Proper policy and strategy honors the Wisconsin Idea

The very concept of the Wisconsin Idea is borne out of an innovative spirit.

The statewide tenet — that the University of Wisconsin–Madison should influence every family in the state — dates back well before it was voiced by UW President Charles Van Hise in 1905. When the wheat farmers of the late 19th century saw their land lose its richness, the university helped them transform into dairy farmers. That legacy graces our landscape to this day.

This relationship led to innovative policies like unemployment compensation, which Wisconsin was the first state to enact in 1932, and helped mold Wisconsin into a manufacturing and agriculture base for much of the 20th century.

This is our state’s history but, today, Wisconsin is struggling to keep our young people from leaving for better jobs elsewhere. We believe it’s time to channel the Wisconsin Idea and once again apply the brilliance of our universities to invigorate new industries.

We come to this view as a state senator who is also a proud alumna and as an emeritus faculty member who is also a serial entrepreneur. In our view, the Wisconsin Idea is as much about helping businesses grow, supporting entrepreneurs, and creating jobs as it is about inspiring government or bolstering our family farms. It is about working together, strategizing openly, and creating solutions with voices from both academia and industry. As our state continues to transition toward a 21st century economy, we believe our universities are again poised to play a transformational and supporting role in driving innovation and economic success in communities across Wisconsin.

Here are four ways to help bring companies and academia together.


Let’s make it easier for companies to connect with Wisconsin’s universities and tap into the resources of faculty and students to develop ideas. We need to implement policies and processes that will foster the development of creative ideas and encourage capital to flow more freely. Through contracted research relationships, student internships, and joint solution building regarding the workforce needs of the state, we can create consistent opportunities for academia and industry to partner. Then we will be advancing a statewide culture of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Part of this requires looking at how we manage relationships and adapting to the present day. For example, faculty who launch a startup company have found it hard to maintain a working relationship with the labs where they developed their technologies. However, legislation has been proposed by state Sen. Dan Feyen (R–Fond du Lac) that will allow a startup company to more seamlessly continue its work by contracting with the university lab if it elects to do so. This improvement reduces red tape and produces more results and quicker turnaround of new ideas. This is an example that fosters both business development and university research in Wisconsin. The proposed act is referred to as the Mark Cook Bill, in honor of the professor of animal sciences and serial entrepreneur and faculty mentor who passed away last year and was widely hailed as the embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea because his companies’ products and services were tested and used widely throughout the state.


Policies and processes alone are not enough. We need to infuse universities with entrepreneurial thinking by bringing in people with experience in startups and other private sector enterprises. The Advocacy Consortium for Entrepreneurs, co-founded by Professor Mackie and other entrepreneurs, is advancing the Mark Cook Bill and has recently merged with a student-led not-for-profit consulting group called WiSolve. These established faculty business leaders are supporting WiSolve’s graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in business culture and practices, entrepreneurship, and consulting, so they can in turn help startups founded by both academics and the general public. WiSolve specializes in writing small business grants, creating business plans and investor decks, and generally helping with everything a startup company needs.

Wisconsin has many business professionals who have much to offer their local universities and new startups. We encourage you to raise your hand to help. Experts in industries can help research faculty and students understand real-world problems and the markets for the technologies they are working on. Such is the case with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation’s Accelerator Program, where faculty and industry alliances are deeply important to help develop an idea from the university and turn it into a licensable product with a successful enterprise.




In Wisconsin, many successful industries work together in clusters. Companies in agriculture, biotechnology, energy, dairy, biohealth, water technology, and plastics use this arrangement to lower costs and increase productivity and innovation. Wisconsin would benefit from having more business clusters around the state where businesses, investors, and universities come together around new areas such as clean water technologies and other cleantech and health care information solutions to advance the necessary research and technology that drives innovation.

In addition to the private sector, the government can play a role in promoting and supporting innovation, as well. Through the Wisconsin Workforce and Innovation Network for Success (WINS) Act, Senator Darling proposed the creation of an Innovation Fund and Council focused on identifying and investing in economic clusters throughout the state. We know from experience how transformative these focused industry cluster initiatives can be, and we have seen, across industry sectors, how companies large and small can grow from this type of strategic collaboration. The WINS Act invests in the future growth of Wisconsin’s economy by driving collaboration between business leaders in key industries, faculty and staff at research and educational institutions, and economic development experts.


Our final proposal requires new thinking on our campuses. We must truly embrace and report on entrepreneurship. One of the ways the university system can help is through metrics. It already collects data on everything from graduation rates to the ACT scores of incoming freshmen. Universities can collect and analyze valuable metrics to gauge entrepreneurial success.

Many people may be surprised to learn that entrepreneurship is alive and thriving on our state’s campuses. By improving how our universities report the number of startup companies that are developed, the amount of money those startup companies have successfully raised, and the number of jobs those companies have created, we can raise awareness of the thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem at campuses across Wisconsin. Additionally, faculty who are driven to establish startup enterprises should be recognized for these contributions. While many students, faculty, and the chancellors understand the value of measuring these accomplishments, more work is needed to change the university’s culture and reinforce the importance of acknowledging, rewarding, and reaping entrepreneurial success.

Together we have tremendous pride in the University of Wisconsin and believe it is well positioned to help provide critical resources to drive economic success across Wisconsin. It is already a leader in the world in many ways and advancing entrepreneurial outcomes can become one as well. A renewed focus on innovation will grow our economy, our personal income, our assets, and our quality of life.

We have always been innovative in Wisconsin. It is time for the University of Wisconsin to declare itself an Entrepreneurial University and launch societal engagement and economic development as part of its mission. Aligned we can live and share the Wisconsin Idea and make Wisconsin a promoter of innovation for generations to come.

State Senator Alberta Darling represents the Eighth Senate District, which includes the north Milwaukee suburbs. She is co-chair of the state’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee. In addition to being an emeritus faculty member at the UW–Madison campus, Professor Rock Mackie is a serial entrepreneur who co-founded five startup companies in Wisconsin, including TomoTherapy, which was acquired by Accuray in 2011 and remains based in Wisconsin. Professor Mackie’s relationship with the following Wisconsin companies is disclosed: Accuray, Asto CT, BioIonix, HealthMyne, ImageMoverMD, iVMD, OnLume, SHINE Medical Technologies, and SmartUQ. 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 See or WARF’s Cycle of Innovation for more details on WARF.

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