Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

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The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation was established in 1925.

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation is the nonprofit technology transfer office of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It is a significant source of research support, independent of federal grants. It currently contributes about $45 million per year, giving the university's research programs a "margin of excellence."


WARF was founded in 1925 by Harry Steenbock, who invented the process for using ultraviolet radiation to add vitamin D to milk and other foods. Rather than leaving the invention unpatented—then the standard practice for university inventions—he patented it, worked with Quaker Oats and pharmaceutical companies to commercialize it, and used the proceeds to fund research.

WARF was established with the donations of $100 from nine alumni of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and verbal pledges from others. "The UW Board of Regents officially sanctioned the plan on June 22, 1925, and the organization's charter was filed with the Secretary of State of Wisconsin on November 14 that same year. The new agency was named the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation to reflect both its governing body of UW–Madison alumni and its mission to support UW–Madison research. Funded by $900 in capital from the nine contributing alumni and with a governing body of five volunteer trustees, WARF officially opened for business." (quoted directly from WARF's website).

Since its founding, WARF has served the University of Wisconsin–Madison scientific community by patenting the discoveries of UW–Madison researchers and licensing these technologies to leading companies in Wisconsin, the United States and worldwide. In this way, WARF also facilitates the use of UW–Madison research for the maximum benefit of society. WARF distributes the income from commercial licenses to the UW–Madison, the inventors and their departments. Each year, WARF contributes over $45 million to fund additional UW–Madison research. The university refers to WARF's annual gifts as its "margin of excellence" funding. WARF currently licenses nearly 100 UW–Madison technologies each year.

As of 2008, WARF had an endowment of nearly $2.0 billion. A majority of WARF's income, around 70%, comes from Vitamin D.

While historically, WARF was only the technology transfer office for the University of Wisconsin–Madison, WARF has recently established WiSys to serve the other University of Wisconsin System campuses.

Their method and practice of licensing has led to their inclusion on a list of the most fearsome patent trolls by Business Insider.[1][2] The article noted that many universities could be called "trolls" for their patent services but identified WARF because of its large portfolio. Universities are incorrectly called “trolls” according to many experts because their goal is to advance research to the marketplace for the ultimate benefit of society, not litigation.[3][4] WARF does not have a history of being litigious, says a Bloomberg Businessweek source.[5]

Vitamin D[edit]

In 1923, Harry Steenbock and James Cockwell discovered exposure to ultraviolet light increased the Vitamin D concentration in food. After discovering that irradiated rat food cured the rats of rickets, Steenbock sought a patent. Steenbock then assigned the patent to the newly established Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. WARF then licensed the technology to Quaker Oats for use in their breakfast cereals. In addition, WARF licensed the technology for use as a pharmaceutical, Viosterol. WARF's commercialization of Vitamin D culminated in its enrichment of milk.

"Enriching milk with vitamin D posed a significant challenge to WARF and its industry partners. Cereals and pharmaceuticals could be easily fortified by adding irradiated yeast or activated lipids (ergosterol) to them as sources of vitamin D. But strict pure foods laws at the time prohibited the addition of anything to milk, even chocolate. In order to produce vitamin D in milk, the milk itself would have to be irradiated. " (quote from site)

By the time the patent expired in 1945, rickets was all but nonexistent.

Through innovations from Hector DeLuca, Vitamin D continues to be a large percentage of WARF's income, around 70%.


Warfarin (Coumadin) is named for WARF, and the story of its discovery is emblematic of the "Wisconsin Idea" and the relationship of the university to the Wisconsin public. In 1933 a farmer from Deer Park showed up unannounced at the School of Agriculture and walked into a professor's laboratory with a milk can full of blood which would not coagulate. In his truck, he had also brought a dead heifer and some spoiled clover hay. He wanted to know what had killed his cow. In 1941, Karl Paul Link successfully isolated the anticoagulant factor, which initially found commercial application as a rodent-killer. Warfarin is now one of the most widely prescribed medicines in the world, used in vascular and heart disease to prevent stroke and thrombosis.

Stem cells and WiCell[edit]

More recently, WARF was assigned the patents for non-human primate and human embryonic stem cells. The stem cells were first isolated and purified by James Thomson. In October 1999, WARF established the non-profit subsidiary WiCell in order to license its stem cell lines. Thomson was appointed as WiCell's scientific director. In September 2005, WiCell was awarded the NIH contract to develop the first National Stem Cell Bank (NSCB). The NSCB works to distribute characterized human embryonic stem cells eligible for US federal funding to non-profit researchers world wide.

Startup companies[edit]

WARF has also helped establish more than 30 startup companies including Imago, Mirus Bio, Nimblegen, Tomotherapy, Deltanoid Pharmaceuticals, Quinntessence, Neoclone, Silatronix, Third Wave Technologies, Cambria Biosciences, and OpGen, Inc.


  1. ^ "Tech's 8 Most Fearsome 'Patent Trolls'". 2012-11-25. Retrieved 2013-12-20. 
  2. ^ "Non-Practicing Entities in Cleantech". 2012-10-16. Retrieved 2013-12-20. 
  3. ^ Quinn, Gene. "Universities are NOT Patent Trolls.". IP Watchdog. Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  4. ^ "Are Universities Patent Trolls?". Fordham Intellectual Property, Media and Entertainment Law Journal 611. Spring 2008. 
  5. ^ "U. of Wisconsin foundation sues Apple over patent". http://www.businessweek.com. BloombergBusinessweek. Retrieved 30 November 2014. 

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