Aaron Olver grew up in Middleton and has lived most of his life in the Madison area.
But a two-year stint as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in England may have helped set the path that led to Olver’s current job, as managing director of the UW-Madison’s University Research Park. Being in Europe was “transformational,” Olver says.
Olver, 41, who has served as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Commerce and has led the Madison economic development office, is finishing his first year as head of the West Side business park.
Spread along Whitney Way, between Tokay Boulevard and Mineral Point Road, University Research Park covers 260 acres with about 125 companies occupying 38 buildings.
Two branches of the business park, aimed at very early stage companies, opened at 1245 E. Washington Ave. in 2009 and at 1403 University Ave. in 2013.
Olver heads an office of seven. “What I’m trying to do is: Create and manage places and programs that support entrepreneurs and innovators,” he said.
Established 31 years ago to help turn research at the UW into commercial businesses, most of the space at University Research Park is built out. But there is still room for innovation, Olver says.
He says he is hoping to make the business park more vibrant for tech employees even as he prepares for University Research Park 2, several miles west at Highway M.
Olver and his wife, Erin Celello, a novelist and creative writing professor at UW-Whitewater, have two young sons.
Q: What impressed you so much about Europe that it became a transformational experience for you?
A: So many things impressed me. I was traveling outside North America for the first time in my life. I got to backpack around, stay at hostels and take overnight trips by train through western and eastern Europe.
I’ve had a long-term interest in the way the design and physical layout of places affects social behavior. Seeing the great piazzas of Italy — the public squares and the architecture — those are things I think about at the Research Park all the time, things I’m trying to get done.
Q: How do those sights translate to University Research Park?
A: One of the strategic ideas I have about the Research Park is that we need to be building neighborhoods that foster innovation.
When you think about what makes a great neighborhood, it’s not just having your own individual place and family, it’s also about the way you interact with the people around you.
One of the things I’m interested in is how through design, events and programming, we can create stronger networks and collisions between scientists and entrepreneurs that we have in residence.
Q: Like the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (a public-private partnership for research on the UW-Madison campus)?
A: That’s actually a great example of how a building was designed to encourage collaboration and community, and to become a crossroads where people can catch up with each other through design or through serendipity.
Q: At age 31, it seems as though University Research Park is fairly settled and stable, and built out. What kind of room is there for change?
A: There are 38 buildings in the Research Park; we own roughly half of them.
There are still a couple of sites we could build on or buildings we could add to. There are projects rumbling around. There’s potential — we’re juggling some prospects.
I think it’s also about reinvesting in it to keep it fresh and conducive to the type of innovation that companies are pursuing today.
We are figuring out how we can increase the density of the network and bring more amenities — like restaurants, coffee shops, fitness centers — directly to the park or nearby. I think there’s an appetite for having more of these places walkable, so park employees can take advantage of them and also collide with their neighbors.
Even if it’s not directly on our land, there are a lot of great places around us. There’s a tremendous opportunity at Westgate Mall to see reinvestment. It’s ripe for that.
Q: How much turnover is there? Are there rules on how long a company can stay? And do companies have to be connected to the UW?
A: There’s obviously a lot of churn over time. Most of the companies here 20 years ago are no longer here. That is a signal that the economy is dynamic. I think you have to embrace the churn and dynamic nature of rapidly growing sectors. Churn doesn’t always go your way, but it’s good. You want a lot of activity.
There are no rules on how long a company can stay. I don’t think there should be. Every entrepreneur is on a different path. University Research Park is very good at helping a company that needs to scale. It can rent a desk, all the way up to an entire building, and everything in between.
Companies don’t have to come out of UW research. We are dedicated to supporting the university ... but it’s also important to be actively engaged in the broader technology ecosystem.
Q: What is happening with University Research Park 2, the second campus slated to be built west of Highway M, along Mineral Point Road? The roads and utilities are in. According to a State Journal story in December 2010, the expectation was tenants might start building there in 2012. But that hasn’t happened.
A: I think the recession was a big part of it, for sure. That hit the commercial market in a lot of ways. It created shadow vacancies in existing buildings that companies had to fill.
And Wisconsin’s job growth, compared to the nation’s, has been a little sluggish.
I think Campus 2 is an incredible piece of land. For the Research Park, it’s a long-term play. There are 200 acres there. I think that’s the project of my career — to get that going. It’s located in one of the faster-growing parts of the county. Between (electronic health records developer) Epic Systems Corp. in Verona and the university, it’s proximate to a lot of the corporate base and the general area that’s very appealing to the work force. We’re working on a strategic plan on how to go to market with that.
Q: The initial concept was for denser land use that also included housing. Is that still the idea?
A: Yes, absolutely, it’s more important than ever. In the last five years, it’s become really clear, nationally, that the places that thrive the most are downtown central business districts and really vibrant live-work-play environments that have the amenities tech employees want.
Q: How soon might we see activity at Campus 2?
A: That’s hard to predict. It could happen soon if we had a great anchor, but there’s no rush.
Q: What have you learned since you took over as head of University Research Park in September 2014?
A: I’m a graduate of the UW, so I thought I had an appreciation for its breadth and scope. But I’ve really enjoyed the chance to dive deeper and find out what’s going on on campus in terms of research. I know it is one of the top research universities in the world. And when you hear them talking about what they’re trying to do and why — it matters to them. It’s very inspiring.
The single thing I hope people appreciate is: We have an incredible university doing $1 billion of research a year in all different disciplines. We are committed to serving the state and beyond in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea. And to make that happen, we need to get these ideas out into the world.
Starting companies is a way to do that and the Research Park is a piece of that. It creates jobs and adds to the tax base that the entire state benefits from.
But most important: These ideas transform lives, all over the world and all over the state of Wisconsin.