We are open for business and can be reached via phone or email. Find resources, virtual programs and more >

September 2017

Building Momentum

I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome and introduce you all to Gregory Keenan, who started with WARF in August as manager of the Accelerator Program. Greg brings an outstanding set of skills to the team, including significant earlier experience commercializing new technologies in energy, chemicals, clean tech and material science. His prior professional roles include positions at Air Products and Chemicals, local biofuels and biochemicals startup Virent, Ingredion, and, most recently, LiquiGlide, an MIT startup in advanced coating technologies. Greg holds a B.S. in chemical engineering from Penn State and an M.S.E. in management of technology from the University of Pennsylvania. Greg is looking forward to meeting our Catalysts, PIs and UW–Madison administrative partners early on and is eager to further strengthen and grow the WARF Accelerator Program as we go forward in FY18. Please join me in extending a warm welcome to Greg Keenan and in thanking Jennifer Gottwald for her outstanding interim leadership of the Accelerator Program over the last six months.

Thanks to all of you, we had a very productive FY17. The WARF Accelerator Program generated a record high 26 new proposals and participation was expanded to include 12 PIs who were new to AP. We had a successful annual All Hands meeting, recruited two new Catalysts, and engagement on the part of all of our continuing Catalysts remained strong. The Accelerator Program finished the year with a cumulative total of 22 commercial license agreements—including 10 that have enabled new startups—for 14 different AP-supported technologies. Going into the new fiscal year, Accelerator Program-supported innovations continue to be strongly represented in WARF’s licensing opportunities pipeline, including multiple potential startups at both the in-negotiation and exploratory stage.

— Leigh Cagan, lcagan@warf.org

back to top>

Technology Monitor

Peace of mind for high-risk pregnancy, new sprouts, green chemistry 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:


•Pregnancy care: A high-risk pregnancy is one that threatens the health or life of the mother or fetus. Doctors must monitor such cases more closely and early detection of problems is critical.

A collaboration between Timothy Hall and Dr. Helen Feltovich (medical physics) could make the monitoring process faster and easier on patients. Their new project, called ClearView: Lifesaving information when you need it, uses innovative ultrasound-based methods to determine fetal and maternal status at the point of care.

The team reports encouraging progress. They have assembled a tracking system to begin data collection and will soon begin experiments on phantoms.

•Cell culture: A stem cell’s microenvironment plays a key role in regulating its behavior and development. Soon, researchers and manufacturers may have greater control over the process than ever before, thanks to Padma Gopalan (materials science) and Bill Murphy (biomedical engineering). Their specialized polymer coatings provide a chemically defined culture platform that is highly stable and free of contaminants.

Unlike conventional substrates on the market, the new coatings are able to sequester the growth factors that cells produce during the manufacturing process, thereby reducing the need for expensive supplements. The team has started testing the ability of stem cells cultured using this technology to undergo differentiation into specific lineages. Initial results are encouraging.


•Immunotherapy update: Cancer researchers around the world are exploring ways to genetically modify a patient’s immune cells ex vivo, and then return them to the patient’s body where they can go to work identifying and destroying tumors. The ability to do this efficiently and reliably is the dream of personalized medicine.

Dr. Peiman Hematti and Debra Bloom (medicine) are investigating how neutralizing a certain receptor protein makes the immune system’s T cells more potent. They plan to submit their findings to a leading journal, and have actively engaged with several major cancer immunotherapeutic companies.


•Driving change: Pioneering catalysis work by Ive Hermans (chemistry and chemical engineering) is shaking up the chemical manufacturing field. His team reports strong progress developing highly efficient new catalysts for converting propane into propylene, which could have large energy savings for the industry.

Data from their publications in Science and ChemCatChem were presented at several domestic and international catalysis conferences and were well received by representatives from some of the biggest names in the industry.


•Microbe detection: According to the CDC, 1 in 6 Americans gets sick each year eating food tainted by bacteria, viruses or parasites. A collaboration between Tony Goldberg and Kathy Toohey-Kurth (pathobiological sciences) could improve consumer safety. They are working on next-generation sequencing methods to diagnose microbial contaminants in food and related products. Early results are highly encouraging, indicating their method is as sensitive as PCR if not more so.

With help from the D2P program on campus they are developing a business plan for a potential startup that would focus on biologics quality assurance and regulatory compliance.

Goldberg also serves as the associate director for research at the UW–Madison Global Health Institute.

•Superior soy: Farmers may soon have a new seed in the ground. Damon Smith and Mehdi Kabbage (plant pathology) are on target developing a non-GMO, food-grade soybean for the upper Midwest. The new variety (dubbed ‘Dane’) has excellent protein and oil content and is resistant to white mold disease.

