Remembering Carl Gulbrandsen
Written By James Berbee, Board Chair, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation
This past month, AUTM lost a champion and one of the most consequential leaders of industry. For almost two decades (2000-2016) Carl Gulbrandsen led the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation as its Managing Director, a tenure that capped a 40-year career of patenting, licensing and litigating university intellectual property. On October 17, 2022, Carl passed away after an extended illness.
As the current Chair of WARF’s Board of Trustees, I had the privilege of working with Carl, admiring him, and witnessing firsthand the enormous effect he had on WARF, on the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), and, by extension, on the global technology transfer industry.
In addition to serving as the tech transfer office for UW-Madison, WARF is a nonprofit, grantmaking foundation. We pride ourselves in having patented more than 4,000 university innovations since 1925, investing the resulting royalties and delivering more than $4 billion in direct grants to UW-Madison research since 1928.
A large share of WARF’s success came under Carl’s leadership. During his 16 years as Managing Director, WARF was issued close to 2,000 patents, just short of 50% of all our issued and expired patents, including 10 of the 20 most successful inventions in WARF’s nearly 100-year history. During the same time period, our investment portfolio grew from $1.3 billion to $2.6 billion, and WARF’s annual support for the UW-Madison research community more than tripled from $43 million in 2000 to over $150 million in 2016.
Of course, Carl was never one to draw attention to himself, in keeping with a reserved personality that he liked to attribute to his Norwegian-American heritage. He would be the first to point out that all of WARF’s achievements resulted from longstanding, collective collaborations between WARF staff and outstanding UW-Madison researchers. But even if we attributed an unreasonably modest 10% to Carl’s efforts, that still represents hundreds of inventions and tens of millions of dollars to fund the next generation of Wisconsin research.
Beyond numbers and statistics, Carl was a problem solver, a developer of coalitions and a builder of institutions. WARF inventions on his watch included medical imaging technologies, influenza vaccines, improvements in computer chip performance now found in every cell phone, and both embryonic and pluripotent stem cells. Carl played a leadership role in the formation of the WiCell Research Institute, today a global leader in the banking, testing and distribution of stem cell lines. He helped form the WiSys Technology Foundation, an organization modeled on WARF to provide tech transfer services to 11 four-year comprehensive universities within the University of Wisconsin System. And he spearheaded WARF’s contribution to the public-private partnership that created the Morgridge Institute for Research, the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and a state-of-the-art campus facility—known as the Discovery Building—to house both institutes. At the time of his passing, Carl was the Chair of the Morgridge Board of Trustees.
That’s an impressive list of accomplishments, but a list doesn’t tell you everything about the man. Carl loved the University of Wisconsin. Carl was born and raised in Wisconsin and earned a law degree and a PhD in physiology at UW-Madison. To call him a tireless advocate doesn’t begin to express his commitment to the public, land-grant university where he developed the expertise that informed his career. His commitment to basic research at UW-Madison and the Morgridge Institute speaks to the core of his being. His combination of scientific training and legal expertise made him a great champion of WARF’s mission to support UW research, and he brought Badger pride and Wisconsin values to everything he did – values that, here in Wisconsin, we call “the Wisconsin Idea.”
In addition to his commitment to UW, Carl was a strategist. WARF’s day-to-day activities are all about advancing individual technologies to the market, but Carl always understood that those technologies grew out of a world-class research enterprise and that their success depended on a robust ecosystem to support innovation and entrepreneurship throughout Wisconsin. Not content to rest easy on patenting successes, he never hesitated to reinvest WARF’s resources with an eye toward solidifying Wisconsin’s status as a global leader in research and innovation.
The creation of the Morgridge Institute for Research is perhaps the greatest example of Carl’s foresight and leadership. The institute was created at a time when federal funding for stem cell research faced an uncertain future and when loud voices and political headwinds challenged this still emerging field of fundamental research. Carl, recognizing the importance and potential not only of stem cells specifically but of regenerative medicine more broadly, strove to ensure that Wisconsin would maintain the research environment needed to compete well into the future.
When a scholar of WARF’s history visited Carl and reflected on his record not long before he died, Carl responded simply, “I was lucky.” In my view, Carl was more than lucky. He knew what needed to be done and when it needed to be done. He advanced controversial discoveries. He defended WARF’s intellectual property. He brought together visionary people to champion innovation.
Carl Gulbrandsen was unafraid of hard work, controversy or conflict, and he did it all with his usual steadfast commitment to doing the right thing for Wisconsin and for the world. And Wisconsin, the world and all of us are better because of him.