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WiSys and partners hope to make Wisconsin a leader in sustainable agriculture with proposed “regional innovation engine”

Partnering with more than 35 organizations statewide, WiSys is leading an effort to make Wisconsin a leader in sustainable agriculture in the years to come.

The effort hopes to create a “regional innovation engine” around that topic with funding from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Regional Innovation Engines program. That program aims to significantly expand the nation’s innovation capacity by investing in grand challenges of national interest and economic promise.

“It goes without saying, agriculture is an economic driver in Wisconsin,” according to WiSys President Arjun Sanga. “Building on the tradition of the public-private partnerships that helped Wisconsin become the Dairy State, this engine’s public-private partnerships—driving innovative thinking in agriculture—could be the key to Wisconsin becoming a leader in sustainable agriculture.”

In September, WiSys submitted a Type-1 proposal for up to $1 million for up to two years to lay the groundwork for establishing the new NSF engine. This could lead to the submission of a Type-2 proposal for up to $160 Million for up to 10 years to support the engine.

WiSys expects to hear back from the NSF on the Type-1 proposal within the next nine months.

DEFINING THE CHALLENGE

The plan to tackle sustainable agriculture was based on the collaborative work of the Wisconsin Bicentennial Innovation Challenges project, spearheaded by the three technology transfer offices of the University of Wisconsin System: Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, UW-Milwaukee Research Foundation, and WiSys. 

Through this formal collaboration, launched in 2019, project leaders set out to discover Wisconsin’s most significant challenges between now and the state’s 2048 bicentennial year. The group conducted interviews, brainstorming sessions and focus groups with more than 50 public and private stakeholders.

Through these efforts, sustainable agriculture and stewardship of natural resources emerged as a major challenge facing Wisconsin. This is also a topic of global significance and lies at the core of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

WHY WISYS?

In announcing the program, the NSF called for proposed engines to be driven by a coalition of regional partners, comprising academic institutions, non-profits, for-profit companies, and government entities, among others.

“WiSys is an ideal coalition-builder for a project like this because of our statewide reach serving the 11 regional University of Wisconsin institutions,” said Sanga. “Through our work supporting research, innovation and entrepreneurship, we’ve formed numerous productive relationships with local, regional and statewide organizations.”

WiSys has also been a driver of local collaboration through the WiSys VentureHome entrepreneurship program, which weaves together university and community partners to support scalable startups and grow a skilled workforce. Creating new businesses and economic growth is another stated goal of the NSF Engines program. 

Piloted in Eau Claire in 2020, the WiSys VentureHome program is creating a network of startup hubs and local innovation ecosystems that work together to benefit statewide economic development. These hubs aim to be “everything your startup needs under one roof.®” WiSys has since expanded the program to Green Bay and Platteville and plans to bring more communities online in the near future. 

“The WiSys VentureHome program is a central component to the success of the proposed engine,” said Sanga. “The program’s collaborative framework has been shown to increase communication and knowledge-sharing, enabling the formation of new, resilient partnerships that can generate innovation and economic development. This matches well with the mission of the NSF Engines program.”

GET INVOLVED

In the coming months, WiSys will continue working with its partners to prototype the model for this engine. The multi-institution proposal includes engagement from all 13 University of Wisconsin institutions, as well as a host of industry, nonprofit and government entities. 

By working together, WiSys expects this engine to have broad impact through economic, environmental and social sustainability innovations as it relates to agriculture and natural resources.

If you are interested in learning more or contributing to this work, please contact WiSys Assistant Director Adhira Sunkara at [email protected].

WiSys is a nonprofit organization that works with faculty, staff, students, and alumni of the UW System to facilitate cutting-edge research programs, develop and commercialize discoveries, and foster a spirit of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking across the state.