Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

Warf News & Media

Contributions to the Wisconsin Idea across generations

WARF logo on closeup of many small pins in wood connected by string
Photo of Arjun Sanga
Arjun Sanga
Photo of Zach Halmstad
Zach Halmstad

There is no shortage of creativity among the students and professors of the University of Wisconsin System. They come up with great ideas every day, from a new way to teach physics out of UW-Green Bay to a mechanism that lets a paraplegic at UW-River Falls saddle her own horse.

But when it comes to finding a home for their products, they need a little guidance from the professionals. Consider whether that guidance could be from you.

This is where the Wisconsin Idea comes into play. Translating academic ideas into real companies requires plenty of support, but it’s much broader than securing patents and licenses to generate revenue. It’s also about transferring innovation to benefit society and improve lives.

In our respective roles as head of WiSys, an organization inspiring Wisconsin innovation throughout the university system, and the co-founder of software startup Jamf, we are deeply impressed by the energy we see coming out of our universities and look for ways to help take it forward.

The creative brain power available in Wisconsin was obvious when we served together on the investment committee for Ideadvance Seed Fund, a program run by the UW System. The objective is to identify people with business ideas and fund them early, but in two stages. The condition for the second stage is to have startup training, with the hope that this gives them a greater shot at success.

A number of other programs, some involving student ambassadors, are designed to help explore such potential. At UW-Platteville, for example, students from the engineering college noted how computer science colleagues get together in hackathons to write code to solve a problem. So they organized a prototype hackathon, huddled in a lab with 3D printers over a weekend to create product ideas.

A speed networking session was the highlight at the Big Idea Tournament at UW-Madison, where teams of students competed over business ideas. Investors and executives spent five minutes with each group, mentoring and sharing knowledge on how to be an entrepreneur.

These ideas from our state’s students are very early stage. That’s when WiSys steps in to help fill the gap between innovation and the point where investors are ready to pay attention. It supports the best ideas by counseling on everything from mission and strategy to planning, process and building a management team. Then, once there is a clear value proposition, it helps to license the innovation and bring it to the marketplace to secure investors. WiSys is also looking into ways to co-invest in small startups statewide.

WiSys is all over the state and in the last few years has been developing programs on every campus.

It has just been recently that support for budding entrepreneurs has been more evident at UW-Eau Claire. By contrast, as a student, Zach tried to launch a software startup in 2002, but was initially sent away to write up a lengthy business plan rather than being coached through the process. His business idea, now fully formed, was based on the need for better software to manage the use of Apple’s technology on campus. In his case, it was tenacity rather than tactical assistance that prevailed. We must consider if direct guidance is an area to improve on other Wisconsin campuses as well.

Despite all the energy around transforming ideas into companies, we still see areas for improvement. At our universities, for example, there is room to build out entrepreneurial studies on campus. There could also be better coordination across majors. Successful startups need people from the business school and the school of art as well as the computer science department.

More broadly, we have to build a stronger support structure and generate a level of excitement for innovators within the state. Policymakers have stated this as a goal across Wisconsin but one that each of us should consider how to influence in execution. We believe in working to connect local ideas with local businesses and investors. We’d like to build more bridges within Wisconsin, because if we can create stronger links between the regional UW campuses and companies, we might see our excellent students stay within the state. We need our 22-year-old graduates to believe they can have an innovative startup in our state. We believe that as a community of people committed to young innovators we can help our students achieve and stay.

It is also crucial to continue funding higher education. This leads straight to innovative ideas that grow our economy. We applaud recent legislation for increasing university funding as a good first step.

We have all the right ingredients for innovation – great universities, initiatives to fund startups, and entrepreneurs who want to help make Wisconsin a stronger state. Above all, we must direct our professional expertise to help unleash the creativity of our students.

Arjun Sanga is President of WiSys, a foundation supporting the University of Wisconsin System with a vision of building a culture of innovation for a better future. Zach Halmstad is co-founder Jamf, a software corporation based in Eau Claire, Wis. and Minneapolis, Minn. 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 [email protected]. See warf.org or WARF’s Cycle of Innovation for more details on WARF.