Wisconsin Idea Series: Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation Is A Part of Wisconsin Idea

Innovation From the University Makes its Way Into the Economy

by Alex Lee, age 16

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation , or WARF, is UW-Madison’s nonprofit technology transfer office. WARF helps UW-Madison researchers by patenting their discoveries, then licensing the scientists’ findings to primary companies to make them more accessible to the market place. WARF was founded in 1925 during the Progressive Era by Harry Steenbock, a professor of Biochemistry at UW-Madison.

Steenbock is also known for creating a machine in 1923 that uses ultraviolet lights to increase the content of vitamin D in foods. It is known that vitamin D prevents and cures rickets, a crippling bone disease. Quaker Oats Company offered Steenbock $1 million, or approximately $10 million in today’s dollars, in exchange for exclusive rights to his machine. But instead, he used the money he earned to create WARF. Once WARF was created, it made its first license agreement with the Quaker Oats Company in 1927, which used Steenbock’s technology to increase vitamin D in breakfast cereals and in milk. By the time the patent expired in 1945, rickets was almost eliminated.

Steenbock’s WARF is a big part of the Wisconsin Idea, an educational and political policy that furthers universities’ contributions throughout the state. WARF is a significant source of research support, independent of federal grants, to UW-Madison. Since 1925, WARF has processed about 6,000 discoveries from UW-Madison inventors, obtained 1,900 U.S. patents on these innovations, and completed more than 1,600 licensing agreements with worldwide companies. WARF donates its income from commercial licenses to UW-Madison researchers and their departments. Each year, WARF contributes $45 million to UW-Madison research. Without WARF, UW-Madison researchers wouldn’t be able to distribute their findings to the people of Wisconsin or help Wisconsin move forward.

[Sources: Wikipedia; Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery]