Meet the campus innovators launching successful companies in an unprecedented time
While economic uncertainty and the changes to daily life caused by the global pandemic have created countless challenges for business owners across many sectors, startup companies founded by UW–Madison innovators have managed to demonstrate resilience.
Since its inception in 2014, UW–Madison’s Discovery to Product (D2P) office has helped launch or grow 56 startup companies led by campus innovators. This number includes 27 existing startups that received assistance over the past fiscal year (July 2019 – June 2020), and 8 new startup companies recently launched during that same period.
D2P supports faculty, staff, and students pursuing entrepreneurial ventures, including the commercialization of technologies resulting from university research and development of innovative consumer products and solutions to social problems. Free trainings to help innovators develop and implement their creative ideas or technologies are offered each academic year (virtual this Fall). Applications for fall semester programming are being accepted until September 20, and virtual on-demand open houses and mentor chats are being offered leading up to the deadline.
Entrepreneurship is another pathway for campus innovators to apply their work, research, creativity, and passion to improve lives locally and globally. Ideas come from all corners of campus, from students to faculty and from engineering to medicine.
Here are just a few of the companies recently launched by campus innovators, with commentary from the founders on how they’ve continued moving forward during a challenging time.
The company: Elektrifi
The founders: Ashray Manur, postdoctoral research associate in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Sarada, professor in the Wisconsin School of Business
The innovation: Energy resilience technologies for various critical infrastructure applications like home health care, communication services, and critical businesses.
Based on technology that came out of the research of Giri Venkataramanan, UW–Madison Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Elektrifi is developing portable microgrids: small, independent electricity networks that serve just a few users and are often powered by renewable energy sources.
This past summer, the Elektrifi team participated in the National Science Foundations’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program. NSF I-Corps is a prestigious national award that helps researchers translate their research into solutions that can solve problems in the real world. D2P’s Aimee Arnoldussen served as the business mentor for the team during the program, helping the team conduct over 100 interviews with those involved in home healthcare emergency preparedness and energy resilience.
“Our interviews not only took place during the pandemic, but also coincided with the California wildfires and hurricane season. This timing may seem challenging, but it actually enabled unique insights from stakeholders actively dealing with the challenges of providing reliable energy in these unprecedented times,” says Ashray Manur. “The I-Corps program helped us validate our technology commercialization thesis as we move from lab technology & prototypes to our current fundraising goals. While this program has ended, our journey in building resilient energy solutions has just begun.”
The founders: UW–Madison Family Medicine Professor Dr. Paul Smith, and Paul Mross, UW-Madison research consultant on fall prevention and yoga.
The innovation: A unique floor mat and digital communication system that facilitates physical and occupational therapy in a whole new way.
Happ:y stands for Healthy Accessible Products and Programs: Yoga, and its co-founders began working closely together in 2012 while leading one of the first research studies in the US about the benefits of yoga for fall prevention.
Happ:y Wellness’s offerings are anchored by a unique mat that has a matrix of images printed on the surface to guide hand and foot placement during physical and occupational therapy, creating a sort of “therapy twister” template that is used in a variety of settings. The team enrolled in D2P’s Igniter program soon after launching in 2019 to refine their business model.
“Right as the pandemic started in March, we were supposed to be at a national conference in front of thousands of occupational therapists,” says Mross. “That conference was canceled, and with that, we had to find new ways to introduce ourselves to the therapy community. With the pandemic, many clinics, hospitals, and therapists moved to telehealth, and we have found traction in pivoting to that space with our company.”
The founders: UW alumnus Ben Winters ’20 and collaborator Jake Levitt
The innovation: A dynamic online marketplace that connects farmers, suppliers, and consumers.
Ben and his team attended D2P’s Igniter program in 2019 as they refined the business model forFoodChain, developing a marketplace that allows producers to list, advertise, and sell their products in new markets while purchasers can browse an active inventory of local foods. FoodChain was recently acquired by the Dohmen Group, where Ben and Jake continue to be closely involved.
“Our core service is wholesale, selling local produce to restaurants, grocery stores, and corporate campuses,” says Winters. “But COVID disrupted that core service, so we recently pivoted and have started also working with food pantries on meal delivery kits, helping them integrate local foods into their pre-made microwavable meals that they deliver to families in need. Another pivot was in response to the fact that farmers markets are also struggling during this time. We made an alteration to our platform so that it can help farmer’s markets offer online ordering and curbside pickup offerings.”
The founders: Pediatric anesthesiologist Dr. Guelay Bilen-Rosas, radiologist Dr. Humberto Rosas, and data scientist Irene Ong
The innovation: A novel respiratory monitoring device that detects breathing problems in patients early, quantitatively, and in real time.
Physicians Guelay Bilen-Rosas and Humberto Rosas are partners in life and business. Together with friend and colleague Irene Ong, they have been working for the last 4 years to develop a novel respiratory monitoring device that can detect airway compromise by measuring airflow across the windpipe, detecting changes in breathing immediately and earlier than “surrogate” factors like pulse oximetry. Real-time monitoring provides critical extra time for medical professionals to address problems and save lives.
The team took part in D2P’s Innovation to Market (I2M) program as they worked to understand the potential market for the device and developed the plan to get their company off the ground. They have also received support from the WARF Accelerator program and are pursuing a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant to develop and test a prototype of the device.
“Breathing is one of the most complex and elusive mechanisms, and capturing the entirety of a breath is the first step to providing a meaningful tool,” says Bilen-Rosas. “We will keep working hard to provide this tool which is so needed. COVID has shown us how cohesive and determined our team is to adjust to changes. We are moving forward full steam!”
The founders: Rising seniors Kit Chow (Biosystems Engineering) and Aditya Parihar (Chemical Engineering)
The innovation: Bite-sized, caffeinated chocolate chews
Kit and Adi launched Boosted Chews in early 2020 to market their bite-sized caffeinated chocolate to the world. The founders worked closely with D2P mentor Cecily Brose to expand their marketing and sales strategy and connect them to key players in the Madison startup ecosystem. In addition to coaching from D2P, Kit and Adi are both involved with Transcend UW, a student organization focused on helping students launch their own ventures.
“It’s funny, because the day that we got the LLC was the day that the U.S. told us that we were officially in a recession,” says Adi. “It’s been interesting. It’s been harder to get into stores with COVID losses and the protests affecting businesses, but we did manage to get into the Sencha tea bar, Roll Play, Flamingo Run, the UW Bookstore, and the Fresh Cool Drinks smoothie cart. We also sell online. Coming back from the pandemic, I think e-commerce businesses are going to do well.”
Mount Horeb Hemp
The founder: Kattia Jiménez, Project Manager for the UW–Madison All of Us research program
The innovation: A third-party certified CBD oil produced from locally-grown organic hemp flowers.
Mount Horeb Hemp was founded in 2018, soon after the Wisconsin State Legislature passed a law allowing the formation of a hemp pilot program. After a successful first year of producing raw hemp biomass, the company had to quickly change gears as a rush of new growers in 2019 resulted in a flooded market. Kattia joined the fall 2019 cohort of D2P’s I2M program just as she was pivoting to the new role of farmer-producer and preparing to launch her first product: a full-spectrum CBD oil.
“Even though the pandemic has been damaging on so many levels, I do think it has sparked support to buy local and support our communities,” says Jiménez. “This forced pause has given me the time to add e-commerce to my company’s website. I’m also excited to have begun collaborating with another female entrepreneur who produces goat milk soaps, and she’s going to carry my products in her shop in Mount Horeb.”