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September 2018

Building Momentum

I would like to start by reflecting on the performance of the Accelerator Program over our 2018 fiscal year, which ended on June 30. We welcomed Greg Keenan as WARF’s new program manager and our Board of Trustees approved funding to continue the program for another three years through June 2021. In this year of transition, our AP team delivered five commercial licenses, including two startups, and added four new Catalysts to our Food & Ag market focus area. In addition, we funded 19 new projects, with 15 awarded to first-time program participants. I would like to congratulate and thank our entire AP team, Catalysts and University partners.

In May, we held our annual All-Hands Meeting where we reviewed eight new funding proposals and heard updates from seven ongoing projects. Two proposals in the Clean Tech market focus area were from the IP portfolio managed by WiSys, the technology transfer organization for the UW System schools. Leveraging WARF’s AP infrastructure to support promising projects in the WiSys portfolio is an excellent example of our commitment to coordinate our approach to innovation across the state.

During the All-Hands Meeting, Greg highlighted the positive contributions AP has made in the commercialization of UW-Madison technologies since the inception of the program in 2010. To date, we have generated 32 commercial agreements from 18 different technologies, 13 of which enabled new startups. In addition, we funded 106 projects from 91 different investigators with program support from 45 Catalysts. A little-known fact was highlighted: on average, our project teams have secured ~$6.50 of follow-on investment for every $1 of AP project funding. These leveraged dollars come from follow-on grants and equity investments in startups based on AP-licensed technologies. Although not a primary goal of the program, this leveraged funding is critical to support commercialization and is a source of validation for these technologies.

Finally, I wanted to highlight the new WARF Innovation Day event we will host at the Discovery Building on October 17. We are expanding our annual WARF Innovation Awards program, which celebrates the top idea disclosures we receive throughout the year, to include a quick pitch session that will highlight six of our most promising AP projects. The event will also include a keynote speech by Byron Reese, a technology entrepreneur and author, in which he will discuss the impact of technology on the future. More details on the WARF Innovation Day can be found on our website. I hope to see you all at the event.

— Leigh Cagan, lcagan@warf.org

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Technology Monitor

Super slippery coatings, flexible electronics 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:


•Research tool: Mike Sussman (biochemistry) and J. Leon Shohet (electrical and computer engineering) lead a team advancing a powerful new method for studying proteins and other biological molecules like never before. This work could be a game-changer in the research tool sector and enable biopharma research discovery. Eventually, it could open a faster and easier route to developing protein therapies.

To complement their technical progress, the team recently completed the NSF I-Corps program where they conducted in-depth customer discovery interviews with leading players in the pharma and biotech space. They are working with the UW Business School to build a financial model, and have partnered with WiSolve – a nonprofit consulting group on campus – to continue market research and validation work.


•Slippery coating: A project from David Lynn (chemical & biological engineering) looks to advance a new class of ‘slippery’ polymer coatings to help keep patients safe. He wants to apply the coatings to medical catheters to prevent dangerous biofilm formation and microbial infections, which occur when bacteria or fungi take hold on conventional materials.

Lynn’s group recently engaged a commercial partner to conduct outside testing and evaluation of their sample product.


•Power floor: In August, Xudong Wang (materials science and engineering) wrapped up his project that proved footsteps can be transformed into usable electricity. AP support helped Wang build and demonstrate an energy harvesting floor, which combines recycled natural materials like wood pulp and cardboard fiber with state-of-the-art nanogenerator technology.

A section of ‘power floor’ was installed at Union South on campus for several months last year, and successfully harnessed the heavy foot traffic there to run LED lighting. One surprising aspect of the project was the ability to track people’s traffic patterns, which opens up a number of potential smart building opportunities. More recently, the team went through the national I-Corps program, conducting more than 100 potential customer interviews. Wang reports “positive feedback” and is now exploring a larger-scale demonstration with a commercial partner.

•Next-generation electronics: Tomorrow’s electronics may be stretched, woven and bent into new types of displays. Efficiency will be high and battery life unparalleled. To make this vision a reality, Michael Arnold and Padma Gopalan (materials science) are working to break our reliance on brittle silicon.

