Iverson outlines vision as WARF hits 'inflection point'
Erik Iverson says he’s taking over the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation as the 91-year-old organization is hitting a major “inflection point.”
And the new WARF managing director, who took over July 1, says he’s spending the coming months getting a “solid handle” on all operations to see what changes he’d like to make.
“I don’t want to slow things down, and I’m not going to push the pause button,” Iverson said. “But I do want to bring some strategic prioritization to the organization in a very transparent way.”
Iverson, a Minnesota native who most recently was president of business and operations at the Seattle-based Infectious Disease Research Institute, replaces Carl Gulbrandsen, who retired after being WARF’s managing director since 2000.
Iverson, a former Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation lawyer, said he’s asked his staff to “reflect on what our litigation philosophy is” and present that vision to the public. WARF got major headlines last year when a Madison jury concluded in federal court Apple owed WARF $234 million in damages for infringing upon a patent from a UW-Madison computer scientist. Apple has said it’s appealing the case.
The victory, though, came with its share of negative stories, including a New York Times column that asked whether WARF is a “patent troll.” Brookings Institute fellow Walter Valdivia wrote WARF’s victory “hardly meant any gain for the good name of the university.”
Iverson refuted any suggestions that WARF is a patent troll -- those who acquire a wide range of patents with the goal of getting companies to pay them for inventions they didn’t come up with.
“A troll has a common business practice of bringing the lawsuits in order to settle and to get money in the door,” Iverson said. “That’s not our practice. That’s not our business model. So I feel very comfortable that we’re not a troll, but we need to communicate to the public as to why we believe that’s the case.”
WARF’s responsibility, he added, is to “vigorously defend the intellectual output” of UW-Madison researchers and ensure their inventions are respected. But that doesn’t mean it has to “go in with a battle axe” in every case, he said, noting building relationships is often more effective.
Outlining WARF’s legal strategy will be one prong of Iverson’s efforts to ensure the public fully understands what it does. The organization, he said, gets requests from a broad range of people to spend its $2.6 billion endowment in different ways.
Some entrepreneurs, for example, want WARF to kick in more cash toward their companies, while some conservatives say WARF could give more money to UW-Madison to help address budget cuts.
“There’s a great deal of pressure on this organization to do all sorts of things,” Iverson said. “And I’m finding that’s an opportunity to bring some semblance of strategic order and priority.”
He does, though, want to continue finding more creative ways to commercialize technology, such as partnering with other universities and helping launch startups. Some technologies, he added, might not have a commercial return but could have a significant impact on society and boost UW-Madison’s reputation.
WARF, he said, has to empower the university community -- whether it be students or faculty -- to “take some of those ideas forward.”
In recent years, WARF has taken a sharper focus on helping startups, including the $15 million it put toward the 4490 Ventures fund. It also has helped launched the Discovery to Product program at UW-Madison and has partnered with gener8tor on the gBETA program aimed at entrepreneurs with Wisconsin college ties. He called such actions “admirable moves,” though they too will be part of his months-long review of understanding how much value each program adds to WARF’s mission.
But one thing he definitely wants to do is help expand UW-Madison’s global reach. Already, he said, he’s working his contacts with companies, researchers and philanthropists.
“I’m going to bring a global view and a global network [and] do what I can to connect it with this university and this city and state,” he said.
--By Polo Rocha,
Listen to the interview