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UW-Madison Powers The Region’s Research Engine

Learn how University of Wisconsin-Madison research efforts are leading to breakthroughs in health, bioscience, energy and information technology.

By Emily McMackin on May 13, 2016

Madison, WI
Madison / Courtesy of Lindsay Brown

From developing new technologies to produce and transmit electricity more efficiently to discovering new ways to diagnose and treat rare genetic disorders, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pioneering discoveries across disciplines as diverse as engineering, life sciences and clean energy. Along with turning out a steady stream of skilled graduates in these fields, the university helps shape the innovative culture of the Madison Region through its world-class research centers, which lend their expertise to major industry sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing and information technology, while also developing specialties in growing fields such as pharmaceuticals and renewable energy.

“We have over 200 research centers on campus,” says Susan LaBelle, managing director of UW-Madison’s Office of Corporate Relations. “Anything you could possibly want to know, someone is studying it somewhere here.”

UW-Madison consistently ranks among the nation’s top five universities for research and development expenditures, which total more than $1 billion. Commercialization of this research has allowed the university to launch more than 300 new businesses statewide, create nearly 25,000 jobs and contribute $2.3 billion to the state economy. With more than 2,000 researchers on campus – many of whom are known nationally and globally for their work – industry leaders have access to a wealth of knowledge and resources through partnerships with the university, a vital asset for businesses with lean R&D budgets.

“It gives them the opportunity to explore different solutions or areas of potential interest without making an enormous commitment to staff and facilities,” LaBelle says.

Innovation in Energy, Neuroscience

The university’s Wisconsin Energy Institute (WEI) pools expertise from more than 100 affiliated faculty in various departments who collaborate on developments ranging from biofuels to advanced battery technology. The institute, home to the nation’s first solar energy lab and one of three bioenergy centers funded by the Department of Energy, is not only a clearinghouse for energy-related research at the university, but it also tackles challenges in this sphere that affect top industries across the state, from agriculture to pulp and paper production.

“We are not just doing research and publishing the results,” says WEI director Mike Corradini. “We are doing research that leads to partnerships with industry or new products and processes that industries want to use.”

Promising research projects under way at the institute include developing cheaper, more efficient ways to convert biomass into synthetic fuels and chemicals for feedstocks and designing microgrids to provide more reliable sources of power. These discoveries are creating opportunities statewide for new products and supply chains producers, Corradini says.

Another university research pioneer is the Waisman Center, which brings together biological, behavioral and social sciences research from 25 UW-Madison departments to advance knowledge about intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as neurodegenerative diseases. Supported by the National Institutes of Health, the center encompasses 33 university labs that explore the causes of rare diseases to enable researchers to develop treatments, therapies and cures. Much of the research is multidisciplinary and involves a range of departments. Studies on the prevalence, diagnosis and treatment of autism, for example, draw expertise from epidemiologists and social work researchers, as well as genetics and neurology specialists. The center, which is known for its discoveries on obscure genetic disorders, also uses stem cell research to further the understanding and treatment of ALS, Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. It provides education, training and outreach in its areas of expertise through 13 hospital clinics and support for researchers through Waisman Biomanufacturing.

“We are trying to build the next generation of researchers and clinicians who can serve this community by identifying causes, consequences and cures,” says director Dr. Albee Messing.

Connecting Industry With Research

Businesses can tap into the vast R&D resources at UW-Madison through the Office of Corporate Relations, which connects them with expert faculty. Companies like Boeing, GE Healthcare, Oshkosh Corp. and Johnson Controls collaborate with the university to advance products, processes and technologies. Such partnerships also keep Madison Region companies competitive.

Teaming up with UW-Madison’s Polymer Engineering Center helped Sauk County-based Teel Plastics, which specializes in custom extrusion of plastic tubing, cores and profiles, develop new polymer blends and optimize its pipe manufacturing practices.

“We help them with problems that are more difficult to solve in an industrial setting,” says mechanical engineering professor Tim Osswald.

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