The researchers estimate they will have enough seed to plant nearly 1,000 acres and, soon after, release Dane for the 2018 field season. The promising bean could be a prime candidate for tofu production in the north-central United States.


•Power prototype: Dan Ludois (electrical and computer engineering) continues to generate buzz in the power electronics industry. His team is prototyping and testing an integrated inductor/capacitor device that works as a protective filter in wide bandgap semiconductors. Compared to existing filters built from discrete components, their integrated design cuts size and weight and could streamline production.

It’s a hot market – Ludois says the new, state-of-the-art semiconductors could be at the heart of all major power conversion efforts from cars to wind power.

back to top>

Accelerator Chronicle

The worth of water

With support from the WARF Accelerator Program, Kyoung-Shin Choi and her team are developing a rechargeable desalination cell capable of turning seawater into fresh water.
With support from the WARF Accelerator Program, Kyoung-Shin Choi and her team are developing a rechargeable desalination cell capable of turning seawater into fresh water.
Desalination ‘battery’ could slake a thirsty world

The data is startling: approximately 2/3 of the world must survive without ready access to fresh water at some point this year.

In her office on the UW–Madison campus – a mere stone’s throw from Lake Mendota – the global water crisis may seem far away. But Kyoung-Shin Choi pulls up a world map on her computer indicating the regions that lack access.

From Sydney to Sedona it’s splotched with ominous shades of red, indicating serious water scarcity.

“Four billion people live without sufficient access to fresh water for at least one month of the year,” she says.

The situation is even more distressing in large swaths of North Africa, the Middle East and Central America, where 500 million people face severe water scarcity all year round.

Like many others, Choi, a professor of chemistry, is looking to the sea for a solution. Since the oceans account for more than 96 percent of Earth’s water, desalination may be the best answer.

But cost is key. The simplest method of desalinating water, distillation, requires lavish amounts of energy.

“You have to boil the sea,” Choi says. “That’s not cheap.”

The other established method used in industrialized countries is reverse osmosis (RO). In RO, seawater is pumped through a membrane to remove the salt ions. But running the high-pressure pump gulps electricity. Another drawback is that the water must be pretreated with various chemicals to prevent fouling of the membrane.

Choi and her collaborator, Do-Hwan Nam, are taking a different tack entirely.

“If you develop a technology that manipulates water and salt and energy in a different manner you can find a new market,” Choi says.

With support from the WARF Accelerator Program they are developing a rechargeable desalination cell capable of turning seawater into fresh water.

The crux of the invention: a chloride-storage electrode made from nanocrystalline bismuth foam.

Bismuth is significantly less expensive than other designs recently developed that rely on silver, Choi explains.

It works like this: the bismuth-based chloride-storage electrode is coupled to a sodium-storage electrode to form a battery. The battery captures salt ions in the bulk of the electrodes, which requires an energy input and is equivalent to a charging process. The device is then moved into a wastewater brine solution where it releases the salt, which generates an energy output and is equivalent to a discharging process.

The process results in a continuous discharging (desalination)/charging (salination) cycle that requires a net potential input of only 0.20 V.

There’s more. The bismuth electrodes can be used for other chloride-removal applications. For example, treating industrial wastewater that contains hydrochloric acid.

Their prototype is energy efficient and practical. But now that the concept has been successfully demonstrated at benchtop scale, Choi wants to take the next step. She wants to improve the capacity, rate and cyclability of the batteries.

“Providing water to all the people in a town requires a lot of desalination,” she says. “In order to use our technology in a large scale there are things that need to be improved and enhanced.”

“Accelerator funding will allow us to further optimize the system.”

This project is an interesting pivot for Choi, whose work has up until now focused on biomass conversion using aqueous electrochemistry and solar-driven hydrogen production by water reduction.

“My research has always involved water in some way,” she says. “And I have always known that cleaning water is a critical issue as important as energy.”

A self-described pragmatist, Choi values the industry feedback she has received from the program’s Catalysts and always strives for perspective.

“I tell my students that life is short. You have to focus on things that you believe are important,” she says. “During my life I want to tackle something that has a direct impact on everyday life.”

back to top>

The Leading Edge

The health care century

By flipping the script on financing and building great teams, Gregg Fergus has raised more than $350 million in five health care tech companies and grew revenue to over $300 million in two companies – without a dollar of venture capital and all from startup companies. He breaks down his formula for success and what the future holds.

