Guest commentary Power of innovation drives Wisconsin Idea

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Last August, we stood in together in Rock County to commemorate breaking ground on the first building for SHINE Medical Technologies, a Janesville-based spinoff from technology developed at the UW-Madison College of Engineering.

While it may have looked like just another ribbon-cutting ceremony, to us it was steeped in meaning.

The University of Wisconsin produces some of the best engineers and most innovative research. It is capable of solving major problems that have not only state and national impact, but worldwide impact as well.

BUT IT'S not enough just to come up with top technologies. The Wisconsin Idea guides us to ensure these technologies benefit the entire state. As dean of the College of Engineering and a former student, now founder and CEO of SHINE, we believe this means the University has a role in translating new ideas into real life and real jobs.

Faculty believe it's part of their mission to impact the state and beyond. It's also part of the character of the people of Wisconsin.

Let all of us - community members and professors - use our shared voice to tell the stories that motivate everyone from students to potential partners and investors. When we advocate for our neighbors, we put innovation to work and live the Wisconsin Idea.

WITH A recent hiring initiative, the composition of the engineering faculty at your state research campus is changing and there is increased emphasis on "translational" research, which means finding solutions to real-world technological challenges. It leads to an increase in industrial interactions and startups essential for solving the challenges we face as the world's population continues to grow and industrialize.

The engineering college works with faculty to allow them to pursue growing their company, accepting that some will be successful and others not. Irrespective of the outcome, bringing that experience back into the classroom helps prepare future entrepreneurs.

University culture encourages innovation. It helps you do difficult and ambitious things. There's a feeling of wanting to create greatness, and very high performance.

SHINE is a terrific example. As a graduate student in engineering, Greg took a class that inspired him to think about ways to create nuclear power without nuclear waste. He built his graduate thesis research into a new method to produce the medical isotopes used to diagnose and treat heart disease and cancer. The U.S. currently relies on supplies from outside the country.

From a seed planted in the head of one graduate student, the SHINE medical isotope production facility will reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism and improve the health of over 1 billion people during its lifetime.

The University was deeply engaged all the way through. The Fusion Institute became seriously involved in developing a game-changing, globally significant technology. Support from the university network provided the courage required. Funding was secured from the government, venture capitalists and the Morgridge Institute for Research.

SHINE will have an impact on the Wisconsin economy. It expects to create over 100 permanent jobs and to spend over $100 million on facility construction alone. SHINE is sourcing as much material, labor and service as it can from Wisconsin companies, which at present numbers over 75 local firms.

Certainly, there are hurdles in replicating the scope and ambition of SHINE. We have a Midwestern culture where we are probably more risk-averse and not very good at accepting that failure is part of the learning curve. There is also a scarcity of organized financing.

These hurdles are slowly improving. We're upbeat about how we're changing the culture within the University and we will soon have more success stories to share.

Janesville is an economically recovering city that was hit hard by the loss of a major employer and tough times. Janesville's on the mend, and SHINE's been part of that story, hopefully a beacon of light.

We believe our combined voices help people understand the crucial link between the University and the community - the story of the Wisconsin Idea.

Greg Piefer is the CEO of SHINE Medical Technologies based in Janesville, Wisconsin. He is an alumnus of the UW-Madison College of Engineering. Ian Robertson is Dean of the UW-Madison College of Engineering. This commentary is part of a series of articles organized by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

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