WIST research helps fuel business innovation
UWSP institute looks for creative ways to spark local economic development
Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology (WIST), part of UW-Stevens Point’s College of Natural Resources, provides research, laboratory services, and education for business and industry. Their ultimate goal is to bring new ideas and innovation from the university to the private sector. Based on the results they’ve achieved in the six years since their inception and the ongoing demand from local businesses for their services, they’ve lived up to their lofty expectations. Now they’re looking to push the envelope to find new and creative ways to spark local economic development.
“All the work we do is with some form of business partnership,” explained Paul Fowler, Executive Director of WIST. “We focus on improving economic development, sustainability, and minimizing environmental impact and naturally find ourselves working with industries that utilize natural resources.” Some of these include the paper industry, vegetable and fruit growers, and companies looking to utilize biomass waste from these processes. Just in the paper and packaging industry alone they have provided learning and training opportunities to 480 professionals.
These connections have translated into opportunities as Bill Cunningham, Manager of Integrated Solutions for Siemens Water Solutions in Rothschild, can attest. “It’s critically important that we have, one, a place to go to where we can have some of these short-term research efforts undertaken and not be delayed by our current research project commitments. And secondly, where we can do it at a place where we can train up students at the undergraduate or the graduate level and hopefully, long-term relationships develop and this becomes a feeder source for our future employment candidates as well. Siemens may be global, but having a local resource like WIST means we can undertake a greater volume of research with our current research staffing, and help develop the talent we’ll need to rely on in the years to come,” Cunningham said.
One measure of WIST’s economic impact is that they have received approximately $12 million in federal and state grants and $1.5 million in private sector investments. This infusion of financial support has allowed WIST scientists the opportunity to conduct valuable research that is then used by local companies to grow their business and local economic impact. “Patents have resulted from some of our biomass research and are being scaled up by American Science & Technology out of Wausau,” said Fowler. “That’s just one of the many examples. We are also working with Okray Family Farms (located in Plover) on an interesting project where we have a test plot of cold weather grapes with plans to extract the resveratrol which possibly prevents symptoms of certain diseases, like Parkinson’s.”
Pacon Corporation, located in Appleton, and owner of the Strathmore Artist Papers brand, also reached out to WIST after learning about their capabilities. As a result, they now offer fine art papers in three grades to customers across North America. “We could not have launched our Printmaking program, especially in the timeframe, without UWSP. We have been able to bring new products to the market, made in Wisconsin paper mills, that will help us continue to grow our business and cement our position as an innovative supplier of fine art papers,” stated Jim McDermott, EVP of Sales and Marketing for Strathmore Artist Papers, after the project was completed.
Founded in 2010, WIST was initially comprised of a part-time staff that focused only a small portion of their time on the new initiative. Quickly recognizing the demand and potential, Fowler was brought on as the first full-time employee. By December 2014, they were up to 13 staff members. Recent funding decisions at the state level have since decreased that number, but the “work hasn’t dried up, that’s for sure,” Fowler mentioned when discussing their capacity. Unfortunately, some crucial projects, such as biomass fermentation research, have been put on hold until additional funding is available. To fill some of that void, they’ve turned to students. More than 40 students have been involved in WIST training and research.
UW-Stevens Point’s initial ties to the paper industry were the foundation of WIST, but with Wisconsin being one of the top global producers of snapbeans, carrots, potatoes, cranberries, and other fruits and vegetables, working with some of the region’s farmers and growers was a natural extension. With their research efforts, they will continue to infuse innovation into local businesses that rely heavily on natural resources and central Wisconsin will likely see new markets and industries formed, spurring economic development for the entire region.
Published in The Business News on March 13, 2017