Carl Gulbrandsen, a key player in advancing research at UW-Madison who advocated for stronger ties between universities and private companies, died Monday at the age of 75.
A Viroqua native, Gulbrandsen worked for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF, for nearly two decades, serving as its managing director until 2016. During his tenure, two research institutes, the Morgridge Institute for Research and the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, were formed. WARF serves as the independent licensing and patenting arm for UW-Madison.
Gulbrandsen was a founding member of the nonprofit Wisconsin Technology Council, and as a lawyer with a background in intellectual property law helped UW-Madison and other University of Wisconsin System schools patent and license their research technologies. He also advocated for the use of stem cells in medical research at a time when it was controversial, Wisconsin Technology Council President Tom Still said.
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It was Gulbrandsen’s defense of stem cell technologies then that paved the way for Madison-area companies to use them in their own research now, Still said. He also played a role in the formation of the WiCell Research Institute, which banks and distributes stem cell lines globally, he said.
“He was among those people in an early stage who recognized that stem cell technologies would help revolutionize medicine,” Still said. “About that time, the late 90s, early 2000s, the human genome was fully mapped. That was something that was helping to put UW-Madison and Wisconsin on the map, and continues to this day.”
Mary Gulbrandsen, Carl’s wife of 51 years, said he was the kind of person who believed that collaboration between people was the key to success.
“He wasn’t an ‘I’ person,” Mary said. “He would never say he did anything by himself.”
Gulbrandsen died after a long battle with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a rare respiratory disease, according to his obituary.
Son of a physician
Born in 1947 in an area of Viroqua that boasted a deep Norwegian heritage, Gulbrandsen grew up going on late-night calls with his father, Lars, a small-town doctor, his obituary reads.
He later went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in biology from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. It was there while playing drums in a band that he met Mary, and they married in 1970 before he was drafted into the Army and served in Germany at the 97th General Hospital.
Upon returning to the U.S., Gulbrandsen started to pursue a Ph.D. in physiology at UW-Madison before switching to law school, which was a “momentous decision” in his life, his obituary reads.
“Joining WARF and serving the university is the best professional decision I ever made,” Gulbrandsen said in a 2015 article in the Wisconsin State Journal. “It is remarkable and humbling to work with very creative, intelligent people to move technologies to the marketplace and to improve lives.”
He and Mary had three children and have seven grandchildren, whom he cited as one of his reasons to retire from WARF in 2016.
Music also played a large part of Gulbrandsen’s life, and he toured with bands in college, Mary said. Gulbrandsen’s drum set calls the Wisconsin Historical Society home after he gave it to his cousin, Butch Vig, who went on to be the drummer for the Grammy-nominated band Garbage.
An introvert by nature, Gulbrandsen had a natural curiosity about him that made him a good listener, Mary said.
“He wasn’t always the most conversant, but he loved being with other people, and he was just a good soul,” she said.
Understood the science
It didn’t matter what the latest research at WARF was, Gulbrandsen was always excited about it, Mary said.
It was the groundbreaking stem cell research that got all of the press, Mary said, but he loved coming home to talk about research that ophthalmologists were doing in advancing eye care, or new baths that researchers were developing to hold transplant organs.
“It was always fun to have him tell us what was new that day,” she said. “He could understand the science. ... He was good at translating it to other people.”
Gulbrandsen was also instrumental in pushing forward undergraduate research at System campuses that didn’t have doctoral programs or the financial backing that UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee have, Still said. In helping create WiSys, the System equivalent of WARF, Gulbrandsen was an “original thinker” in pushing research forward across the state.
“He understood the value of town-and-gown relationships,” Still said. “He was never somebody who thought the university alone was going to do great stuff or that private industry alone could solve every problem. ... He firmly believed that people from different sectors in Madison and across Wisconsin could do better working together.”
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