Yesterday and today, the Minneapolis StarTribune has run lengthy stories contrasting the development of the biotechnology industry in Wisconsin with that in Minnesota. Today’s story focuses on the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and its successful efforts to found and promote life science start-ups based on technology developed at the University of Wisconsin.
While today’s article notes that WARF was founded in 1925, in my opinion, it could have given a better sense of just how long WARF has been contributing to the “state of the art” of bioscience in Wisconsin, and points beyond. For example, when I got to the office today, I opened my 1973 edition of “Choate on Patents,” the hornbook I used in law school in 1980. Two cases from the early 1940’s were abstracted involving the Steenbock process for enriching milk in vitamin D by irradiating it with UV light. This process was developed at the University of Wisconsin at about the time my father was a graduate student there, and WARF was already there to obtain the patents and to enforce them. Among other “home runs” in the late 1940’s and 50’s, WARF was involved in commercializing Warfarin (Coumadin), a “blood thinner” still widely in use, and in backing Professor Hector DeLuca’s successful effort to develop vitamin D metabolites and analogs in the sixties. Today WARF occupies one of the biggest buildings on campus and has revenue from investments in many aspects of Wisconsin’s economy.
A WARF fellowship to a young professor in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry made it possible for him to hire me as his first postdoctoral fellow in 1971. When a colleague, Professor Charles Sih, developed a practical synthesis of prostaglandins, he patented it through WARF, who licensed the patents to Miles Laboratories. Miles in turn opened a Natural Products Laboratory in Madison (renting space from a WARF subsidiary) and Prof. Sih hired me as the first Research Chemist for the lab in 1972. Miles employed about 15 people in the lab by the late 70’s and, believe me, in a town where Ph.D.’s drive cabs, these were “good-paying jobs.”
In contrast, the University of Minnesota did not have a “modern” tech transfer office until the mid-1980’s when it hired three patent attorneys, and began to do the missionary work necessary to attract disclosures of promising inventions from the faculty. To give you an idea of how little patenting the University of Minnesota had been doing prior to that time, Merchant & Gould, where I was then an associate, had only opened about thirty matters for the University of Minnesota in the entire history of the firm. The first patent application I filed for the University of Minnesota was in June of 1984 (U.S. Pat. No. 4,713,340), “Biodegradation of Pentachlorophenol.” (The Chakrabarty patent had only issued three years earlier, but life sciences patenting at the University was underway.) I was also fortunate enough to obtain the first of a series of patents for Professor Robert Vince that covers the anti-HIV drug Abacavir, which is marketed by Glaxo, and has yielded more licensing revenue over the years than almost any other invention patented at any university. Still, given what is essentially a sixty year head start, it is unrealistic to expect the University of Minnesota to somehow “catch up” to WARF. Our Office of Technology Transfer needs to be user-friendly, opportunistic and ready to set the hook and start reeling when the next big one strikes.