In 1925, biochemistry professor Harry Steenbock did something that, at the time, was considered highly unusual.
He had developed a process for using ultraviolet radiation to add vitamin D to milk and other foods to combat rickets. In that era, it was standard practice for university scientists to leave their inventions unpatented. But rather than follow convention, Steenbock used $300 of his own money to file for a patent.
He didn’t do this for personal gain. Instead, Steenbock rejected offers from industry to commercialize his invention and looked for a way to protect the discoveries made by himself and his UW colleagues. He wanted to ensure they were used for the public good and that the financial gains returned to the university. Harry L. Russell, dean of the College of Agriculture, and others at the university supported this idea and helped secure financial support from UW alumni.
Eventually, the UW Board of Regents approved the creation of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) to promote, encourage, and aid scientific investigation and research at UW. Since then, through patenting and licensing efforts, WARF has helped usher university innovations from campus laboratories to the marketplace, netting a substantial return in financial support for the institution. This includes $3.4 billion in direct grants to UW and the Morgridge Institute for Research.
WARF was a transformative development for UW, and CALS was involved at the outset. Today, CALS is continuing this legacy of tech transfer. In fact, our faculty and alumni received two of four WARF Accelerator Microbiome Challenge Grants this year.
Greater understanding of microbiomes — communities of microorganisms found on humans and animals and in the environment — has the potential to transform health care. The WARF grants are designed to help identify and support technologies that can advance this line of research. I’m proud to share that Kerri Coon, assistant professor of bacteriology, and Vanessa Leone BS’03, PhD’09, assistant professor of animal and dairy sciences, were both recipients in 2021.
Kerri has teamed up with Lyric Bartholomay PhD’04, a professor of pathobiological sciences in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, to find ways to harness the power of the microbiome to control disease-transmitting mosquitoes. And Vanessa has joined three colleagues from the University of Chicago in looking for methods of monitoring the gut microbiome as an indicator of fibrotic liver disease. I hope you’re as excited as I am about following Kerri’s and Vanessa’s progress and seeing how their work benefits the citizens of Wisconsin and beyond.
On page 20 of this issue, in our feature about the new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery building, you can learn more about Vanessa’s work in other areas. This includes her exploration of components from the unutilized or undervalued portions of meat animals that can be used to improve human or animal health. Our meat science program has a strong record of turning these “biologics” discoveries into successful companies, and the article explains how our current generation of researchers is building on that tradition.
The concept of tech transfer at UW is nearly a century old, but it clearly remains on the cutting edge of academic science. It’s one of the many ways we at CALS live the Wisconsin Idea, and we will pursue it with passion into the future.