The team is reaching the end of their current AP project, in which they pioneered a process to create transistors out of semiconducting carbon nanotubes. By one metric, the new transistors outperform state-of-the-art designs up to a thousandfold.

Their work has generated commercial interest, including a license, as well as media coverage (exciting stories on outperforming silicon and prolonging battery life). Looking ahead, they will continue to pursue commercialization with the support of WARF and the AP team.


•Charged up: A team led by Mark Etzel (food science) is developing charged ultrafiltration membranes they hope will change the way food proteins are manufactured. Accelerator support is helping them validate new filter technology that increases throughput while cutting cost and maintenance requirements.

They have met with commercial leaders in this space, and are on track to perform pilot trials with an industry partner in the Center for Dairy Research Pilot Plant at UW–Madison before the end of the year.

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Accelerator Chronicle


New chemistry forged at UW–Madison could take the petroleum out of your paint – and change the economics of ethanol by dollars on the gallon. Let the scale-up begin.

“When I describe what I do, I say I put dirt in a reactor, heat it up and flow liquid over it,” jokes Kevin Barnett.

It is a profound understatement for Barnett, a postdoctoral researcher in the visionary lab of Prof. George Huber (chemical and biological engineering).

Huber’s biofuel research group is pioneering the tools of a trade. Reactors, catalysts, computer models and imaging systems – a new generation of technology is needed to help the world kick its addiction to fossil fuels.

As their lab website notes, the petroleum industry has had more than 100 years to study and optimize its processes while biorefining “is only in its infancy.”

Navigating the bustling lab in Engineering Hall, Barnett describes a new chemical pathway devised to produce plastic precursors from biomass.

These high value chemicals (namely 1,4-butanediol, 1,5-pentanediol and 1,6-hexanediol) are currently derived from petroleum. They are widely used in paints, coatings, polymer resins, plasticizers, acrylates and adhesives – part of a $6 billion annual market, all told.

The new, three-step process was published last year in the journal ChemSusChem. It is six times cheaper than competing methods and exceeds 90 percent overall yields. By all measures it appears to outperform single-step processes, notes Kefeng Huang, a postdoctoral researcher.

The key to their approach: plant biomass naturally contains more oxygen than petroleum (about 40 percent by weight, compared to less than .1 percent). The new method exploits this to produce high value oxygenated commodity chemicals.

Huang, an expert in process design and modeling, explains that by eliminating expensive catalysts and difficult separations, their method is cost competitive at scale.

Accelerator support is helping Kevin Barnett and Kefeng Huang build a 10X larger reactor to produce valuable chemicals from biomass.
Accelerator support is helping Kevin Barnett and Kefeng Huang build a 10X larger reactor to produce valuable chemicals from biomass.
But will it scale up?

The team is confident it will since it is based on technologies that are commonly used in the petrochemical industry. They credit WARF Accelerator support with helping them de-risk at a critical juncture, and appreciate the market insights from program Catalysts Bill Banholzer and Patrick Sajbel.

Their next major milestone is to build a 10-times larger reactor, which equates to a 50-fold scale-up. By the end of phase I, they aim to produce gallon quantities of pentanediol – enough to approach industry for testing and validation.

These “real-world” customers could include paint and coating companies like PPG Industries and Sherwin Williams/Valspar.

The team’s optimism is founded. Commercial interest in bioderived commodity chemicals continues to surge. The diols swirling in Barnett’s vials are particularly attractive because of the high market prices they command ($2,700 – 6,000/MT in 2015 U.S. dollars).

But most importantly this innovation could, at long last, nudge biofuel economics. As noted in media coverage, these chemicals could serve as lucrative co-products of ethanol manufacturing.

“If we can integrate this process with ethanol fermentation, we can reduce the price of ethanol by more than $2 per gallon,” says Huang.

To make biofuels economical by producing them in synergy with chemicals – that is the field’s great challenge.

