13 Mar Tech awards keynoter asks for support of UWM transformation
Milwaukee, Wis. — The first chancellor of research in the history of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee said Friday that UWM is trying to change its image from a university of access to a university of research, and in the process help Milwaukee build a knowledge-based economy.
Abbas Ourmazd, keynote speaker at the MIT Club of Wisconsin’s 2006 Technology Achievement Awards, appealed for support for UWM’s Research Growth Initiative. Citing Atlanta as a potential model, he said Georgia’s largest city ranks highly in most key economic measures, including new startups and fast-growing technology companies.
“The booming economy there is being driven by small companies that are growing like gangbusters,” Ourmazd said. “Atlanta has made the transition that we have yet to make in Milwaukee, the transition to a knowledge-based economy.”
Ourmazd’s remarks followed the MIT Club’s recognition of Madison’s TomoTherapy, Milwaukee’s Johnson Controls, and James Dahlberg, the UW-Madison professor who helped develop technology commercialized by Third Wave Technologies.
Taking the initiative
As part its Research Growth Initiative, UWM putting together the pieces of an innovation loop connecting university research to commerce. In September, the UWM faculty voted to reallocate 5 percent of the university budget to this purpose, and professors have produced nearly 300 ideas in an attempt to build an intellectual property portfolio. “There has been an enormous burst of creativity since then,” Ourmazd said.
Milwaukee has lost 30,000 jobs since 2000, and has experienced a 15 percent drop in household income, Ourmazd said. Noting that part of the city’s problem is that it fails to capture its own innovations, he recounted how the typewriter was invented in 19th century Milwaukee, only to be sold to the New York-based E. Remington & Sons. The city still is licensing away its technology, a practice Ourmazd characterized as a “fundamental error.”
Ourmazd believes UWM could play as significant a role in Milwaukee’s transformation as Georgia Tech University did in Atlanta’s renaissance. He said there is a direct correlation between the economic growth in Atlanta and research dollars attracted by Georgia Tech. In fact, the university’s R&D growth preceded the city’s economic revival, and there now is a seamless pipeline of innovation from Georgia Tech to Atlanta’s commercial sector. “Georgia Tech has played a key role in Atlanta’s growth, which is fueled by entrepreneurial companies,” he stated.
According to Ourmazd, UWM has 28,000 students, and it produces the largest number of graduates that stay in Wisconsin. In addition, the university’s $50 million research portfolio has the potential, conservatively, to grow by $100 million, and its faculty is being “head hunted” by other institutions.
Ourmazd often hears that Wisconsin does not need another major research university, but he asserted that a university’s radius of entrepreneurial influence is limited to about 50 miles. “UW-Madison is wonderful, but it has almost no bearing on Milwaukee,” he stated. “A university is the core of a knowledge-based economy. You must have a research university in the heart of the area that you are trying to rejuvenate.”
UWM would love to replicate technology success stories like TomoTherapy, a medical device company founded by UW-Madison professors Thomas Rockwell Mackie and Paul Reckwerdt. Thanks to sales of its Hi-Art imaging and radiation system, TomoTherapy continues to experience explosive growth. The company reported $76 million in revenue in 2005, a 69 percent increase over 2004.
The Hi-Art, now used in more than 50 cancer centers worldwide, targets radiation directly to tumors in cancer patients, limiting damage to surrounding tissue. It recently was introduced in Spain, and TomoTherapy will hold its first European User’s Group meeting this weekend in Lugano, Switzerland.
For the time being, the company is concentrating markets in North America, Europe, and Asia because the service infrastructure is there to support its technology, but there is interest in other regions as well. Del Coufal, vice president of marketing, said the competitive advantage of identifying the location of a tumor directly before it is radiated should keep the company on a high growth curve.
“I think we’re going to maintain the growth path we’ve seen in the past couple of years because of the fact that we have such a strong technological advantage,” Coufal said, “and we don’t see any of our competitors matching that technological advantage in the next few years.”