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Corporate open house: For industry, UW-Madison is 'one-stop shopping'

Open house attendees in lecture hall

On July 12, representatives from more than 40 companies learned about UW-Madison "services" for industry at the first-annual UW-Madison corporate open house. 


On July 12, representatives from more than 40 companies in industries ranging from manufacturing and biotech to construction and food production attended the first-annual UW-Madison corporate open house. The open house showcased "services" for businesses and explored how partnerships with UW-Madison can strengthen corporate competitiveness.

The College of Engineering, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and Wisconsin School of Business sponsored the event, along with the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations and the Wisconsin Alumni Association.

One of two morning panel discussions featured the insights and feedback of leaders from Rockwell Automation, Organic Valley Farms, Johnson Controls, and General Mills, all of which have maintained a variety of active partnerships with UW-Madison. Each of the panelists stressed that UW-Madison students and graduates stand out in the workplace because they are well-rounded, confident, collaborative leaders who not only possess technical skills, but who also are culturally and globally aware. "We're looking for future leaders—not just technicians," said panelist Ann Renckens, whose company, General Mills, recruits annually for 25 undergraduates for its finance operation. "A third of those are Badgers."

The panelists also praised the university for its outstanding research and faculty who are among the best of the best. In an era when massive in-house research and development operations are neither cost-effective or practical, panelists said their companies look to the university for leading-edge, cross-cutting research and educational resources that give their companies a technical and economic edge.

And because of the high value they receive from such activities as research partnerships and recruiting, companies are willing to invest in the university's research and educational excellence. "Because of the success that we've had over the years—and we want to have a strong recruiting pipeline—we now are investing in a professorship and laboratory for energy storage research and funding a fellows program," said Mike Andrew, whose company, Johnson Controls Inc., announced the initiative in July 2011.

Comparing a five-week process for settling on a research and development agreement at UW-Madison with a much longer negotiation at other institutions, Andrew called it one of the less-painful activities. But, he encouraged the university to continually improve. "Speed up the process somehow," he said. "For example, don't do them via a conference call. Do them in person and cut the negotiation time." 

College of Engineering Dean Paul Peercy was part of a panel that included College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Dean Kate VandenBosch and Wisconsin School of Business Senior Associate Dean Chip Hunter.

At a Q&A with campus leaders, deans from engineering, agricultural and life sciences, and business highlighted UW-Madison strengths valuable to industry partners. Among those key strengths are comprehensive undergraduate and graduate education in areas important to business and industry, research centers, consortia and facilities—including the in-progress Wisconsin Energy Institute Building—that meet industry research needs; knowledge and technology transfer via patents, licenses and spin-out companies; and high-quality lifelong learning and professional education opportunities.

Additionally, each school or college offers similar "front doors" for industry via contacts in corporate or external relations, research, and career services and recruiting.

The three panelists also pointed out that partnerships with business and industry inform university educational and research directions. College of Engineering Dean Paul Peercy cited his college's proactive approach to managing some of the grand challenges—energy, sustainability and security, among others—facing society. "If we wait to react, it's too late," he said. "Those challenges will not be solved with engineers alone."

College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Dean Kate VandenBosch said CALS researchers also think globally and the college as a whole is building on its critical strengths to best make an impact on those grand challenges. "Talking with industry is important to those decisions," she said.

Wisconsin School of Business Senior Associate Dean Chip Hunter emphasized that partnerships with business and industry in research, applied learning opportunities for students are fundamental to the Wisconsin Idea. "The university should be a resource for the state, country and world," he said.

Audience questions for the deans helped clarify how the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation shares intellectual property with industrial partners and startup companies. The panelists stressed that up-front negotiation and a flexible approach to shared intellectual property are key to successful university-industry collaborations.

In his welcoming remarks for the event, UW-Madison Provost Paul De Luca said the university's broad, cross-disciplinary research, $1 billion annual research expenditures, and assets such as the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery make UW-Madison an ideal corporate partner. "We cultivate industry interaction on campus," he said.

As they ate lunch in Heritage Hall in Camp Randall Stadium, open house visitors received an athletic facilities update from UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez. In the afternoon, attendees toured the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery or Wisconsin Energy Institute Building or attended break-out sessions that covered how to participate in sponsored research, diversity in science-based professions, custom training and executive education, technology licensing, entrepreneurship, the meat industry, and how to get involved in knowledge centers in the Wisconsin School of Business.

College of Engineering Assistant Dean for Alumni and Corporate Relations Brian Mattmiller, an open house organizer, said the event provided examples of creative university-industry interaction. “For the vast majority of companies we work with, recruiting talented graduates is the No. 1 priority,” he said. “We hope to broaden the equation a bit by showcasing how partnerships on leadership training, continuing education and K-12 outreach also can strengthen Wisconsin’s talent pipeline.” 

Renee Meiller