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High-tech instrument makers abound among UW–Madison spinoffs

August 10, 2011 By David Tenenbaum

As scientists and engineers explore the unknown, they frequently end up building the cutting-edge equipment and instruments they need, and high-tech instrument makers that have emerged from UW–Madison labs have been a good foundation for spinoff firms that sell research tools and equipment globally while creating a wide range of jobs in Wisconsin.


These enterprises are examples of UW–Madison’s broad impact on the state’s economy, measured by economists at $12.4 billion annually.

Astronautics Corp. of America, in Milwaukee, was founded in 1959 while Nathaniel Zelazo was a UW–Madison graduate student in engineering.  The company has almost 2,000 employees making a wide range of electronic systems and flat-panel displays for commercial and military aircraft.  The firm’s “electronic flight bag,” for example, provides digital versions of flight manuals, maps and other information on many Boeing airplanes, including the new Boeing 787. 

In Middleton, National Electrostatics employs more than 90 people making large particle accelerators that sell to scientific institutions worldwide. The company was founded in 1965 to exploit the inventions of UW–Madison professor Raymond Herb; the company’s accelerators are used for treating surfaces and analyzing materials. 

A third venerable spinoff, Middleton’sGilson, Inc., was founded around 1950 by Warren Gilson, a professor of neurology at the medical school. According to his son Robert, now company president, “My father started making various kinds of equipment, and his electroencephalograph [which measures brain electrical activity] attracted a lot of interest. Although he developed equipment for his own use, other people told him what they could use, and he made that as well.”

Gilson now sells a broad range of equipment, including robotic workstations and advanced liquid chromatography machines for chemical analysis, to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. The 300 employees include 120 in the Madison area, and a large complement at offices in Europe.

 “A high percentage of our work is research and development,” says Robert Gilson. “Because the technology changes so quickly, most of our products only last three years. About 30 of our people have advanced degrees, including lots of engineers and chemists.”

One customer for Gilson’s liquid-handling equipment is located just across the street. SonoPlot, Inc., was born after experimenters in Max Lagally’s material science and engineering lab learned to pump precise streams of liquid down narrow glass tubes.

“If you get the tube resonating at a very high frequency, the liquid ends up pumping out the narrow end,” says Brad Larson, whose graduate studies helped launch the company and is now SonoPlot’s chief technology officer.  “We use that to create a very gentle pumping of fluid out the dispenser.”

Unlike competing ink-jet printer technology, the liquid is directly written rather than ejected toward the surface as droplets. SonoPlot’s device can, without touching the surface, precisely lay down a point or line of fluid.

The major market is the electronic industry, Larson says. “We’re being used for rapid prototyping, for research and development, and some small-scale production.”

The lines, just 30 thousandths of a millimeter wide (roughly the width of a human hair)  are somewhat broader than the “wires” found on computer chips, but the equipment can be used for developing such items as radio frequency ID antennas and liquid crystal displays. Controlling the output is almost as simple as drawing lines on a computer screen.

Advanced materials for lithium-ion batteries are the focus at Silatronix, Inc., a Madison startup that emerged from the chemistry-department labs of Robert Hamers and Robert West. Lithium-ion batteries carry the highest energy density, and are ubiquitous in advanced equipment like laptops, but performance degrades at high temperature, says CEO Mark Zager.

Using grants from the National Science Foundation and the federal Small Business Innovation Research program, Silatronix has developed stable, heat-resistant recipes for the electrolyte, which conducts lithium ions, Zager says.

 “We provide a very complex chemical  formulation that is specific to each customer,” he says.

Silatronix has a Navy contract to develop an electrolyte that “should become the foundation of our first product,” he adds. “The obvious entry point into the market is for those who face extremely difficult environments, like the military or oil drilling. They don’t have a product that meets their specifications today.”

Rather than compete with battery makers, Silatronix plans to sell them an electrolyte that is more stable and less flammable; the company has eight employees in Madison, including four Ph.D.’s.   

Alfalight, a specialty laser company, was founded in 1998, using an aluminum-free, high-power laser technology developed in the labs of electrical and computer engineering professors Luke Mawst and Dan Botez.

The company sells innovative semiconductor lasers to industry and government. Research, engineering and manufacturing occurs in Madison, based in part on technology licensed from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.  

Measurement of fiber-optic communication is the focus at Optametra, a startup founded by Daniel van der Weide, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UW–Madison and Rob Marsland, a Stanford University lab partner with van der Weide and president of the company.


“Rob and I recognized a trend in long-haul fiber-optic communication toward adopting a technique common in every other form of telecommunication: local cable, TV, Wi-Fi, cell phones,” says van der Weide.

“This technique of coherent modulation allows a major boost in fiber capacity. If you wanted more capacity on a two-lane highway, you could make a double-decker road to carry twice the traffic on the same footprint. Coherent modulation is like that, except the capacity increase is potentially much greater,” he says.

From a headquarters in the University Research Park, Optametra sells instruments for designing and building equipment for coherent modulation to major telecom suppliers (“the names would be familiar, but I can’t release them,” van der Weide says), university researchers and government agencies. 

The firm has seven to 10 part- and full-time employees, including many graduates of UW–Madison, van der Weide says.

 “Our primary software developer is practically a Ph.D. physicist, and that’s a great combination: somebody who can write code, but understands physics,” he says.

The benefits from the presence of a major research university are impossible to calculate, van der Weide says.

Providing tools that enable faster communication is a sweet spot in the market, he adds.

“There is an insatiable desire for communication,” van der Weide says. “Your data pipe will never be fat enough. Pulling new fiber is very expensive, so it’s better to make existing fiber more efficient, and coherent modulation allows you to do that.”  

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