The Wisconsin Idea and Regional Economies

The Wisconsin Idea and Regional Economies: Apples Falling from Many Trees
Tom Still
Chancellor Dean Van Galen

The Wisconsin Idea is traditionally understood to mean the boundaries of the University of Wisconsin extend to the boundaries of the state, a philosophy that knowledge should be shared with communities in ways that directly benefit them. Historically, for many Wisconsinites, the University of Wisconsin only meant UW-Madison. Through its commitment to promoting that university’s discoveries, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation – WARF – is one of the primary catalysts for advancing the entrepreneurial side of the Wisconsin Idea.

Increasingly, the Wisconsin Idea has translated into an innovation mindset that extends beyond Madison to UW-Milwaukee and the 11 UW regional comprehensive campuses, which primarily provide undergraduate and master’s degree programs in smaller, more individualized settings.

That’s why today the concept of innovation and the Wisconsin Idea applies to all regions of our state. It is especially powerful at the comprehensive campuses embedded in communities across Wisconsin.

At the Wisconsin Technology Council, several of the corporate members have ties to UW-Madison, either in their initial formation, or over time as research partners. Many were apples that fell close to the tree. About 300 companies have spun off the UW-Madison campus and most have planted roots within a 30-mile radius.

The “falling apple” theory holds true whether you're at UW-River Falls, UW-Platteville or UW-Oshkosh. The chances are that any companies emerging from our regional comprehensive campuses will take root within a half-hour’s drive, a phenomenon being demonstrated across Wisconsin.

Such companies may benefit from statewide partner WiSys, a supporting organization of the UW System formed to facilitate the creation and transfer of innovations from the UW comprehensives to the marketplace. WiSys assists the more than 12,000 employees and nearly 107,000 students on the regional campuses as they work towards commercializing their ideas.

We sit together on the Advisory Committee for WiSys, and we believe WiSys is a tremendous connector for technology transfer and innovation at all our comprehensive campuses. It is also creating a culture of innovation through Quick Pitch competitions, Innovation Challenges and the involvement of student ambassadors who learn the basics of intellectual property and can interact with other students and faculty about the opportunities. WiSys amplifies innovation statewide.

UW-River Falls is embracing this burgeoning spirit of partnership and entrepreneurship. As the westernmost campus of the UW System, UW-River Falls is embedded in one of the fastest-growing regions of the state, benefiting from the dynamic border with Minnesota and proximity to the economic engine of Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

The university has worked with the city of River Falls, the River Falls Economic Development Corp. and the Chippewa Valley Technical College to develop a business innovation center to support 25 new and existing businesses or startups, many having connections to the university. Within five to 10 years, we expect it will include businesses launched by university students and alumni who are creating economic development and jobs for the region.

Innovation is often at the crossroads of disciplines and it can just as easily come from art, dairy science, data science or education as from engineering or computer science. In universities throughout the country, entrepreneurial studies that once belonged to a single center are now rooted in a variety of schools and colleges. At UW-River Falls, innovation and entrepreneurship are infused into the curriculum through a three-course sequence open to all students: Imagination and Creativity for Innovation, Design for Innovation, and Innovation and Business Models.

Universities across our UW System are taking a focused approach to engaging our outstanding faculty and students in entrepreneurial endeavors and helping “falling apples” grow roots in our local communities. This requires collaborative thinking with our state’s business community and partners like WiSys, and a commitment to building an infrastructure that mentors and incubates early ideas into actionable enterprises.

It is important for university leaders to demonstrate that a UW campus is not an ivory tower or an island – it is the people’s university. We are connected to our communities, and innovation and economic development are among the many ways we live out the Wisconsin Idea, and seek to improve the lives of citizens across Wisconsin and the world.

UW-River Falls Chancellor Dean Van Galen is the second longest-serving chancellor in the UW System. Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. This commentary is part of a series of articles organized by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). For over 90 years WARF has promoted a cycle of innovation through advancement of University research discoveries to the market and reinvestment in research at UW-Madison. Comments on this piece are encouraged at wisconsinidea@warf.org. See warf.org or WARF’s Cycle of Innovation for more details on WARF.
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