An internationally acclaimed stem cell researcher, a cartoonist and a fourth-grader walk into a building. What could sound like the setup to a joke is something else to staffers at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery: just another day.

The four-story, hypermodern building on the UW-Madison campus opened three years ago this month as an experiment of sorts — a very expensive one funded with a mix of public and private money.

Officials promised it would encourage scientific research across disciplines and departments, spur efforts to translate university research into profitable businesses and put out the welcome mat to the entire campus and community. Come on in, world, we’re open for science.

On the last point, progress is easy to chart.

Beyond the roughly 400 employees at the building, another 1,000 visitors pass through a day, many of them UW-Madison students and staff who take advantage of the building’s sprawling, naturally lit main-floor Town Center as a cozy spot to study, hang out between classes or fill up. There are two restaurants and an old-fashioned soda fountain.

Elementary and high school students plus adult learners also pass through daily — about 26,000 in the last year — for various experiential programs that often put them in one of three teaching laboratories.

Demand to use the building’s various conference rooms and atrium for lectures and other events outmatches supply.

“We’re constantly turning people away,” said Laura Heisler, director of programming.

Changed culture

Progress in the building’s research aims — the activities that happen out of public view in the basement and upper three floors — is a bit tougher to list numerically.

Officials point to a changed culture of collaboration across departments that has permeated other research on campus as well. A daily teatime at 3 p.m. is open to all staffers, intended to get researchers to run into each other informally and plant the seeds for collaboration.

“We think that allowing people to connect and collide with each other — a philosophy not limited to prescribed outcomes — is what’s been successful in other institutes in the past that have made leaps in discovery,” David Krakauer, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, said in an email.

In one project, Patricia Brennan, a nursing and engineering professor, won a $2.5 million federal grant to work with virtual-reality researchers to create 3-D models of home interiors in hopes of improving quality of life for people with diabetes. In another, cartoonist and art professor Lynda Barry has set up a workspace known as the Image Lab to explore intersections between art and science.

On the startup front, officials noted that there have been early successes including the biomedical company SHINE, which resulted in part from research and funding at the private, nonprofit Morgridge Institute, one half of the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery.

The scientific discovery already in place, the company is now working on raising money to build a factory in Janesville that could bring hundreds of jobs and eventually supply half the nation’s demand for radioisotopes used in common medical screening tests to diagnose heart disease and cancer and to study brain and kidney function.

But officials said other results may take much longer to materialize.

“Three years in the timeline of research is actually short,” said Brad Schwartz, CEO of the Morgridge Institute. “It takes a long time to do high-quality research and a longer time to see how important the findings are.”

Public-private yields advantages

The building sits on a wedge of land surrounded by University and North Randall avenues and West Johnson and North Charter streets. Its environment is ready-made for science both in the state-of-the-art research labs and the architectural design, which features wide-open spaces and flexible rooms.

The Morgridge Institute is the private, nonprofit research arm that’s more narrowly focused on biomedical research. It occupies one side of the Institutes for Discovery. On the other side sits the Institute for Discovery, a public UW-Madison research enterprise with a broader mission of promoting innovative scientific research that crosses academic disciplines.

An invisible line runs down the building, dividing the work of privately funded scientists from those who are publicly funded. University faculty can have dual appointments in the centers, but their salaries and benefits are paid with private funds when they work in Morgridge.

The public-private arrangement, somewhat new at UW-Madison but standard at other top research universities nationally, allows the university to be more competitive in luring and paying top researchers, as Morgridge isn’t bound by salary limits for public-sector workers.

It’s part of the reason that one of Morgridge’s first hires was UW-Madison stem cell pioneer James Thomson.

“Frankly, it was a retention issue,” said Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation who chaired the Morgridge board of directors until 2011 and remains on the board. “He was getting very serious offers.”

It also improves the university’s chances at federal grants as each entity — the public and private side — is allowed to submit separate applications, doubling the odds the money will land in Madison.

The building cost about $210 million — $50 million from the state, $50 million from UW-Madison alumni John and Tashia Morgridge and the rest from WARF.

John Morgridge, former CEO and now chairman of the board of Cisco Systems, a computer networking company in San Jose, Calif., said in endowing the new complex that it would help prevent UW-Madison research from being eclipsed by large private research institutions on the country’s coasts.

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Reporter, Wisconsin State Journal