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June 2019

Building Momentum

This springtime I am writing to share some personal news—that I plan to retire from WARF this fall—and, more importantly, to express my sincere thanks to all of you who have helped make WARF Accelerator a success for WARF and UW–Madison. The program was just getting underway when I moved from Silicon Valley to join WARF late in 2010. Launched earlier that year with three Market Focus Areas— pharmaceuticals, medical devices and information technology—and a dozen Catalysts, the program was long on vision, but short on the organization and processes needed to fulfill its very high potential.

WARF Accelerator has since established a strong footing with dedicated, industry-experienced management and robust, yet innovative, project selection and tracking processes. It has grown to encompass six different Market Focus Areas with the invaluable help of over 40 highly accomplished Catalysts. It has built a strong brand identity within the increasingly rich fabric of programs on and off campus that cultivate entrepreneurship. And with insight from our Catalysts and milestone-based funding from WARF, the program has helped enable commercialization of a wide range of innovations from UW–Madison. With 34 license or option agreements now in place for 18 different technologies, our commercialization partners range from global industry leaders— such as GE Healthcare—to any of the 13 new startups for whom WARF Accelerator innovations provide technology differentiation and competitive advantage.

WARF Accelerator could not have achieved these results without you, and with your continued support many more great things are yet to come. In closing, I will simply say—to the UW–Madison research community; to our Catalysts, WARF staff and Trustees; and most especially to WARF Accelerator’s exceptional leadership team of Greg Keenan and Lori Allen—thank you all for everything you’ve done and for allowing me to be a part of it.

On, Wisconsin!

— Leigh Cagan, lcagan@warf.org

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Technology Monitor

Land mine detection, Labrador genetics, drug delivery and more

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


•Canine health: Labrador retrievers are the most common dog breed in the U.S. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, aging labs often develop debilitating breathing problems. A disease called late-onset laryngeal paralysis polyneuropathy is to blame.

A team led by Susannah Sample and Peter Muir (School of Veterinary Medicine) aims to discover a specific candidate genetic variant that associates with the disease, with the hope of developing a screening test that could one day help dogs (and their people) breathe easier. Reference-genome sequencing work is currently underway.

•Virus detection: Tony Goldberg and Kathy Kurth (pathobiological sciences) have concluded their project designing next-generation diagnostics to detect microbial contaminants in food and related products. They successfully developed oligonucleotide ‘enrichment beads’ capable of removing contaminating nuclear DNA with remarkable efficiency. The team reports strong commercial interest, with Accelerator support proving “instrumental.”


•MMP-9 delivers: Neuroscientist Robert Thorne has concluded a project investigating intranasal delivery of therapeutics. The project focused on the use of a protein called MMP-9 to make the intranasal lining more permeable and help shuttle biologics across the blood-brain barrier.

Results from chronic experiments in mice indicate that the new method enabled significant reductions in amyloid accumulation in relevant brain regions compared to controls. Final analysis and publication of the study is forthcoming as Dr. Thorne transitions to a position in the biotechnology industry (Denali Therapeutics, South San Francisco).


•Scale up: A plant-derived solvent called GVL can break apart biomass and unlock the valuable sugars within. The GVL-based process is greener and potentially more affordable than other conversion methods that rely on harsh chemicals and costly enzyme cocktails.

To learn how the GVL process could scale up in an industry setting, a team led by Dan Klingenberg (chemical and biological engineering) has designed a continuous reactor system. They have successfully run a variety of biomass feeds and continue to hone methods to efficiently assemble and maintain the reactor.


•Red rover: Around the world more than 1 million land mines lurk underground, mainly left over from wars and internal conflicts. These ‘ticking time bombs’ are responsible for some 6,000 casualties a year, approximately half of them children.

A project led by emeritus Prof. Gerald Kulcinski (engineering physics) looks to develop and demonstrate a lightweight, low power neutron source capable of rapidly detecting unexploded ordnance both on land and in the surf. Work is underway in the fusion neutron generation lab on campus, and the team hopes to reach the prototype phase by year’s end.

