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Entrepreneurship grant will build strong foundation

An oft-heard complaint about the University of Wisconsin-Madison, justified or otherwise, is that its academic and research fruit falls close to the tree. It has world-class scientists and well-developed mechanisms for turning their best ideas into products or services, but most of that commercialization takes place within a half-hour drive from campus.

To a point, that's true. Just check the figures for per capita wages, unemployment and job creation in tech-rich Dane County, and it's clear the UW-Madison has been a huge economic driver for the capital region.

Still, it would be a mistake to believe the economic impact of the UW-Madison stops just past the shadow of Bascom Hall. The campus has scores of outreach programs that reach businesses of all sizes across Wisconsin, as well as continuing education programs for hundreds of thousands of citizens. While some of those programs have been much better than others over time, the testimonials at least match the gripes.

What the campus has not done, however, is extend the reach of its entrepreneurial education programs to all students - let alone the rest of the state. The teaching of what it means to be an entrepreneur has remained basically inside the Business School, where programs such as the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship have thrived.

Thanks to a $5 million grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo., more students at the UW-Madison - and more aspiring business people statewide - will be exposed to the principles and practices of entrepreneurship.
The UW-Madison was one of only nine campuses nationwide to be selected by the $2 billion foundation, which was created 40 years ago by namesake entrepreneur Ewing Marion Kauffman. He built an international pharmaceutical company from scratch and later brought back major-league baseball to Kansas City. Mainly, however, he cared about education and spurring young people to reach their potential.

Statewide discovery

The grant is aimed at doing precisely that. Over five years, and with matching dollars from a variety of sources, the UW-Madison will work with partners to help breed entrepreneurs and spur more commercialization of research statewide.

The work will start close to home, with most UW-Madison colleges or schools expanding their programming in what it takes to start a business. On one end of the spectrum, a course called “Entrepreneurship in Society” will be opened to undergraduates in all majors. On the other, the planned Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and the related Morgridge Institute for Discovery will speed the search for market “pulls” for campus research.

Work related to the Kauffman grant will quickly move around the state. The Urban Entrepreneurship Program in Milwaukee, other campuses in the University of Wisconsin System, state agencies, the WiSys Technology Foundation (which patents and licenses research from outside Madison), the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Network and the Wisconsin Technology Council will be among the UW-Madison's partners. The program will also be linked to a new initiative, the Wisconsin Venture Center, to help foster connections to venture capital.

“Every citizen of the state is a potential `student,' and we intend to incorporate entrepreneurship into the value proposition of what the UW offers to the people of Wisconsin,” said Charles Hoslet, managing director of the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations. That office, which serves as a “front door” for business to the UW campus, is managing the Kauffman grant.

Securing the border

If the program succeeds, it will expand the century-old “Wisconsin Idea,” the notion that the borders of the campus extend to the borders of the state. It will enhance Wisconsin's capacity to grow its own economy, help students gain the right skills for the 21st century, and leverage a mix of programs to build a stronger entrepreneurial climate.

The states that will prosper in the “Knowledge-Based Economy” are those which value education, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Wisconsin has a strong foundation, and the Kauffman Foundation grant will help build upon it.

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

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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