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Bugher: A decade of growth at Madison’s University Research Park

In recessionary times, the director of the University Research Park in Madison is bullish on Wisconsin.

Mark Bugher, from Eau Claire, is a former top adviser to Gov. Tommy Thompson who has been running the research park for nearly a decade.

Bugher says in a recent interview that he can’t think of a better place to be in Wisconsin than the research park if you're interested in economic development and job creation.

In the words of Bugher that's because "we have all of these young, highly educated people who are chasing their dreams and trying to create companies that are going to really help mankind in the future. They are not just producing widgets for profit's sake ... but they’re producing drugs and therapies ... that are going to help people overcome some of the most deadly diseases in society.''

While there was a period of flat growth around the time of the dot-com bust, Bugher expects rapid growth in years to come.  The research park's residents are often involved in health care research -- an industry that has exploded nationally and in the park.

Things are going so well in this life sciences area that Bugher is working on a two-pronged expansion that will bring thousands of new jobs to the state.

One part of the expansion involves an additional high-tech park on the far west side of the capital city and the other is a downtown location that would be more suited for computer scientists, engineers, medical device and student entrepreneurs who don't need all the infrastructure in the current park on the near west side of Madison.

Read below for WisBusiness correspondent Tracy Will's interview with Bugher.

Tracy Will: It’s nearly a decade since you arrived here at the research park. What did you find when you arrived here?

Mark Bugher: The University Research Park in the early 1980s, was basically an idea whose time had not yet come. There was a lot of discussion about creating a place for faculty members to capitalize their intellectual property. But, it took a awhile for this idea to get off the ground. By the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a small gathering of momentum, as it relates to the research park. Faculty members and the university were beginning to understand just exactly what this technology transfer concept was.

By the late 1990s, when I arrived here, there was full acceptance ... that the University Research Park was an incredible economic development engine for the city of Madison and the state of Wisconsin. At that point in time, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which was our primary partner in this technology transfer effort, really stepped up and created the kind of system that it took, to make our technology transfer program a much higher profile initiative.

The research park combined with WARF really stepped it up in the late 1990s, and it’s been a straight-up trajectory of growth ever since then, as it relates to company creation, number of employees, and the significance of the park on the economic development story for the greater Madison economy.

Will: There was a slight recession after 2000, how did the growth of the park compare to that recession, after you came on in 1999?

Bugher: The park went thought a slight flattening of growth during the early 2000-2001 dot.com boom to bust and that sort of thing. We lost a few companies during that period. But this park has largely evolved as a life sciences place, and, as such, generated the creation of companies that are involved in drug discovery and the creation of therapeutics. The health care industry is really the function of many of the companies here, and that has been an industry that has exploded in growth nationally and certainly grown here in the Madison area very aggressively as well.

We’ve tried to harness that growth. We’ve tried to listen carefully to the companies here in the park. We’ve tried to respond to their needs and construct and build infrastructure accordingly. As such, on a parallel track, we’ve grown along with the explosion of the life sciences industry here in the community and at the university.

Will: You’ve grown so much that you’ve initiated a two-pronged approach to expand the park, haven’t you?

Bugher: We are convinced that this growth of technology-based companies, particularly in the life sciences, for this community and this university is a phenomenon that will continue rather aggressively for many years to come. And so the research park in the context of that has planned for the growth in the second University Research Park on the far west side of Madison, which is a 270-acre development that will provide sites for 54 buildings, which will probably house upwards of 200 companies with 10,000 to 15,000 employees.

So, the combination of the two parks on the west side of Madison will total over 500 acres of science and technology economic development and job creation. This will make this [location] perhaps the single largest epicenter for science and technology jobs anywhere in the state. We’re proud of that and we will continue that growth trajectory.

Some areas where we feel like we’ve been deficient in attracting companies are in the areas of computer sciences, engineering and medical devices. We talked about that early on in the evolution of the second research park and thought that perhaps we ought to be in a downtown, urban location more of an upscale, “edgier” kind of development, which would be more suited for computer scientists and maybe some of the engineers, and medical device types, that don’t necessarily need the kinds of infrastructure we have in the current park.

So, we’ve developed on East Washington, 1245 East Washington, an urban incubator, which will focus on those particular kinds of company start-ups, as well as a significant focus toward student entrepreneurship, which we think is a rapidly emerging and growing on this campus. We’ve got lots of students who are very creative, very talented, who are starting businesses. We need to take advantage of those and also try to be helpful to them and provide the kind of infrastructure that they need to be successful.

Will: In your estimation, what is the most exciting aspect of bringing technology from the university to the point of business creation?

Bugher: The most exciting thing for me is we have good people, with extraordinary backgrounds that are creating companies that are doing great things for humanity. They’re creating drugs that are going to cure some of the most difficult diseases in society. They are doing that while they’re having fun and being successful in the creation of their companies, as well. I can’t think of a better place to be in Wisconsin, if you are interested in economic development and job creation, than this place. Because we have all of these young, highly educated people who are chasing their dreams and trying to create companies that are going to really help mankind in the future. They are not just producing widgets for profit's sake, which is a fine quality in my view, but they’re producing drugs and therapies and that sort of thing that is going to help people overcome some of the most deadly diseases in society. So, that is particularly rewarding to me and I think rewarding to all the entrepreneurs who start companies out here. So, we want to continue to help that phenomenon and help that effort here in Wisconsin and for the greater Madison area.

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