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February 2018

Building Momentum

The WARF Accelerator Program continues to demonstrate strong commercial impact. I am pleased to report that Jim Steele’s fermentation technology company, Lactic Solutions, was acquired in November by Lallemand Biofuels & Distilled Spirits. This is a great win for Jim Steele’s company and the entire startup ecosystem at the UW. Jim used many of the entrepreneurial resources in Madison, including the AP and D2P, to help enable the commercialization of his technology. Jim acknowledged the role of AP, saying “The Accelerator Program made all the difference as it enabled us to move a concept into a prototype that we could demo to potential partners.” Congratulations, Jim, and we look forward to great things to come from Lallemand Biofuels’ leadership with this WARF Accelerator Program-supported innovation!

I am also happy to report WARF has recently executed two new commercial licenses from our biopharma portfolio. The first license was negotiated by John Nagel with Deltanoid, a company founded by Hector DeLuca to commercialize therapies derived from vitamin D-based compounds. The licensed technology shows great promise as a treatment for postmenopausal osteoporosis. A second biopharma license was negotiated by Rafael Diaz with Co-D Therapeutics, which is commercializing a nanotechnology-based drug delivery technology developed by Glen Kwon. Their first product, Triolimus, is a three-in-one nanomedicine formulation that is targeted for the treatment of multiple types of cancer.

Projects in AP continue to get good visibility with leading venture firms. In December, eight AP-supported PIs presented their projects to Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) as part of a meeting hosted by the Wisconsin Energy Institute. BEV is a $1 billion fund made up of members of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group launched by Bill Gates at the 2015 global climate talks in Paris. Other leading investors in the fund include Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Jack Ma and John Doerr. The fund will invest in a number of areas relevant to UW research, including grid-scale storage, liquid fuels, alternative building materials, geothermal and microgrids.

— Leigh Cagan, lcagan@warf.org

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Technology Monitor

Power flooring, patient safety, confronting the global water crisis and more

The WARF Accelerator Program speeds the development of technologies with exceptional potential for commercial success. With targeted funding and expert advice from seasoned business mentors known as Catalysts, the Accelerator Program helps inventors develop their technologies and advance to the marketplace. The latest developments:


•Breathing easier: Airway compromise is one of the most dangerous emergencies encountered by health care providers at all levels. If not detected early it can cause brain damage and death.

Drs. Guelay Bilen-Rosas (pediatric anesthesiology) and Humberto Rosas (radiology) are prototyping a non-invasive ultrasound monitor that can attach to the neck of a sedated patient to ensure proper breathing. Their system would allow physicians with various degrees of experience to detect problems early, specifically in an outpatient setting, the ICU or the ER.

To date, the Rosas are focused on optimizing ultrasound data collection and analysis. The team reports “very promising” preliminary results, and is on track to complete a pilot study by spring.


•Liquid crystal detection: In drug production, purity is paramount. To keep biopharmaceuticals safe from life-threatening contamination, Nicholas Abbott (chemical engineering) is exploring liquid crystal (LC) technology for detecting bacterial endotoxin.

His team recently demonstrated that their LC droplet assay can detect endotoxin from Salmonella, E. coli and other strains. Industry agrees that there is a role for innovation in this space — most current methods for detecting and quantifying endotoxin are based on a test (the LAL assay) first developed in the 1960s.


•New fuel cell: Shannon Stahl (chemistry) and his team report “significant progress” developing a breakthrough design for platinum-free fuel cells. The new cell uses a soluble molecular mediator/catalyst mixture in place of expensive metal.

Accelerator support is helping the team pursue large-scale validation and optimization, and the latest design appears to be cost competitive with conventional PEM fuel cells, which are being developed for a variety of applications, most notably transportation.

•The worth of water: As reported in the previous Accelerator Pipeline, Kyoung-Shin Choi (chemistry) is optimizing a rechargeable desalination ‘cell’ capable of turning seawater into fresh water. The crux of her invention is a chloride-storage electrode made from nanocrystalline bismuth foam.

Choi is exploring several cell configurations with a focus on maximum desalination efficiency with minimal energy requirements – hopeful news for the world’s four billion people who live without sufficient access to fresh water.


•Virus detection: Completing several major milestones to date, Tony Goldberg and Kathy Kurth (pathobiological sciences) continue to make progress designing and testing ‘enrichment beads’ for enhanced virus diagnostics. They report “excellent recent success” developing specially coated oligonucleotide beads capable of removing contaminating nuclear DNA.

Next up, they plan to test the beads on clinical samples (bovine respiratory swabs) of ribosomal material, looking for improvements in viral detection sensitivity using metagenomics.

