Professor Harry Steenbock, the founding inventor of WARF.
Professor Harry Steenbock, the founding inventor of WARF.

The discovery that inspired a foundation

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation began with a practical problem in 1925. Harry Steenbock, professor of biochemistry, had discovered that certain fats could be fortified with vitamin D when exposed to ultraviolet light. He then filed for a patent on his invention to ensure it would benefit the public and that the proceeds would support the University of Wisconsin (later renamed the University of Wisconsin–Madison). At the time, few universities managed their own patents and none had found much success. Steenbock knew he would need assistance in developing his invention, but University President Edward A. Birge informed him there was little central administration could do to help.

Refusing to give up, the enterprising scientist turned to Dean of the College of Agriculture Harry L. Russell and Dean of the Graduate School Charles S. Slichter. Together the three men convinced the university’s board of regents to endorse the creation of an independent, nonprofit corporation run by alumni trustees who would manage the university’s patents and invest the resulting revenue to support future research. Among the nine original alumni were Thomas E. Brittingham Jr., manager of the Brittingham family trust, and George I. Haight, reputed to be “Wisconsin’s Number One Alumnus.”

Establishing a mission

Drawing on Steenbock’s inspiration, the alumni founders drafted a mission for their new foundation that runs deeper than the patenting and licensing activity most often associated with technology transfer offices. WARF’s original articles of organization, filed with the Wisconsin Secretary of State on November 14, 1925, declared that “the business and purpose of the corporation shall be to promote, encourage and aid scientific investigation and research at the University of Wisconsin by the faculty, staff, alumni and students thereof, and those associated therewith.”

That original vision still governs the foundation today. In addition to commercializing Steenbock’s invention, WARF has gone on to work with generations of scientists and has built an investment portfolio designed to support Wisconsin research in the 21st century and beyond.

More WARF stories

For more stories from WARF's rich history, visit:
  • WARF Decade by Decade – Written in honor of the foundation’s 90th anniversary, this series looks back at a key moment from each decade in our history 
  • WARF & the Bayh-Dole Act – An overview of the foundation’s contributions to the seminal legislation that launched the modern era of technology transfer