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Accelerator Chronicle

Double dipping

Photo courtesy of UW–Madison College of Engineering.
Photo courtesy of UW–Madison College of Engineering.
Dual-action “slippery” catheter fights bacteria

With support from WARF Accelerator, a super-slippery coating being developed at a University of Wisconsin–Madison lab could benefit medical catheters, factory equipment and even some day, oil tankers.

The coating contains a lubricating oil that resists the attachment of bacteria. A first commercial target is catheters, which are used to deliver or remove fluids in medicine.

Catheters are frequently colonized by bacteria that form a tough ‘biofilm’ that resists agents that would otherwise kill them.

Between 250,000 and 500,000 catheter infections in the United States each year cost billions through increased use of antibiotics, longer hospital stays and the need to replace the catheter.

Prof. David Lynn (chemical engineering) created the patented coating by alternately dipping an object in two polymer solutions.

WARF holds several patents on Lynn’s work and has enrolled the project in the WARF Accelerator program. According to WARF Accelerator director Greg Keenan, “The super-slippery surface could reduce infections, blockages and costs associated with catheters.”

WARF Accelerator aims to cut risks of promising technologies and ease the path to licensing by a business. “The goal of WARF Accelerator is to attract industry partners or investors by validating market potential, demonstrating commercial value, and de-risking the underlying technology,” says Keenan.

The new coating can also be infused with slow-release antibiotics, which could kill fungi and bacteria in the bloodstream or urinary tract where catheters are often used.

Working with his wife, Helen Blackwell, a professor of chemistry at UW–Madison with extensive understanding of bacterial growth, Lynn has demonstrated that the ‘slippery liquid-infused porous surfaces’ (SLIPS) indeed prevent bacteria from growing on glass surfaces.

Lynn’s slippery coatings were inspired by certain plant leaves, which cause water to bead up into nearly spherical drops. “There’s been a lot of effort in materials science to develop synthetic mimics of those leaves,” Lynn says.

Lynn’s SLIPS are porous materials that are made by alternately dipping an object in two polymer solutions. The coatings are about three millionths of a meter thick, about 25 times thinner than a sheet of paper.

While many processes, such as those used in computer chips and solar panels, can coat flat objects, Lynn’s dip-and-redip process can coat complex or curved surfaces like the inside and outside surfaces of a catheter.

About a year ago, funding and support from WARF Accelerator began to support ‘de-risking’ the coating process. Catheters, Lynn notes, “must be long-lasting and able to withstand bending, sterilization, coiling and sitting on a shelf for six months without getting dry or brittle.”

Lynn’s coatings feel ultra smooth, but their rough interior can hold a reservoir of chemicals. “These cargoes could kill bacteria or fungi,” Lynn says. “That could help further prevent fouling by bacteria and prolong the lifetimes of these materials.”

And because the coatings prevent the adhesion of many substances, including water, oil, ketchup and mustard, they may be useful in food processing.

Keenan says, “My experience at LiquiGlide, which is commercializing a different slippery coating, taught me that viscous liquids sticking on solid surfaces results in billions of dollars of waste and inefficiencies. I saw firsthand the tremendous economic, environmental and health care benefits that can be addressed with these new liquid-infused coatings in a wide variety of applications, from consumer packaging to chemical manufacturing to medical devices.”

Catheters carry fluid, which could pull out the lubricating oil or antibiotic additive over time, Lynn says. “We needed to look at what would happen in an artery or vein in contact with blood. Can these coatings also prevent clotting? Can they survive in the high-salt environment of a urinary catheter? How effective is the antibacterial activity?”

So far, one year’s examination has not unearthed serious obstacles, Lynn says. “These are the kind of tests that WARF Accelerator can support and are beyond the usual research and design work we do, but are helpful for firms that may want to license this technology. The technology becomes less risky to them, and more profitable to WARF. The ultimate winner will be the University.”

