UW-Madison on a Mission to Improve Translational Research by Embracing a Culture of Entrepreneurial-Inspired Innovation


UW-Madison had become a bureaucratic entanglement for clinical research and a report by Mary Westrich helped lead to an internal assessment led by UW Health’s CEO Alan Kaplan. The hard-hitting 2018 assessment revealed the institution’s culture precluded dynamic partnership with industry nor promoted robust translational research. The answer lie in clinical trial accreditation standards as a driver to transform process, administrative structure, and culture. The first step was to hire clinical trials “czar” Betsy Nugent who built a clinical research network at Kaiser Permanente.

Streamlining Research

With Nugent on board, UW-Madison would benefit from the expertise that organize teams to streamline research at Kaiser Permanente, a sprawling U.S. health system. After all, under Nugent, Kaiser had gone from bureaucratic morass as well to well-oiled machine, reducing study start up time at Kaiser for a large Phase III trial from nearly a year to less than two months, reported Tom Still of the Wisconsin State Journal.

Evolution within UW Health

From the Westrich assessment to the Nugent hire, things are on the move within UW Health as the institution evolves to keep up with peers, all of which are moving to speed translational research—the effort to build on basic scientific research to create new therapies.

Isthmus Project

UW-Madison is the only major academic center that combines a school of medicine and public health plus 1,500 faculty and $368 million per year in research from outside its walls. They recently brought on Thomas “Rock” Mackie to become the UW Health chief innovation officer as well as Kurt Zimmerman to lead the Office of Industry Engagement as part of the “Isthmus Project,” which translates to a better connection of research, trials and patient care.

The goal of the Isthmus program is to open the door for health system innovators—regardless of whether they are faculty with inventions or entrepreneurs, for example—to seek support for innovative ideas with an aim to improve better health outcomes or to solve problems facing UW Health patients, providers, and the health system but that are also scalable for value creation beyond the university.


UW-Madison isn’t the only major academic medical center that devolved over time into a bureaucratic entanglement, where a culture of risk aversion and fear superseded entrepreneurial spirit, value, creation and innovation. However, over the past years competition has intensified among translational and clinical research centers to accelerate value-added research in the pursuit of improving health care and driving revenue-generating activities. Leadership at UW-Madison, smartly has sought a turnaround and appears to head in a better direction. Their experience should be a lesson for others.

Lead Contacts

Thomas “Rock” Mackie 

Kurt Zimmerman 

Elizabeth “Betsy” Nugent  

Call to Action: If you work at a major academic medical center, do you believe that you work in an institution that encourages robust translational research programs—with dynamic interaction with industry? Or do you believe that a bureaucratic mindset dominates with risk mitigation a central tenet? TrialSite News’ principals have been involved with the ACRES Site Accreditation Standards effort and would enjoy hearing more from you on this topic.