The answer will have implications far beyond the pump, to the vast stores of domestic biomass and the rural communities where it grows.

This project is a collaboration with UW–Madison engineering professors James Dumesic, Christos Maravelias and their groups.

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The Leading Edge

In the family

Seedsman Jack Kaltenberg has spent a lifetime in agriculture. The farm is going high-tech, he says. That means better, not bigger.

WARF: How did you become involved with WARF?

JK: Being president of the Wisconsin Crop Improvement Association, I got involved in the release of germplasm – predominantly small grains. WCIA has become the release mechanism for varieties coming out of UW–Madison and that got me involved with WARF.

W: So it wasn’t a tough sell to make you a Catalyst?

JK: I’m a pretty loyal Madison alum and I believe in the Wisconsin Idea. My grandfather went to [the Farm & Industry] Short Course in 1906. He started a company from a product he got from the Agronomy Department, and our family has been involved in that mechanism forever. So yes, it was a pretty easy sell and just made sense.

W: Service and the Wisconsin Idea – how do you bring those concepts into your role with the Accelerator Program?

JK: Some of our constituents and farmers – and I see them all the time – don’t always see the connection with the University. There is such a great connection. But they don’t have a lot of exposure. So when we have inventions and have research with benefit to society, we have to take that to the marketplace. We have to explain the value so that we get, if nothing else, the moral support from our population as to the value the University brings.

W: How do we communicate that better?

JK: In the marketplace there are probably 1 or 2 percent who are farming – that’s my customer base. We work with some organic, we work with some Amish, we work with some Mennonites – their life is not as confusing from the communications side as some of our large farmers. And when I want to take science to those guys, they understand that. They understand sustainability and why we crop rotate, why we use resistance to take care of diseases – all those things that plant breeding develops around good sound management.

In agriculture, we know the smartphone was adopted more quickly by farmers than much of society because it is such a fast answer to what we are doing. Larger farming operations communicate more through traditional and social media.

W: How long have you been around farming?

JK: My whole life. When my parents let me out of the front gate and I could be out in the farmyard.

I’m originally from Waunakee. If you are in the top of the WARF building and look straight across the lake you can almost see the farm I was born and raised at. That’s Westport, straight across Lake Mendota.

W: Then let me ask you, what is the future of agribusiness?

JK: In agriculture we are really struggling because we are seeing record low commodity prices. So we are always looking for ways to be more efficient. That is forcing us to look at things like sustainability, crop rotation, cover crops and water quality. It doesn’t mean getting bigger. It means getting better. There is a lot of science that goes into that.

For example, in dairying, for a while larger was better. But there has become an opportunity for robotics to help a family farm achieve work/life balance. With robotics and computers now, we are transferring labor into technology.

W: And farmers are getting older.

JK: That is indeed a big problem: getting young people enthusiastic and believing that they can have a lifestyle, reasonable work hours and time for vacation. Farm people have never been opposed to working hard, but you need a return on your time too. In farming, you have hundreds of thousands of dollars of farming equipment you use for 35 days a year. The huge capital cost is the dilemma for younger farmers.

But I’ve also seen a lot more women now in agriculture and in dairy science. There is a lot of equality – we probably do better than other fields. Not only in graduates but in farming operation. The role of manager in the field is shared in a lot of farm families.

Also, if one of the family members works off of the farm, they can provide insurance, which greatly reduces their health care costs. A number of people around Madison are doing this; the spouse works in town to take care of those costs.

W: What Accelerator project has resonated with you?

JK: There has been work done on white mold resistance in soybeans. That research was 15 years [in the making] at least. It was carried on through two professors. I’m excited because I’m a little seed company. The large seed companies were never able to find resistance to white mold at the level that was found at the University. If that can capture some royalties and come back to the inventors and the University, that is phenomenal.

W: What’s up next for you?

JK: I was in the UW Marching Band when [director] Mike Leckrone first came. That was fifty years ago. I’m trying to get in shape so when I get to go onto the field with the band alumni in a few weeks I don’t die!

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