are training the scientists, business leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.”