Winslow Sargeant, a Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) trustee and longtime champion of small business, urged a gathering of faculty and student engineers to leverage their training across disciplines and strengthen relationships in pursuit of federal funding at a campus event Nov. 10, 2016.
“The education you are getting is transferable to many domains,” said Sargeant, who heads the high tech investment firm S&T LLC. “We need you to solve problems wherever they may be.”
Sargeant – a researcher, venture capitalist and business policy leader – was on campus to mark the 125th anniversary of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Both Sargeant and Peter Tong, chairman of the WARF Board of Trustees, were among the “illustrious 125” affiliates honored by the College of Engineering this year.
Drawing from his experience both personal and professional, Sargeant acknowledged the headwinds facing startups nationwide. Of the 406,000 small businesses launched this year, about 401,000 are expected to fold.
“The number one challenge is funding,” he said, with the majority of new firms (about 60 percent) financed by personal and family savings. Venture capital accounts for less than 1 percent.
Since small businesses represent more than 99 percent of all firms in the U.S. and most of the new job growth, supporting innovation is a non-negotiable.
“Government has always played a role” in driving R&D, said Sargeant, from the dawn of the patent system in 1790 to the multibillion dollar National Science Foundation of modern times.
The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which gave universities and small businesses greater freedom to advance and profit from their technologies, was one of the turning points.
“It is like B.C. and A.D.,” he said, referring to the law’s momentous impact. “Smart rules make sense.”
An entrepreneur as well as a policy leader, Sargeant spoke firsthand of public-private partnership. As an official for the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, he oversaw more than $50 million of investments in 300 early stage companies.
“But it’s not enough to fund research and walk away,” he said, pointing to a new SBIR grant for getting smart on business in the earliest stages of a project. “Even before Phase I you’re going to get market intel.”
Asked what UW–Madison researchers can do to secure more federal funding, Sargeant emphasized relationships – serving on NSF panels, getting to know program officers, learning to read and write winning proposals.
“It’s better to be at the table than on the menu,” he said.
Sargeant earned a PhD in electrical engineering from UW–Madison and in 2014 he was named a Wisconsin Distinguished Engineering Alumni. He was elected to the WARF Board of Trustees in 2005.