Zhang’s startup looks to give hope to patients with neurological disorders

Dr. Su-Chun Zhang. Image courtesy UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.
Dr. Su-Chun Zhang. Image courtesy UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.
In his 19-year career at UW–Madison, Dr. Su-Chun Zhang has transformed the field of stem cell research.

The renowned neuroscientist was the first in the world to isolate neural stem cells from embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), a landmark discovery he patented with the help of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) in 2001. His method of "editing" stem cell genes has grabbed headlines most recently because it may one day allow clinicians to delete or "knock out" genes that cause disease.  

Zhang says his longtime relationship with WARF – spanning almost two decades and more than 10 invention disclosures – has inspired him to take the next step. He talked with his licensing manager about starting a company and was met with encouragement.

"Staff have been very supportive of my research and commercialization interests," says Zhang, a Waisman Center scientist, Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center (SCRMC) faculty member, professor of neuroscience at the School of Medicine and Public Health and recipient of a UW–Madison Steenbock professorship. "It's been a positive experience all along the way."

To learn more about the promises and pitfalls of starting a business, he hit the books and started attending WARF Entrepreneurons seminars, which are free campus lectures featuring expert entrepreneurs from around the country.

So now, Zhang is charting new territory in his quest to help patients suffering from ravishing neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injury. He's busy building a company, Brainxell, to turn research into real treatments that make a difference to patients.

Zhang says he is thrilled and a little nervous to be embarking on this adventure, and emphasizes that the company is in a very early stage. The D2P (Discovery to Product) program is helping his team get off the ground.

D2P is a joint initiative of WARF and UW–Madison. The goal of the program is to help campus innovators, like Zhang, translate great ideas into companies and products. The program is designed as a one-stop shop to connect faculty and students with experienced mentors, as well as an inside track to funding.

"I think it's a brilliant program," says Zhang. "It's really eye-opening for faculty focused on discovery-based research. I learned that it takes a lot of work to take technology from the lab to customers."

"D2P staff are always ready to help," he adds. "I'll call and they say, come on over."

Zhang says Brainxell will focus on producing the neurological tools (e.g., cell lines, reagents and high-throughput screening methods) that support new therapeutics down the line.

"We're going to focus on patients with very limited treatment options," he says. "I look back at all the great discoveries that have been made in labs over the last 40 years, and yet we have no way to deal with conditions like ALS. Making a difference in human health – that's the key part."