The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation is the independent nonprofit technology transfer organization serving the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Morgridge Institute for Research. It provides significant research support, granting tens of millions of dollars to the university each year and contributing to the university's "margin of excellence".
WARF was founded in 1925 to manage a discovery 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—Steenbock used $300 of his own money to file for a patent. He received commercial interest from Quaker Oats but declined the company's initial offer.
Instead, Steenbock sought a way to protect discoveries made by UW-Madison faculty, ensure use of the ideas for public benefit and bring any financial gains back to the university. His concept gained support from Harry L. Russell, dean of the College of Agriculture, and Charles Sumner Slichter, dean of the Graduate School.
Slichter began soliciting the interest and financial support of wealthy UW-Madison alumni acquaintances in Chicago and New York. He gained a substantial sum in verbal pledges from a number of alumni, nine of whom would eventually contribute $100 each.
The UW Board of Regents approved 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 organization was named the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation to reflect both its governing body of five UW-Madison alumni and its mission to promote, encourage and aid scientific investigation and research at UW-Madison.
Since its founding, WARF has helped steward the cycle of research, discovery, commercialization and investment for UW-Madison. Through its patenting and licensing efforts, WARF enables university innovations to advance from the lab to the marketplace.
Each year, WARF contributes more than $70 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 2014, WARF had an endowment of $2.6 billion.
From the early discoveries related to vitamin D and development of the blood thinner warfarin to the derivation of stem cells and algorithms that speed computer processing, UW-Madison inventions have changed lives.
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.
By the time the patent expired in 1945, rickets was all but nonexistent.
Warfarin, also known as 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 one of the most widely prescribed medicines in the world, used in vascular and heart disease to prevent stroke and thrombosis.
WARF has also helped establish more than 60 startup companies including Imago, Mirus Bio, Nimblegen, Tomotherapy, Deltanoid Pharmaceuticals, Quinntessence, Neoclone, Silatronix, Third Wave Technologies, Cambria Biosciences, and OpGen, Inc.
WARF was called a "patent troll" by Business Insider, which included WARF in a list of the "most fearsome" of them. The magazine noted that while many universities could be described as "patent trolls", WARF was singled out because of the large number of patents it held. A WARF spokesperson denied that the group acted as a non-participating entity, explaining that "our whole purpose for being is to bring inventions from the university into the world into practical use."
In 2014, WARF filed a lawsuit against Apple Inc., alleging that it had infringed US 5781752 , "Table based data speculation circuit for parallel processing computer", on its Apple A7 and Apple A8 system-on-chip products. In October 2015, Apple was found liable; in July 2017, Apple was ordered to pay WARF $506 million for patent infringement. The patent expired in December 2016.