•Preen oil for aquaculture: UW–Madison researchers recently discovered that a poultry byproduct (dubbed ‘cosajaba oil’) has anti-inflammatory properties and can be used in animal feed as a growth promoter. Effects are particularly noticeable in fish, boosting growth and stress tolerance.

Terry Barry and Jake Olson (animal science) are collaborating with various fish farms and aquaculture research institutions to facilitate commercialization. They are modeling equipment requirements and other economic factors with the goal of supplying markets in the U.S. and overseas.


•Power floor: A high-profile project led by Xudong Wang (materials science and engineering) looks to turn footsteps into usable electricity. He is combining fiber-based triboelectric nanogenerator (TENG) technology with recycled natural materials like wood pulp and cardboard fibers to create energy harvesting floor material.

Under heavy foot traffic, the potential for high power output and energy conversion efficiency make these materials feasible as an eco-friendly, efficient and affordable technology for green building and infrastructure.

A 12’x8’ section of ‘power floor’ was installed at Union South on campus for several months, harnessing the heavy foot traffic there to run LED lighting. Wang reports that both the floor and the power management system continued to function well after roughly one million footsteps.

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Accelerator Chronicle

Looking up

In the ultracompetitive Wild West of AI, a new generation of pioneers is emerging.

“WARF is one of the key differentiators of our school compared to others.”
“WARF is one of the key differentiators of our school compared to others.”
Armed with the Cloud and a mission to push the limits of deep learning, Jing Li and her team of student “hackers” have bested industry titans and set a performance record.
The robot in Jing Li’s laboratory does not look like one, she admits.

“My student wanted to design something to replace himself.” She gestures to an unimposing circuit board on the bench top. “This does his work collecting data and doing analysis, and sends it to his email 24-7.”

A conversation with Professor Li – a rising star in the department of electrical and computer engineering – can take many turns.

Immersed in the complex world of neural networks, she has an uncommon ability to see the big picture (“In 10 years maybe we scale an entire data center into one cell phone”), to approach systems holistically (“We have to optimize both algorithm and architecture”) and frame the social implications of research (“Like everything, AI has two sides”).

With support from the WARF Accelerator Program, her latest project is developing a deep learning accelerator in the Cloud. The goal: faster, smarter and more energy-efficient systems for deep learning, with applications like improved speech recognition.

WARF is funding the prototyping effort, using a versatile ‘DIY’ type of chip called a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) as a platform.

FPGA research is hot right now as giants like Microsoft and Amazon look to accelerate the performance of certain critical applications in their data centers.

“We are using FPGA offline to demonstrate that this can be directly transferred to all Cloud providers with no cost,” she says.

Li’s research program at UW has a common thread. In simplest terms, she is striving “to put more and more computing power into single devices, to make them smarter and more intelligent.”

Li, who worked at IBM for five years before accepting a position at UW–Madison, does not regret her venture into academia. She thrives on the freedom. And the old view – that universities lack the tools to compete with industry – no longer holds true.

“When we are hitting the walls – hitting the physical limits – the entire computer and IT industry is no longer driven by Moore’s Law. More innovation is needed.

“We can no longer just do transistor scaling and have a better generation of computers,” she says. “To squeeze the last juice out of silicon, we really have to think how we can offload some of the mission critical applications through hardware-software co-design.”

She says that WARF funding, talented graduate students and access to Catalyst mentors help her stay nimble in a field that is changing faster than at any time in history.

“When I have an idea I don’t have to wait to join Intel and work with thousands of engineers to make it happen,” she says. “WARF is one of the key differentiators of our school compared to others.”

Her recent experience at a top FPGA conference illustrates the point. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Microsoft and Amazon, it was Li’s presentation that got many people talking.

“It’s hard to believe,” she laughs. “Some of the companies there have hundreds of engineers working on the same thing. We have just two – me and my student [Jialiang Zhang].”

Their preliminary results related to performance and energy efficiency were beyond impressive. They set a world record.

“We are not just building a toy example to make academic people excited,” she says. “A lot of industry people are excited too.”

The spotlight has shone on Li throughout her career. An award-winning student in Shanghai, she attended Purdue University where she mastered English by taping lectures.

An IBM Ph.D. fellowship took her to New York and she would go on to work for the company – one of only two women among 200 researchers in her particular department. There, Li’s work on phase-change memory brought her recognition.

In 2015 Li landed on campus and in short order received a national DARPA Young Faculty Award.

Incredibly, Li did not own a computer until she was 14 years old. It was a gift; her parents had saved a long time.

“At that time it was very rare for a family to have a computer,” Li told Madison Magazine last year. “It was precious, like a treasure.”

