Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

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UW-La Crosse professor inspires innovation

8.26.18 | La Crosse Tribune | Original Publication

Rob McGaff and Megan Timmers talking in a small office or lab space
In addition to making new discoveries in chemistry, Rob McGaff is a full-time chemistry professor at UW-L with several undergraduate research students who help him with various aspects of his green chemistry studies. Here, he works with junior undergraduate student researcher Megan Timmers. UW-La Crosse

Innovative ideas come from all corners of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Professor Rob McGaff enjoys demonstrating this concept to his general chemistry students.

As he scans his 120-seat lecture hall, he shares some of his latest chemical discoveries, including a patent on a product that makes chemical reactions more environmentally friendly — without waste or toxic byproducts.

He adds, “By the way, the person who did the experiment that led to this result was sitting there, in that chair, two years ago. People just like you are doing world-class science here — and that is not an exaggeration.”

McGaff’s green chemistry research has implications beyond the lecture hall and lab. His ideas are moving closer to becoming viable commercial products with the help from two Wisconsin non-profit organizations that partner with university researchers across the state.

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation is a technology transfer and investment organization that has been advancing UW-Madison discoveries since 1925.

In 2000, WARF formed WiSys, an organization with the same mission that serves other UW System campuses outside of UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee.

Today, WiSys is a critical partner of UW-La Crosse, delivering a shared service that supports faculty and student innovation, identifying innovative technologies and developing those technologies to get them to the marketplace for the benefit of Wisconsin.

Since McGaff began partnering with WiSys several years ago, he has received multiple research grants totaling about $183,000, as well as expert connections and assistance to turn his discoveries into commercial products.

He was awarded WiSys’ 2016 Carl E. Gulbrandsen Innovator of the Year Award for his endless curiosity and dedication to innovation programming. He will soon be working with WiSys on his second patent application.

A pivotal advancement in McGaff’s research came in the last year when he was one of three WiSys-affiliated researchers in the UW System selected to participate in WARF’s Accelerator Program.

Through the program, UW System researchers meet with industry experts who provide guidance to speed the commercialization of their discoveries.

“We are leveraging an expert network that the Accelerator Program has built since it started in 2009,” says Greg Keenan, Accelerator Program manager. “These experts provide real-time advice about what the market is like, as well as general project input.”

McGaff’s research aims to develop a suite of catalysts that can be used to carry out oxidation reactions in a more environmentally friendly way. Through participation in the Accelerator Program, his research is now focused on three specific processes for making industrially-important chemical compounds.

Also, McGaff has started to explore the use of the catalysts in the remediation of pollution resulting from harmful chemical compounds.

“I have some very specific targets now,” McGaff said. “If you know who you are selling to and what they want to buy, you are a whole lot closer to having a buyer.”

That’s important to McGaff, who was driven to discover green technologies because of his environmental preservation values. “If I want to make a difference, I can’t just discover things that are green, but I need to discover things that are green that work better than existing technology.”

With access to supports in WiSys and WARF, he is moving closer to that goal.

Providing WiSys researchers access to the WARF program is tremendous value, says Arjun Sanga, president of WiSys. “We are lucky to be in Wisconsin and to have a school like Madison and partner like WARF willing to share their resources for the benefit of the entire state in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea.”

Since WARF’s Accelerator Program started in 2009, it has funded more than 100 projects, resulting in 38 revenue-generating commercial agreements and 13 startup companies.

WARF is always evolving and improving to get Wisconsin technologies out into the world, says Jennifer Gottwald, WARF licensing manager and member of the WiSys Board of Trustees. The organization wants to share its expertise with researchers throughout Wisconsin.

“Our [WARF] purpose is to invest in research that makes a difference for human kind,” says Jeanan Yasiri Moe, director of strategic communications for WARF. “If we can help colleagues in La Crosse do that, all the better.”

McGaff says being involved in scientific research is also a benefit to his classroom. As a professor, it keeps his mind nimble, pondering new questions from students who help him carry out new experiments. And it shows his students that it doesn’t take an “utter genius” to make important discoveries.

The No. 1 most important characteristic, he says, is being curious. And that characteristic could come from just about any seat in his general chemistry class.