09 Dec WTN Interview: Carl GulbrandsenWARF – A Unique and Successful Technology Transfer Organization
Editor’s Note: In this second installment of an interview with Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), Gulbrandsen shares his perspective on how WARF is unique compared to other university technology-transfer organizations. He also discusses WARF’s unique relationship with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and he cites examples of some of the most successful technologies and patents WARF has licensed.
The next installment will cover WARF’s investment and portfolio strategy, WARF’s perception and working relationships with VCs as well as an insightful discussion of WARF’s experience with software and information
WTN: How is the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) unique compared to other University technology-transfer organizations?
Carl Gulbrandsen: WARF is unique in that we are able to speculate on technology. Most technology-transfer organizations really don’t decide to manage a technology and protect it unless they have a company ready to license it. WARF has been in existence long enough to have amassed a large endowment that can support early-stage technology speculation, whether we have a licensee or not. An example is what we’ve done with our stem cell research patents. We were in touch with Geron when they were a start-up company and did not have much money. In that case we made an equity-based license transaction.
TomoTherapy is another company in which we speculated and made an equity investment both with cash and a technology license. WARF recognized that the concept of helical tomotherapy (a sophisticated way to more accurately focus radiation on cancer cells while sparing healthy ones) was an important technology. We committed to investing and protecting it. Today we have about 62 patent applications and issued patents related to this technology. WARF has invested over half a million dollars in the intellectual property. Very few technology transfer organizations have the financial resources for that type of patent speculation.
Another way that we are unique is that our faculty or licensees know that if they have a patent challenged, we’re going to aggressively defend that patent. And we can afford to defend it. For our licensees or start-up companies, this is a great solace because they are not only getting a license from WARF, but they’re getting the security that WARF will stand behind the technology. They’ve received, in essence, a patent defense insurance policy.
WTN: What is WARF’s relationship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison?
Gulbrandsen: This is another factor that makes WARF unique. We are independent from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, although we work very closely with it. We have our own board of trustees. This is a real advantage in that we avoid some of the politics that other technology-transfer offices deal with. We don’t avoid all the politics, but at the end of the day, the university doesn’t really know what licenses we sell or what technologies we invest heavily in. If they ask us, we’ll tell them. But they don’t ask. They do their thing, which is academics, research, and so forth, and we do our thing. It’s a great relationship and it has worked really well.
Most technology-transfer offices are a department within the university they represent. And they are a cost center. There are about 300 technology-transfer offices affiliated with universities in the United States. Of those, only about 20 make money, and of those 20, we’re one of the few that really speculates on technology.
WTN: Do other institutions try to model WARF?
Gulbrandsen: We get visitors all the time from around the country and the world that visit us and ask, “How can we build a WARF?” One of my predecessors said that if you want to build a WARF, you have to start 75 years ago with a home-run technology and be affiliated with a major world-class research university.
WTN: Does WARF have a diversified revenue stream?
Gulbrandsen: We receive the majority of our revenue from vitamin D technology. A number of vitamin D patents have been licensed, but it’s still just one technology.
WTN: What percent of WARF’s revenue does vitamin D technology represent?
Gulbrandsen: Between 60 and 70 percent
WTN: What other technologies have been successfully patented and licensed?
Gulbrandsen: We have been really blessed. We started out with Professor Harry Steenbock’s irradiation process to produce vitamin D in foods, a home-run technology that led to the creation of WARF. Our first license agreement was with the Quaker Oats Company, which used Steenbock’s process to fortify the vitamin D content of breakfast cereals. WARF subsequently licensed Steenbock’s invention to a number of pharmaceutical companies for the development of a medicinal preparation of vitamin D called Viosterol. WARF also entered into agreements with three equipment manufacturers to develop a process for irradiating flowing films of milk, and the era of vitamin D-fortified milk began. These new products held unprecedented potential for preventing rickets. The follow-on work on vitamin D technologies has been very successful as well. Hector DeLuca’s vitamin D derivatives have been developed into products that are prescribed worldwide to treat bone disorders and other diseases resulting from vitamin D deficiencies.
Some other great technologies have come out of the university as well. There is Coumadin, the most widely prescribed blood thinner for treating cardiovascular disease, and its counterpart, Warfarin, which is still the most widely used rodenticide worldwide.
We have a great medical imaging portfolio. Paul Moran’s magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) innovation has greatly improved the diagnosis of trauma-induced injury and various disease states. Charles Mistretta’s MRI advances have done the same for the diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular disease.
Then there is Jamie Thomson’s isolation of human embryonic stem cells, which has paved the way toward treatments for currently incurable diseases, including Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.
In the computer hardware area, we have a technology developed by the UW-Madison’s current Chancellor, John Wiley. It’s a diffusion barrier technology that allows high-speed microprocessors to be made without allowing them to short-circuit.
WTN: Is Wiley’s technology currently used in the semiconductor industry?
Gulbrandsen: Yes, it’s licensed throughout the computer industry. John is not doing research in that area anymore, but his research is being used in the industry, and it has made good money for the university. This is
just as an example of how diverse the skills are here and how fortunate WARF really is to be associated with such a
PART 1) How WARF is Reaching Out to Businesses About Technology Developed in Wisconsin – 12/04/03