Intelligent ultrasound on your iPhone, anyone?

WARF: What do you bring to the Accelerator Program as a Catalyst?

GF: I’ve been fortunate to spend most of my career on the West Coast learning from the best in the industry. One of my biggest goals is to bring these successful strategies and innovative business models to Madison but to make it our own. The West Coast has access to capital, talented entrepreneurs with great track records, a large talent pool and a community of mentors to draw from. My goal is to bring my experience, access to great people and capital to local companies and the Accelerator Program.

The great thing is that we have many of these already here in Wisconsin. We have entrepreneurs that have incredible vision – with big ideas, world class technology and a drive for success, but we can do much more. I believe it is very important to give back and UW–Madison and WARF have both been instrumental in my career. I really appreciate the opportunity to join the Accelerator Program as a Catalyst.

W: What is your message to entrepreneurs who have the passion but not that level of experience?

GF: It takes a couple things to be successful and we’ve built some of the most successful life science, diagnostic and med tech companies in the world based on this formula.

You need vision, both technical and commercial and to surround yourself with talented people. I believe we have this in Wisconsin, but our talent pool is not as experienced. Also, you have to work incredibly hard, harder than you have ever thought possible. Entrepreneurs have to realize that for a company to be successful they have to eat, sleep and breathe the company. It really takes that kind of dedication to compete and change the world.

Finally, you need both technical and commercial intuition and that comes from experience and knowing the markets. It is very easy to go down dead-end roads and add unnecessary complexity. We live by four values: simplicity, scalability, speed and graciousness. We’ve run eight different companies and we have made as many mistakes as anyone else but now we have the formula for success and we’ve learned from our failures.

W: What about financial strategy?

GF: You need to match your company and vision with the right types of financing. In other words, how you raise capital and who you raise it from turns out to be incredibly important.

What we’ve done is flip the financing on its head. Instead of going to the venture funds directly, we went to the limited partners, the LPs, who fund the VCs. We basically did venture financing wholesale not retail. The family offices will have more control of their investments and will not have to pay the management fee and carried interest (2 percent and 20 percent). They are also long on their investment cycles and they share the vision of the entrepreneur in wanting to change the world.

Many of the top family offices invest in areas they care deeply about. If they have Alzheimer’s or mental health issues in their families they are actively seeking investments in these areas. It’s a model that allows everyone to benefit and I think would work for many startup companies in Wisconsin.

W: What are the hottest trends in the med tech area right now?

GF: The future looks like this: very smart devices connected to the Cloud, powered by a huge amount of deep learning.

If you’re trying to get into the med tech business, diagnostics or even pharma, you have to have a platform that includes hardware, software, the Cloud and artificial intelligence (AI). Our formula has been to look at markets where the basic technology platform has not changed in decades, reinvent the hardware architecture at a fraction of the cost of the current market and bring in AI and the Cloud. Outside of EMR it is really difficult to keep competitors out if you are just building a software product in health care.

If you don’t believe in the power of AI just look at the self-driving car phenomenon, which has come around faster than any of us imagined. We need to bring these talented people and these tools to the health care space, which needs a complete makeover.

W: Are there opportunities for startups in this space?

GF: Absolutely. We have four of them.

I’ll give you an example. A standard ultrasound system costs between $50,000 and $100,000 and the technology behind this was built 40-50 years ago.

One of our companies is called Butterfly Network. We’ve redesigned the entire hardware architecture using semiconductor chips. We are building these devices at a fraction of the cost of current products and ultimately you could buy the entire system for less than $1,000 or the same price as an iPhone. It is a smart device that can do image acquisition and interpretation. Imagine a stethoscope that can see into the body.

Right now, 2/3 of the world does not have access to ultrasound.

But it could be like a thermometer in your house – everyone will have access. We can do this because we have reimagined the hardware and matched it with the Cloud and AI.

W: Is the political climate right now a factor?
GF: I do believe the political climate is a positive factor as our leaders understand several of our biggest social issues and obstacles for continued economic growth are driven by health care. Health care is broken in the U.S. and it is now 18 percent of our GDP and moving in the wrong direction. We need the next generation of entrepreneurs to drive innovation that changes this paradigm.

You had also asked about the future of the industry. I have very high hopes for health care startup companies. Every day we are competing for talent with Google, Facebook and pure technology companies and we are able to hire the best and the brightest. Snapchat is interesting, but the next generation of kids we meet want to have a bigger impact on the world. The advice I give my kids and their friends is to put their talents, energy and time into something that has a huge societal impact like health care vs. a better way to search for your favorite song or post a picture.

back to top>