Building a culture of innovation

Posted on 01. Sep, 2010 by in Annual Report, In Depth

Dean Paul Peercy

Dean Paul Peercy

Looking through recent patent disclosures from the UW-Madison College of Engineering provides a lesson in intellectual potential. Consider a few examples:

  • Electrical and computer engineers Robert Blick and Minrui Yu developed a laser-drilling technique capable of drilling precise holes at the nanometer scale.
  • Mechanical engineers Rolf Reitz and Reed Hanson created a “clean compression” process for diesel engines that sets new industry standards for fuel efficiency and pollution control.
  • Civil engineers Michael Oliva and Lawrence Bank produced a new method for using fiber-reinforced polymers in building structures, offering a material that withstands highly corrosive environments.

These are just three examples from a deep database of inventions UW-Madison engineers have disclosed to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. With 128 patent disclosures in fiscal year 2009, the college marked the 10th straight year in which college faculty, staff and students were either inventors or co-inventors on 100 or more patent disclosures.

Patents are a good measure of the technology transfer generated by the college each year. Yet they are only one measure. The college is fostering an impressive level of student entrepreneurship, which is producing new business ventures. We also measure spin-off companies that come from research initiatives and our direct relationships with hundreds of existing companies through industrial consortia. Taken together, these efforts form a “culture of innovation” in the college that we work hard to cultivate.

As you will see in this 2010 annual report issue of Perspective, innovation is alive and well in the College of Engineering. Perhaps most impressive is our students’ growing impulse to take their technology ideas to completion and start companies. We tell four company stories in the lead section of this report: One came from postdoctoral research, one came from a graduate student project, one came from a UW-Madison Climate Leadership Challenge team, and one came straight from an undergraduate classroom.

The goal of this innovative culture is to solve problems and create new economic opportunities, particularly for the state of  Wisconsin. The results can be transformational. Virent Energy Systems, for example, is commercializing the fuels-from-biomass advances of Steenbock Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering James Dumesic. Virent just completed its third round of financing, totaling $46.4 million, and is building a major fuel demonstration plant in Madison. A leading medical technology journal in summer 2010 named biomedical engineering startup NeuWave Technologies one of “50 Companies to Watch.” NeuWave specializes in creating and commercializing minimally invasive medical devices that employ microwave energy technology.

Will any of the patent disclosures I mentioned at the beginning of this message become the next Virent Energy success story? Are any of the student startups in this report the next big idea, like NeuWave? Only time will tell. But thanks to our culture of innovation, more and more of our faculty, staff and students are in the game.

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