Revisiting some recent topics: Solar energy, WARF, academic R&D, and business plans

Columnists often play recurring melodies. Just following up on a few of my own tunes …

On solar energy in Wisconsin: I wrote recently about solar energy’s growth in Wisconsin, where 2015 investments in solar projects were 70% higher than the previous year.

We’re not alone under the sun. The U.S. Department of Energy reported this week that wind turbines and solar panels accounted for more than two-thirds of all electric generation capacity added to the nation’s grid in 2015. The remaining third was largely power plants fueled by natural gas, which has become cheap and plentiful as a result of hydraulic fracturing.

It was the second straight year U.S. investment in renewable energy projects has outpaced that of fossil fuels. The energy agency predicts robust renewables growth in 2016, as well.

On WARF’s new director: A column in late March introduced Erik Iverson, the Moorhead, Minn., native who will become managing director of the prestigious Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation in July.

Iverson will speak June 8 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Madison. Best known by its acronym, WARF is the patent and licensing arm for the UW–Madison and much of the UW System through one of its subsidiaries. Returning about $100 million a year to the university, WARF is a major cog in Wisconsin’s research and development machine.

Look for Iverson to talk about his experiences at the Infectious Disease Research Institute and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he played a major role in building its global health program and its venture capital arm.

On the economic impact of R&D in Wisconsin: Speaking of academic research, a February column described the growth in campus-based inventions and other idea disclosures on campuses outside Madison. Because R&D apples often fall close to the tree, such activity can produce economic benefits and company creation in communities near academic institutions.

It also builds supply chains. An April report by the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science, which is based at the University of Michigan, took a look at 2014 R&D spending by 14 universities — including the UW–Madison. It concluded those 14 universities collectively purchased $2.68 billion in goods and services in 1,600 U.S. counties.

A map produced for the report showed Wisconsin as a high-density state for R&D vendors, not only for the UW–Madison, but also for other universities that know they can find skilled suppliers and partners here.



“One of the things that makes Wisconsin attractive to researchers elsewhere is its infrastructure of research-oriented firms in the private sector,” said Jason Owen-Smith, executive director of the Institute for Research on Innovation & Science.

Owen-Smith was co-author of a related report in 2014 that also showed Wisconsin as a state with a knowledge-based supply chain. It looked at nine major R&D campuses, including the UW–Madison, and concluded they spent $1 billion on subcontractor and vendors in 2012.

“Of those expenditures, more than 16% went to vendors in the university’s home county, over 16% more in in the rest of the home state, and the balance to vendors across the United States,” concluded the report published in Science magazine.

As state policymakers consider next steps in public support for higher education in Wisconsin, they may want to bear in mind that R&D dollars attracted to Wisconsin — usually from federal or private sources — usually get recirculated broadly in Wisconsin.

On the Governor’s Business Plan Contest: I wrote in April about the 27 finalists in the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, a group that reflects the state’s startup diversity. The top 12 — “The Diligent Dozen” — will present June 7 on the opening day of the Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Madison and be scored by independent judges. The winners will be announced the following day.

Ten of the 27 ideas hail from Madison, which is Wisconsin’s tech startup hub, but 17 other finalists show tech-based business ideas are born in many communities across the state. The growth of Milwaukee’s water cluster is reflected in the finalist round; the rise of software solutions in traditional industries is represented in entries from Delavan, Elkhorn, Pittsville, Oshkosh, Pewaukee, and beyond.

It’s also a young group, with at least a half-dozen finalists attending college or recently graduated. That may be a sign that entrepreneurial programs on campuses statewide, including the technical colleges, are yielding results.

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