An innovative public-private collaboration between the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering and growth capital firm WISC Partners will connect high-potential regional technology companies with leading university engineering experts.
In the process, the collaboration also will create a new avenue for funding that can supplement existing college revenue from traditional industry collaborations, federal grants and philanthropy.
Based in Madison, Wisconsin, and in Silicon Valley, WISC Partners provides strategic operating capital to promising entrepreneurs. Its founding partners, UW-Madison engineering alumnus and retired chairman of Applied Materials Mike Splinter, and UW-Madison business alum and veteran entrepreneur David Guinther, are leveraging deep Silicon Valley experience and worldwide networks to play an active role in accelerating the growth and success of the companies in their portfolio.
The collaboration with UW-Madison emerged in part from a strong overall desire and need for university experts to be more directly connected with companies that require their expertise to advance. While it’s common for companies to have some funding for research and development, they often don’t have access to the broader range of knowledge they need to fully define and develop their technologies, says Oliver Schmitz, the Thomas and Suzanne Werner Professor of Engineering Physics at UW-Madison and College of Engineering associate dean for research. “The value is really huge in partnering with us,” he says. “We can reach into our knowledge pool of faculty and build new connections with emerging industry leaders.”
For WISC Partners, one aspect of actively nurturing the growth of companies in its portfolio involves tapping the technical expertise and knowledge that UW-Madison engineering faculty offer across an array of disciplines. The engineering faculty provide these critical capabilities as service work and consultants, while not competing with research that might lead to future spin-outs of those activities. “We looked at why this wonderful UW-Madison resource was underused—what were the obstacles,” says Guinther. “The academic world speaks a different language from the private sector, but they can deliver so much value to each other if we can just find ways to bridge the gap.”
As alumni, both Guinther and Splinter already had strong connections with the university; they are quick to note that while their firm’s acronym stands for Wisconsin Inflection Stage Capital, choosing “WISC” was an intentional nod to their alma mater. Each also has given back through service on various university advisory boards.
In Guinther’s case, his entry point to the College of Engineering was through his role on the advisory board for the college’s Grainger Institute for Engineering. The GIE is a catalyst that connects engineers with industry and each other to accelerate research and put discoveries to use in the world. “Everything I learned from GIE exposed me to just how much more potential there is in the college to make its way into industry,” says Guinther. “That’s what drove this. We felt that the merit was so strong; we wanted to get this done, and to leave a positive mark on the regional economy and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.”
The partnership includes a unique tiered funding model designed to return gains to the university as the WISC Partners ventures appreciate in value, similar to the way in which a venture capital firm’s general partners might receive a return on their investment. “This university has the resources to do something special and open up new avenues in the future,” says Guinther. “We’d like to really find a way to add value for our alma mater, and this has potential to be transformative.”
The collaboration is a win for both WISC Partners and for the College of Engineering, says Ian Robertson, Grainger Dean of the College of Engineering. “Establishing strong industry partnerships is a strategic goal for our college, and our collaboration with WISC Partners creates an avenue for our faculty to contribute their expertise to enhance the success of emerging technology companies,” he says. “Our faculty are innovators who fully embrace the Wisconsin Idea. They want to work more closely with industry. That involvement helps contribute to and accelerate the growth and success of promising companies, drives revenue for our college and provides our faculty valuable understanding of and experience in the entrepreneurial side of innovation.”