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WARF to rev up funding for startup companies
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WARF to rev up funding for startup companies

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WARF is blazing forward with efforts to turn UW-Madison discoveries into products on the market, and will triple its spending on entrepreneurial programs over the next several years.

Erik Iverson, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, noted that studies have shown Wisconsin lags many other states in entrepreneurship, ranking Wisconsin 25th in the number of startups.

He said the tech-transfer organization will spend $60 million over the next four to eight years, a sharp increase from the $30 million it has invested in startups over the past 10 years.

“I promise you that WARF will do its part to put capital to work in this community,” Iverson told the Wisconsin Innovation Network’s luncheon meeting at the Sheraton Madison Hotel on Tuesday.

Of the $60 million, recently approved by the WARF board of trustees, $10 million will go into a seed fund to provide small amounts of money to 10 to 15 very early-stage companies a year, Iverson said. The other $50 million will become a venture fund made up solely of WARF money to invest in companies that have grown and progressed.

A chief venture officer and several other employees will be hired over the next year to handle those investments, he said.

Iverson also said he is setting up a separate initiative, WARF’s Human Therapeutics Program, to advance some of the most promising drug compounds and vaccine prospects developed by UW-Madison researchers. WARF can help move them through early animal studies to test for safety.

“We’re going to pick across the spectrum of those and we’re going to put money behind (them),” he said.

Iverson said he does not plan to take big risks, but investing in more of the young companies will help them grow to a point where they can attract outside investors.

Iverson – who came to Madison from Seattle one year ago — said he is “super optimistic” about Madison and Wisconsin, and he called on local and state officials to collaborate with the university.

“This community will have more companies and we will work more together,” Iverson said. “Promise me one thing: Let’s not screw it up.”

Madison needs a support system that includes affordable housing, a continued vibrant arts community and banks that will “participate more in the entrepreneurial environment across the entire state,” he said.

In Seattle, Iverson was president of business and operations for the Infectious Disease Research Institute, a global health research nonprofit, and a former attorney with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

During a question-and-answer session following his speech Tuesday, a member of the audience asked Iverson if he could phone Bill Gates and invite him to come to Madison, perhaps spurring some investment in local startups.

“I would like to see Bill and Melinda show up in this town,” said Iverson, “but I don’t have a direct line (to them).”

Meanwhile, the Discovery to Product, or D2P, program is about to undergo some changes. John Biondi, a serial entrepreneur who has led D2P since it began three years ago, will retire Aug. 31.

Established as a way to help move UW-Madison research into startup companies, D2P has provided funds and mentoring to 24 projects, and 15 businesses have been created as a result.

Andy Richards has been named interim director of D2P but the program’s $2 million funding will run out at the end of 2017, he said.

Richards, chief of staff for the vice chancellor for research and graduate education, said part of his new role will be to work with the various entrepreneurship activities across the campus and provide more coordination from the ground up.

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