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New biomedical institute aims to unite business and academia in SE Wisconsin

Doyle announces a new biomedical institute on Monday in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee — Increased collaboration between academic researchers and companies in southeastern Wisconsin is the goal behind the formation of a biomedical research institute that is being established with a $1 million grant from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The Wisconsin Institute for Biomedical and Health Technologies is intended to foster more cooperation between academia and private industry, something that has historically lagged in the greater Milwaukee area.

"One of the complaints I have received is that a lot of existing businesses have found it difficult to get access to university research," said state Senator Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield. "Our responsibility is to create an environment where job creation comes out of the intellectual property from these collaborative arrangements."

The new facility, to be housed at the Cozzens & Cudahy Research Center on Milwaukee's northwest side, will be funded by both private and public dollars. Unspecified private donations have already been pledged by the Medical College, Aurora Health Care, Cerner Corp. and GE Healthcare Technolgies. The hope is to raise $15 million over the next few years. UWM Chancellor Carlos Santiago said that between $10 to $12 million has been committed to the new biomedical institute from the participants.

The purpose of the institute is to create a center where collaborative efforts among academic, biomedical and healthcare researchers and companies will stimulate the economy of southeast Wisconsin.
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"The private sector is not going to work with a university unless they believe that the research and the faculty is of high quality," said Santiago, who led the effort to establish the institute.

"Working with the Medical College, they have a significant research record to build on," Santiago said. "Then you have companies like Cerner and Aurora participating in this because they see real value. If you can get that kind of trust between state government, universities and the private sector, then you can really build something. It's not easy to do, but if you do it right it is very powerful."

UWM is committing $1 million in seed money to the institute at a time when the university is facing a $5 million budget cut, Santiago said.

"If we are serious about investing in the region, we've got to make significant investments," said Santiago, pointing to success the University of Albany-SUNY had in collaborating with IBM in a multimillion-dollar venture during his tenure there before joining UWM last year. "Despite the fact that resources are scarce, we have to stand up and say that we are willing to do this."

The institute will capitalize on the related strengths of the Milwaukee area's medical and medical device companies and growing biotechnology industry. The goal is to develop a robust and expanding research base for applied technologies, Kanavas said.

While Madison has the advantage in that many of its academic and technology-based resources are essentially under one roof in the University of Wisconsin, the areas of expertise in greater Milwaukee are spread out across academia and private industry, said Brian Thompson, managing director for TechStar, which fosters collaborations among academic institutions and helps encourage spinoff companies from academic research settings.

"This is an opportunity to bring them together, to act as a unit," Thompson said. "We have made attempts at this before. It's going to take time, and a lot of effort, but, there's a lot of people that are pulling in the same direction on this. Ultimately, the long-term success will rely on not just academics, but drawing on the industry strengths that we have here."

Announcement of the new biomedical institute was made in downtown Milwaukee Monday at a meeting of the Biomedical Technology Alliance, and was attended by Governor Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

"This new institute is right in line with establishment of a high-end economy in Wisconsin, with the Milwaukee area as a vital center," Doyle said. "By working together we our strengthening our ability to create tomorrow's good-paying jobs."

Wisconsin is a leader in biotechnology, Doyle said, pointing to Wisconsin number three national ranking for securing federal research dollars.

Barrett said announcement of the biomedical institute is another step forward in re-tooling the regional economy.

"LaVerne and Shirley don't work here anymore," Barrett said. "Our economy has changed, and it is our responsibility to create the right kind of conditions to foster that change."

An inherent advantage of the establishment of the new biomedical institute, as well as existing collaborative ventures, is that an institution such as the Medical College of Wisconsin can draw on the expertise of others without having to hire or create a new position from within, said William Hendee, executive vice president of MCW.

"The advances of biomedical research increasingly relies on disciplines such as physics, math, computer science," Hendee said. "These disciplines are becoming more and more important to delivery of clinical care. So, the Medical College needs more and more input from these basic science areas.

"We can't re-create our whole university," Hendee said. "If we tried to develop that level of expertise, we would be creating a new university. It is much more efficient to build into the academic community, at large, so that kind of expertise can be translated into biomedical research through effective collaborations. This idea is very important to us here at the Medical College."

A formal search for the director of the Wisconsin Institute for Biomedical and Health Technologies will be launched shortly, Santiago said. The new director will be a significant researcher in his own right, and will conduct ongoing research with funding, and is expected to bring an entourage of researchers and post-doctoral students along with him to the post. The director will also be responsible for coalescing the other members to work together on projects, Santiago said.

"You really have to go and identify the person, then convince them to move," he said. "I have been involved in enough searches, you really have to be very actively recruiting someone to be here. We hope that with the attraction of the institute, we think that will make a difference."

UWM officials have already been in contact with researchers that are part of research teams from three significant institutions, Santiago said.

John Rondy is a correspondent based in Milwaukee. He can be reached at jrondy@wistechnology.com.

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