02 May UWM research dean promotes building boom
Milwaukee, Wis. – Abbas Ourmazd could look 80 miles to the west and be extremely jealous of the pace of building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s not.
UW-Madison is an institution he deeply admires, but he also believes his own institution, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has untapped potential as a vehicle for technology transfer that can spark an economic transformation in Milwaukee, which continues to lose population and tax base. To reach that potential, he said UWM’s academic research facilities have to match the quality of its faculty.
At the moment, they do not, and Ourmazd, the dean of research at UWM, can only marvel at what has been done at the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus. “I congratulate UW-Madison for the excellent work it is doing, and I’m delighted that they are getting these excellent facilities,” he said. “The truth is, some of these facilities cost $100 million to $200 million, and a $200 million investment at UWM would just transform the place.”
All their faculties
That type of investment would not only bring a spanking new building, he noted, it would increase the university’s research output. UWM has a $50 million research portfolio that could grow, conservatively, by another $100 million, and Ourmazd did not have to conduct extensive exploration to find an impressive reservoir of intellectual property. A simple peer review confirmed his hunch about the caliber of university researchers.
A key part of the university’s Research Growth Initiative was a recent exercise in which the faculty submitted research proposals, which were sent to independent reviewers. Twenty-two panelists, including representatives from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale, and the University of North Carolina, reviewed 285 UWM innovations. That figure not only represents about half of the UWM faculty, but the university’s entire research portfolio.
UWM asked reviewers to determine whether a given proposal was, in their view, in the top 10 percent nationally in its field. One quarter of the 285 proposals ranked in the top 10 percent, an independent validation that Ourmazd views as a good measure of UWM professors. “This is absolutely remarkable,” he said. “If you went to any world-class institution in the United States, they probably wouldn’t fare much better.”
Molecular drug design is a strength of UWM researchers. Among the university’s portfolio of intellectual property is the recent licensing of an anti-anxiety drug, developed by chemistry professor James Cook, to Bristol-Myers Squibb. Ourmazd characterized the drug, which has a market potential of between $1 million and $3 million, as a breakthrough compound that functions as Valium without the drowsiness.
Campus researchers also are working on a compound that could be a cure for chronic chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease that can cause infertility.
“You can take receptors in the brain, receptors on specific cells, and this campus has the experience and expertise, really world-class expertise, to design drugs that address those specific receptors,” Ourmazd said.
The discoveries are licensed through WiSys, which serves the state’s non-Madison campuses, but Ourmazd said translating UWM research into regional economic activity would require a more sophisticated model that goes beyond simple licensing.
The university’s building needs, as they pertain to academic research, should be centered on the faculty, Ourmazd said. While there have been sundry improvements in UWM’s academic facilities, the last significant building project in the areas of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics dates back to the early 1970s.
“What you see is an enormous disconnect between the research capability of this institution in terms of the faculty, in terms of the projects which we are conducting or want to conduct, and the facilities in which these activities are conducted,” Ourmazd said. “This is really an enormous waste of the tremendous potential and the investment that is being made in people on this campus.”
The most urgent facility need is engineering, followed by the natural and life sciences and water management, including a possible upgrade to the Great Lakes Water Institute. UWM has launched a major capital campaign with the goal of raising $100 million, and it plans to invest another $14 million annually in research over a six-year period. The sources of that second $100 million are still unknown, but it’s safe to say the university would like state government to send some money its way.
This point has been made in general terms to Gov. Jim Doyle, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and other powers that be. “If you look at a biennium [state budget],” Ourmazd said, “over three biennial budgets, that second $100 million could be satisfied.”