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Wisconsin consortium aims for defense business

Congress has approved a $500,000 start-up grant for the recently announced Wisconsin Security Research Consortium, a non-profit group for classified, defense-related projects.

The consortium, led by the Wisconsin Technology Council, will also initially include the UW System, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, and the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

The consortium will assess the capabilities of the state’s public and private sectors for homeland security-related technology, provide guidance for companies seeking federal grants, and organize and administer grant projects where existing institutions, such as UW-Madison, would be unable to do so themselves.

A major impetus for creating the consortium, according to a key organizer, Thomas Hefty, is a rule at UW-Madison against engaging in classified research, adopted in the Vietnam War-era political environment.

Hefty noted that 30 years ago, Wisconsin and neighboring Minnesota had very similar economies and very similar research activities, but today Minnesota outpaces Wisconsin in federal research money by $500 million.
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“All of that $500 million difference is in Defense Department research,” said Hefty, noting that defense research tends to generate various spin-off companies that may contribute to the state’s economy.

The money for the start-up grant was part of a spending bill covering the Commerce, State and Justice Departments that passed the Senate on Wednesday. The money will be issued in fiscal year 2006.

The ramifications of the policy have been compounded further in recent years by the reclassification of previously open areas of study. For example, research dollars for anthrax were once allocated on the basis of the disease’s impact on agriculture, but its use in germ warfare now means that studying it has become largely a military project.

Hefty compared the new consortium to WiCell, the independent organization spun off from the UW-Madison research labs for furthering stem-cell research, free of political pressures and restrictions within the public university environment.

Wisconsin Technology Council President Tom Still says the state has a lot to offer in terms of homeland security research, ranging from work in life sciences to traditional manufacturing, as well as emerging technology fields such as biosensors and RFID. However, the state has not been well-equipped to pursue federal research money aimed at defense, Still said.

“Frankly, we’re leaving a lot of money on the table,” he said. “It’s research that we’re uniquely prepared to do, but we have not had the right conduit, to date.”

Still told of how he had recently been looking through a set of grant proposals, and immediately thought of several Wisconsin companies that would be well suited to the tasks, if only there were a good place to get the state more involved.

“Once we really truly get this thing up and running, it will hopefully serve as a pipeline so that the companies will have a way of making the right contacts in more of a facilitated fashion.”

“I think it certainly puts Wisconsin in the game,” said Patrick Morris, press secretary for Sen. Herb Kohl, whose office first explored and introduced the idea last year before winning approval from the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“There’s a lot of research that’s being done in those areas, but when you bring different entities together, seeing where there’s potential for synergy and growth, that will certainly help make them attractive for pursuing federal funds,” Morris said.

The first meeting of the Wisconsin Security Research Consortium will be held in early December.

Eric Kleefeld is a writer for WTN in Madison. He can be reached at eric@wistechnology.com.

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