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Jan 5, 201611:11 AMInside Wisconsin

with Tom Still

Computer sciences at UW–Madison expanding reach into Wisconsin economy

(page 1 of 2)

On a campus famed for its breakthroughs in biotechnology, engineering, and agriculture, a much smaller department is exerting an outsized effect on the Wisconsin economy — and beyond.

The UW–Madison Department of Computer Sciences, which has been in the forefront of computational innovation since the dawn of the Internet, is poised to build upon its quiet national reputation while expanding its ties to companies close to home.

In a world that views California’s Silicon Valley as one of the few places where people build solutions for software, computer systems, mobile data, and even artificial intelligence, the relatively small “Comp Sci” department on the Madison campus is helping to change that perception.

Recent events demonstrate the department’s rising profile and challenge the long-held perception that its researchers think first about working with mega-companies elsewhere and second about the needs of Wisconsin companies.

  • Milwaukee philanthropists Sheldon and Marianne Lubar, who made their mark in business and investing in Wisconsin, announced a $7 million gift to the department this fall to help attract and retain top faculty. The money will endow two chairs and two professorships, plus establish a discretionary fund.
  • Verona-based Epic Systems announced in December it will endow three faculty positions within computer sciences. Epic was founded by Judith Faulkner, one of the department’s renowned graduates. The size of the gift wasn’t disclosed, but it’s likely comparable to the Lubar gift because the faculty seats are endowed in perpetuity.
  • The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation recently won a $234 million judgment in a lawsuit against Apple Inc. that accused the company of infringing on the microprocessor work of Guri Sohi, a computer sciences professor. The judgment was significant on size alone, but it also underscored how long UW–Madison researchers have been in the vanguard of digital innovation. A prime example is emeritus professor Larry Landweber, one of the first people to be inducted in the Internet Hall of Fame for his 1970s work on TheoryNet and CSNet.

How does the department’s teaching and research mission translate to strengthening Wisconsin’s economy? While it’s true that many UW–Madison computer sciences graduates wind up working for Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and other industry leaders, the department has increasingly focused on emerging companies — and jobs — much closer to home.

In fact, Google, Microsoft, and Zendesk wouldn’t have Madison offices if not for the department’s ability to lend talent and expertise. Within the past year, two Wisconsin companies founded by Madison researchers were sold, bringing investment dollars and connections home.

(Continued)

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Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

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