At WARF speed

7.16 | In Business | Jan Wilson | Original Publication

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Erik Iverson
Erik Iverson
Contacted by a recruiting firm about an open position with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Erik Iverson, president of the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle, felt stunned and flattered. “When WARF’s name comes up, you pay attention,” he says. “Without a doubt, UW–Madison is one of the premier institutions when it comes to commercializing technology.”

On July 1, Iverson stepped into the well-worn shoes of predecessor Carl Gulbrandsen as managing director of WARF.

He’s been preparing for this role for several years. A Fargo native, Iverson received his undergrad degree from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. He then earned a law degree at the University of North Dakota, followed by a master’s degree in tax at New York University. After about 10 years practicing law and working on everything from estate planning to professional baseball, he gravitated into life science transactions.

At the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in the world, Iverson was actively engaged in the university tech transfer system both nationally and globally. He helped grow the foundation’s life sciences and global health program and helped establish a private equity-investment arm that grew from about $400 million into what is now a $2 billion program.

Returning to the Midwest with his family in tow, Iverson looks forward to transitioning both professionally and personally, and he plans to spend this first six months learning and listening to people at WARF, the UW System, state government, and the community, as well. “I want to listen to a lot of voices from different fronts, both positive and negative.”

Recently we spoke with Iverson about his new role.

IB: Besides patents, what other ways can technology be transferred?
Iverson:
Tech transfer is the ability to transfer technology from where it’s created (i.e., the university), and into something else, either a startup company or a partner.

Most people commonly think of intellectual property as patents, or trademarks, but the fourth leg is also just know-how, which is either not patentable legally or the owner or inventor elects not to seek patent coverage because at the end of the day patents become part of the public domain. So intellectual property doesn’t actually need to be a patent.

IB: Will your past positions affect your WARF focus?
Iverson:
No, because it’s not about Erik Iverson. It’s about the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the science, technology, and research conducted here. It’s about WARF working to strengthen UW’s research and technology development across all areas — engineering, life sciences, and computers and information technology.

IB: UW–Madison’s budgets have been getting slashed recently, and recent tenure changes have resulted in several no-confidence resolutions directed at UW System leaders and the Board of Regents. Your thoughts?
Iverson:
The struggles among tech communities, the university sector, and the legislature are a constant dance. I’ve participated in that in Seattle, with the Washington State Legislature and the University of Washington. Without a healthy, collaborative engagement among the government and private sectors, the growth of the state in general will be hampered.

So if there is work to be done, I embrace it. I do not shy away from engaging in the dialogue and trying to build those relationships. It can be complex but it’s absolutely necessary.

IB: A UW–Madison researcher’s study of pandemic influenza and the avian flu was labeled a bioterror threat in 2011 by the U.S. government. How concerned are you about the freedom to conduct research versus the public’s right to know or the government’s perception of what is or isn’t safe? Is there a happy medium?
Iverson:
I advocate research and constant intellectual rigor because it’s what allows us as a society to become smarter, safer, healthier, and more productive. There are parallels. On the life sciences side, incredibly smart people are doing research that arguably could be considered health threatening as much as health saving. On the IT side, research could be building transparencies and efficiencies but on the other hand can be intrusive such as NSA (National Security Agency) and privacy issues. Both sides of the scale need to be in balance.

It goes back to the dialogue between the government, the university, the private sector, and the community. All constituents need to be heard.

One cannot stop science.