WiSys Regional Associate Brian Walsh has played many roles, carrying titles ranging from Peace Corps volunteer to family-proclaimed ‘dessert enthusiast.’
Before coming to WiSys, Walsh owned a life science equipment company for 15 years, co-founded a nonprofit focused on sustainability, and spent more than a year in Guadalajara, Mexico as a biotechnology commercialization specialist with the Peace Corps. Walsh also earned a B.S. in Bacteriology from UW-Madison and later completed an MBA in Marketing at UW-Whitewater.
Since you're on the road a lot traveling from campus to campus, what do you do to keep yourself entertained in the car?
I listen to a lot of podcasts. My current go-to is “Stuff You Should Know” because it covers just about any topic you can think of, and the hosts have good, relaxed chemistry. Once in a while, I try Spanish podcasts with the hope of improving my language skills. I also like to listen to “The Wisconsin Podcast” by our marketing guy, Craig. And, truthfully, I ponder a lot. I can drive for hours before realizing I haven’t even turned the radio on.
You’re a big family guy, with a handful of siblings, what are you known for in your family?
I had a pretty good idea off the top of my head, but I boldly took this question straight to the source through our family text chat group. In their own words, here are some of the shareable comments: Dessert enthusiast, sustainability crusader, extreme dairy consumer, whiteboard wizard, spreadsheet spartan, consummate planner, adventurist and the person who nudges people out of their comfort zones. To this, I’ll add that one of my nieces calls me "Uncle Fun," which is among my favorite titles.
As a co-founder of a nonprofit organization and working at one now, how have these experiences shaped your career mission or path?
For me, it really comes down to compatibility with the vision and mission. I have been lucky to work with a variety of organizations. Previously, I owned a for-profit company in the life science industry and was passionate about providing products that our customers valued. Meanwhile, I co-founded a nonprofit organization made up of volunteers who continue to be passionate about promoting environmental sustainability. Although WiSys is also a nonprofit, it is made up of professionals, and we are all passionate about helping innovations find their way to society. In the end, I’m all for the organizational type that best serves a vision and mission I care about.
How does your 15-month assignment to Mexico fit into your career journey? What led you there and what will you take away from the experience?
Well, lots of people worried and wondered when I made the mid-“ish” career decision to do Peace Corps service in Mexico. What led me there? The boring answer is that my education and professional experience matched well with the assignment (Biotechnology Commercialization Specialist at a research center). The more interesting answer is I was ready to shake things up a bit, and this opened my mind to consider outside-the-box possibilities. The result was a perfect storm of amazingness that I couldn’t have scripted any better.
From a career perspective, the enjoyment of working with researchers and students to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship led me to WiSys. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. One broader takeaway is there is a big difference between networking and really connecting with people. Among my Mexican colleagues, it was important to talk a bit on the personal level before exchanging business cards. I think this is a good practice that encourages deeper connection and perhaps sets advanced level networkers apart no matter where in the world they live.
Do you find working with multiple schools in the UW System contributes to your work? Perhaps finding opportunity for collaboration?
Definitely. We are often matchmakers at WiSys. Although each campus has its own personality and areas of specialization, it’s easy to see possible synergies. It’s not unusual to have conversations with faculty members and students on one campus that lead to connections with their counterparts on another. WiSys proactively encourages and facilitates cross-pollination across the UW-System.
What's your best advice for how to look at a, for lack of a better word, 'failed' commercialization attempt?
Shake it off. But not to the point of denial. With intention, go into problem-solving mode to identify where things broke down. Most importantly, talk with someone who isn’t you. Ask questions—especially of the types of people you expect to buy your product or fund your idea. Be open to changing direction. In entrepreneurial lingo—pivot. Keep in mind that only a small percentage of inventions successfully make it to market, so it’s important to be analytical, adaptable, realistic and resilient.
INNOVATIVE PEOPLE YOU SHOULD KNOW is an ongoing series highlighting the best and brightest students, faculty and staff from the UW System who do innovative research, have innovative business ideas or inspire others to be innovative.