Since its founding in 1925 to manage a University of Wisconsin–Madison discovery that eventually eliminated the childhood disease rickets, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation has been working with business and industry to transform university research into real products benefiting society at large.
Over the years the foundation has developed a model of technology transfer based upon true partnership with the UW–Madison and industry, an approach that today makes it one of the most successful long-term benefactors of technological innovation and public welfare in the country.
The official mission of this private, nonprofit organization is to support scientific research at the UW–Madison. WARF accomplishes this by patenting inventions arising from university research, licensing the technologies to companies for commercialization, and returning the licensing income to the UW–Madison to support further scientific endeavor. Since making its first grant of $1,200 in 1928, WARF has contributed more than $1 billion to UW–Madison, including monies to fund research, build facilities, purchase lands and equipment, and support a bevy of faculty and graduate student fellowships each year.
Once an invention is proposed by a UW–Madison researcher, WARF's staff evaluates the discovery for patentability and commercial value. If WARF accepts the invention for patenting and licensing, the foundation provides an attorney to help the researcher with the patent application. The researcher also agrees to assign ownership of the invention to WARF. At this point WARF may contact companies considered good matches for the technology. WARF's policies call for 20 percent of the gross licensing revenue from an invention to be returned to the inventor (or inventors). The remainder is shared with the UW–Madison Graduate School and the inventor's department.
The licensing and commercial development of a vitamin D discovery made by UW–Madison professor Harry Steenbock, which eventually eliminated the disease rickets worldwide, is WARF's first success story. Today the foundation continues to cultivate future successes by completing more than 100 license agreements on UW–Madison technologies each year, including patents in biotechnology, small molecule pharmaceuticals, advanced materials, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and microfluidic devices, medical imaging and radiation therapy, information technology and photonics.
While WARF will keep moving UW–Madison inventions into the marketplace for years to come, its basic philosophy remains best described in a decades-old quote from the foundation's pioneer executive director, Harry Russell. "WARF's job is to earn the money and give it to the university; the professors' job is to spend the money as wisely as they know how," he said.