Today, thriving in her role as a researcher and educator, Li shares with her students a pearl of wisdom from her mentor back at IBM.

“What we really need right now is vertically integrated research, with people able to work across the system stack,” she says. “One of the barriers is our educational system – we teach different classes and don’t have a single class to make it connected. Research is about connecting the dots.

“I always tell my students, looking down is great for addressing every problem to the tiny details. But over time, you also have to learn to look up.”

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The Leading Edge

The next level

Greg Keenan took the reins of the Accelerator Program late last summer. He sits down to talk opportunities, challenges and the vital lesson he learned growing up in Pittsburgh.

WARF: You’ve made a career at the intersection of tech and business. What put Wisconsin on your radar?

GK: I came here 12 years ago to join Virent Inc., a UW–Madison spinout with WARF intellectual property. That was my introduction to WARF and tech transfer at UW.

The company was focused on commercializing bio-based fuels and chemicals. We were a small startup at the time but saw significant growth over the six years I was there. In addition to attracting substantial venture capital investments and several strategic industry partnerships, we also brought in a number of high paying jobs to the east side of Madison. To see that area grow and develop as our business grew was very exciting.

W: What did you learn building a startup?

GK: One of the biggest challenges was embracing the pace, the speed, making decisions quickly. You have to accept you may make a mistake, may fail. But if you learn from the experience, and quickly adapt, it is not really a failure. Successful entrepreneurs realize failure is part of the journey-– most have had a number of failures before hitting on success.

W: You moved on to head business development at Penford Products, a publicly traded ingredient producer in Cedar Rapids. Big change of scene?

GK: It was an interesting career move for me because it gave me the opportunity to start a number of strategic new businesses for the company – everything from personal care to oil and gas. From a social aspect, it was great to work for a company that was over 100 years old, a major employer in Cedar Rapids that was struggling to find its way in new markets. To join a company and position it to survive for the next 100 years was very exciting.

W: Now you lead the Accelerator Program as it reaches a milestone: almost 100 projects and 29 commercial agreements to date.

GK: I’m passionate about getting new technologies commercialized and having a positive impact on Madison and the state of Wisconsin, which is our adopted home now.

We’ve got a world-class institute here at UW, a wonderful state, resources and strong communities – all the components to keep driving Wisconsin forward.

W: Where does the Accelerator Program fit in?

GK: I hope I can build on AP’s strong foundation and take it to the next level by making it a more integral part of a larger ecosystem, which includes our new venture activities. I envision a one-stop shop for moving a technology out of the lab, getting it prototyped, supporting customer validation, marketing it to industry, and licensing it or forming a startup around it and getting it funded.

I fundamentally buy into the vision that Madison can be the third or fourth hub of entrepreneurial activity in the country. One of the reasons I am excited about this opportunity is I can help build that. It’s not going to be easy. But we have great technology, a fantastic University, strong local support and tremendous alumni. We have all the right pieces to make it better. And to make it a leader.

W: Can WARF play a role in economic development?

GK: While not our primary objective, economic development is one of the natural benefits of successful technology transfer and licensing. That can be through the creation of new local startups and growth of established businesses that benefit from UW technologies, as well as the relocation of companies here.

Even though I grew up in Pennsylvania and went to Penn State, the Wisconsin Idea resonates with me. It’s very simple and compelling, and hard not to embrace being part of it.

W: What makes you gravitate to innovation?

GK: You know, I grew up in Pittsburgh. In the 1970s and 80s Pittsburgh was losing a lot of manufacturing jobs because the steel industry and city weren’t changing fast enough. That has been something that has stuck with me since I was a kid. To be a successful business, to last a decade or 100 years, you have to be nimble and learn to adapt. It is the reality of business. If you are not innovating or changing you are going to die.

W: You have a chemical engineering background. Is that your tech sector of choice?

GK: My chemical engineering background gives me a strong technical foundation that can be broadly applied across a number of sectors. I am excited to work on technologies that have the potential to make a big global impact. The four basic human needs are food, clean water, energy, and materials for clothing and shelter. Innovation in each of these areas is vitally important if we are going to sustainably support a world rapidly approaching eight billion people that all desire a better standard of living.

W: What is your message to UW–Madison researchers?

GK: We’re here to help you commercialize your technology and make a difference. Whether that is through licensing to an existing business or helping you start your own company. At the end of the day, we want to see your technology out in the real world, solving our toughest problems.

Finally, I would encourage researchers to contact me if they want to learn more about the Accelerator Program. I would love to learn about your research and discuss ways we can work together to commercialize your technology.

- Contact Greg at gkeenan@warf.org

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