Redefining University-Business Partnerships: An Interview with OBE Managing Director John Garnetti

Two clusters of students work at work benchs in a technical labratory setting

The University of Wisconsin–Madison is no stranger to collaboration, and the Office of Business Engagement (OBE) helps make it possible by working to connect businesses large and small, global and local with UW–Madison’s forward-thinking and innovative community of students, faculty, staff, and researchers.

Managing Director John Garnetti joined OBE in April and has been leading his team on a journey to redefine what it means for UW–Madison and businesses to partner on shared economic and talent development goals. In this Q&A, Garnetti talks about the importance of the university-business partnership, the evolution of OBE, and how businesses of all sizes can benefit from partnering with UW–Madison. 


John Garnetti UW-Madison
As managing director for OBE, Garnetti supports and executes the office’s strategic vision, leads the team of engagement directors within OBE, expands existing and cultivates new business relationships across all UW–Madison’s schools and colleges, and drives mutually beneficial outcomes for all stakeholders.

How would you describe the Office of Business Engagement to somebody who has never heard of it? What’s your elevator pitch when somebody asks you what you do?

The Office of Business Engagement is a one-stop shop for any corporate or industry partner who’s looking to work with UW–Madison. Our office has gone through different iterations over its 20-plus-year history, and historically the role that we’ve played is that of the front door to campus, the initial point of entry. While that’s an important role—and one we continue to play—we’ve grown as an organization to be not just your partner at the beginning, but a partner throughout your company’s engagement with the university, spanning the extent of the relationship and being an active partner in that relationship.

To build on the analogy of being “the front door,” now we’re more of a concierge. We open the door, of course, but we provide service throughout, guide the conversations, and provide feedback. Our end goal is to facilitate and build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with the business community.

Why UW–Madison? What does the university offer a business—small or large—looking to solve a specific problem or achieve a certain goal? How can the university help?

It’s an excellent question and it’s framed the right way because the strength of UW–Madison is in its breadth and its depth. You often find organizations where there’s normally one or the other. There’s breadth or there’s depth. It’s a rare and really unique asset to have both.

UW–Madison is set up to partner with all organizations—from small startups to established 100-year-old corporations—and help them in whatever stage of growth that they’re in.

I could quote numbers until the cows come home, which is an oddly on-the-nose reference for our state, but Wisconsin is a leader in a wide variety of fields, whether it’s biotech, medicine and public health, engineering, or agriculture, it spans the gamut. Not only can we as a university provide that depth when it comes to research, but we also have depth and strength in our student body, in our faculty, in the people that make this institution the world class, academic and research institution that it is.

There’s a fun fact that UW–Madison leads in the amount of Peace Corps volunteers year after year and is a top producer of CEOs across the country, so if there’s any one fact that puts the breadth and depth of UW–Madison into perspective, I think that one does a great job.

You touched on this a little bit, but why is that connection between a university and businesses important? Why is having something like OBE important?

There are really two parts to that question. So why is it important for industry and universities to partner in general? That’s a big question. There’s mutual benefit that can be derived from private sector organizations, especially those that are research focused and driven by innovation. And the university can benefit from the work from the frontline activity that’s happening on the corporate side. Both parties can really help each other in realizing their strategic goals and objectives at a broad organizational level, but also at individual levels, by coming together.

But why should a university—in this case UW–Madison—have an office like OBE? My answer to that is, if we agree that businesses in the private sector and the university coming together is a positive thing and it can create positive mutually beneficial outcomes, then we need partnership, and partnership is a two-way street. And just like any one of us, especially here in Madison who drive on a two-way street, we run into traffic, construction, detours, all kinds of unexpected bumps along the road. OBE can be that construction worker, that crossing guard, traffic cop, bus driver.

Masters student Stephanie Richards measures air quality near a test furnace
A masters student reads air quality measurements taken from a custom test duct and furnace, provided by collaborators at Johnson Controls. | Photo by Delaney Kilgour

We play a number of roles to ensure that each partnership doesn’t favor one party over the other. There has to be a clear shared goal and purpose and, really, what that boils down to is advocacy.

OBE is an advocate for campus broadly, but also the faculty, the students, the centers, the institutes, and the colleges and schools that make up the university. We’re an advocate for them when we speak with companies, and we’re an advocate for the private sector when we know an industry can benefit from the research activity, professional development, technology transfer, and the student talent on campus.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be a specific project. It can be aspirational goals, such as increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within their organization or within their industry. It could be tackling climate change. These are a couple of the countless areas where we share common aspirations and complement each other, and OBE can help to play a part to bring those actors together.

Homing in on small businesses, what do you recommend for people who are starting their own business and want to access UW technology, training and other resources? Sometimes people look at the university as being a really big entity and assume that it’s just for the “big players.” Where do new or smaller businesses start?

The university isn’t one size fits all because that’s not how the world works, and the university recognizes that. OBE has historically partnered with companies of all sizes, and we will continue to do so, but OBE is one piece of the puzzle.

For every step along the path, whether it’s an individual with a new idea or a young startup or a corporation that has well defined needs, the university has the right resources and the right network to help each one of those entities, wherever they may be on their journey. And again, if anyone has questions about where to go first, they can always come to OBE.

Is there anything else you want to say about what benefits larger or established businesses can get from partnering with UW–Madison?

The Office of Business Engagement can provide the greatest benefit to all parties, whether those are campus stakeholders, corporate partners, or external stakeholders when we act across campus to bring together those sometimes-disparate groups. We generally classify corporate engagement with UW–Madison into five distinct verticals.

The first is what the corporate world might refer to as talent-related activity. This pertains primarily to our student body and looking at how we provide opportunities for them to engage with, and perhaps become employed by, one of our corporate partners through recruitment or something more engaging, like an internship, a co-op experience, or a capstone. These are activities that we help our corporate and campus partners define in an impactful manner.

Next comes professional development. Something that perhaps is less well known about the university, beyond the fantastic, world-class four-year and graduate-level education we provide, is that there are a whole host of professional development options for lifelong learners. From cradle to grave, we can provide individuals with new learning opportunities, whether that’s in the form of an online or otherwise non-traditional degree program to a certificate program, or just something to keep your skills sharp or help you advance your career in a new direction. We can provide professional development opportunities outside of the conventional academic experience.

Beyond how a company engages with our students, there are different ways in which the company can engage with our faculty and UW–Madison as a research institution. One of the most common ways to do this is through sponsored research. Sponsored research in and of itself can be one activity, one specific area, or a specific project. Or it could be as broad as, for example, the Data Science Institute. American Family Insurance is not only the founding partner of our Data Science Institute, but they are also actively engaged with our faculty, our researchers, and with other non-UW–Madison partners within the Data Science Institute to tackle these big problems. One of the things I love about this job is all the activity and all the different ways in which we can come together as a broader community to engage in so many different areas of research.

Jack Salzwedel, American Family Insurance chair and CEO.

I would imagine something like sponsored research, the Data Science Institute for example, is so broad that it dips into talent solution and other verticals because of how far reaching that type of partnership is…

Precisely. While they’re distinct, they’re not totally mutually exclusive. One naturally blends into the other. We want to encourage—we do encourage—that. We want to see more blended activity because it only strengthens the partnership, which leads to greater mutually beneficial outcomes.

So just to round it out, the final two verticals are strategic investment, which can take a number of forms such as corporate philanthropy or other types of sponsored activity, and lastly technology transfer. At UW–Madison, technology transfer is primarily managed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which does a great job of working with a whole host of organizations around licensing. So those are the five distinct areas that come together to really make a comprehensive end-to-end partnership for a corporate partner.

Read part 2 of the Q&A.