— Adapted from a story by David Tenenbaum, University Communications

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The Leading Edge

Insatiably curious

Catalyst Kathy Swords brings a wellspring of experience, a passion for patents and a ‘special affection’ for plant-microbe interactions.

WARF: What excited you about joining WARF Accelerator?

KS: I think the catalytic role is ideal for me. I’ve led some big teams but I see myself more in a flat structure, punctuating what’s going on and offering five-year strategic plans. I love working at the beginning of something. I know I’m really good at that.

W: How do you approach a new Accelerator proposal?

KS: Typically I go straight to the patents and I figure out where the landscape is for each of these researchers. That helps acquaint me with the new technology. I listen to their presentation and see what’s on their radar or not. I’m treating them the same way I do due diligence with venture capital guys. It’s very interesting.

W: What is the most important message at that early stage?

KS: Practicality. That is one thing I found when I went from Monsanto into a private, family-held company called Simplot which manufactures a third of McDonald’s global French fries. When I went into the bowels of a food company, I realized that the biotech targets are wrong.

Monsanto has a particular toolbox and it was reliant on herbicide tolerance and foreign genes coming in from bacillus, from bacteria, for insect control. That was their toolbox. But in fact, the food company had a completely different set of targets that they needed to optimize and capture value in their own internal processes that was totally off the map for Monsanto. That was very interesting. Very eye opening.

W: Big picture – what is the future of agriculture?

KS: I think it’s going to be stunning. Right now, I am very interested in gene editing. I think that’s going to be huge, but I also have a deep background in traditional genetic modification and already have some feel for the limitations of gene editing.

I suspect that it’s going to be a fusion of the two. You’ll be able to accomplish a lot of basic things like enhanced crop stress tolerance or maybe some yield enhancement through gene editing. But it may have secondary consequences or you might not be able to control it in a tissue-specific manner, whereas you might be able to do that through traditional GMOs where you’re actually modulating the promoters and gene expression, tissue expression, gene silencing or overexpression.

W: Did you always want to be a scientist?

KS: Since I was little. My parents weren’t scientists. My mom was an elementary school teacher and my dad was very creative. But it was really my next door neighbors. I grew up next to UC Santa Barbara in the student community, so flanking me were the city college anatomy teacher and a postdoc in marine biology. They were the guys who gave me projects and gave me my first microscope.

W: At Berkeley you had an industry-minded advisor and that influenced your path.

KS: I feel I picked up some of the basic collaborative skills accidentally in my Ph.D. program. The question is, how do we make that more deliberate? I’ve been reflecting on those key, almost psychological, attributes. When I was inside Syngenta we talked a lot about things that make particular personalities good for making startups and people who are really steeped in innovation versus people who are more implementers.

What are those distinguishing characteristics? One thing I discovered on my team was that I had a few people who were hyper-interactors. Mapping team interactions across the company unveiled meaningful collaborations, which we could then actively support.

W: Now you’re collaborating with WARF. How is it going?

KS: WARF has really encapsulated a clear path for out-licensing, for setting up collaborations, for funding those collaborations with big companies and yet protecting the IP as well. Licensing leads are very sophisticated. Your paperwork is not convoluted and really more in line with industry standards. You’re basically a step ahead of many of the other universities.

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Thank you to all who made our All-Hands Meeting on April 25 a success. The annual meeting is the signature event of WARF Accelerator, and an unparalleled opportunity for researchers to connect with our team of industry Catalysts.

The day showcased exciting projects and innovative researchers, like Katie Gold, whose work could one day soon help potato growers spot a devastating crop disease earlier than ever before.

New this year, we welcomed five ‘guest’ Catalysts, met two groundbreaking researchers from UW-Eau Claire and UW-Green Bay, and our Food & Ag team enjoyed a VIP tour of the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center.

Mark your calendars. We hope to see many of you again at WARF Innovation Day on November 5!

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