10 innovators you should know right now

    What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s a question this dynamic group of Wisconsin-based innovators has never stopped asking.

    They have taken imagination, curiosity and research in different directions. They’ve created sculptures, innovated health care delivery and found ways to incorporate sustainability into the way we live.

    Hop aboard and see what a design architect has created; take a walk through a data mining operation; check out new ways to diagnose your tennis elbow and more efficient ways to take care of it. Meet some of the innovators working in Wisconsin today.

    Sonya Newenhouse
    Sustainability Sage

    Along the way to a career in restaurant and hotel management, Sonya Newenhouse fell in love with sustainability.

    Goodbye hospitality, hello save the environment.

    After earning her first degree at Michigan State, she moved to Madison for the interdisciplinary program at the Nelson Institute at UW-Madison and ended up earning her doctorate.

    She founded the Madison Environmental Group in 1998, then started Community Car, Madison’s first car-sharing service, in 2003. Same purpose, different method.

    She liked the combination of business and the environment, “so I knit my talents and passions together.”
    From the beginning, real estate has financed her business ventures.

    She bought her first house in Madison for $30,000 and then took out a loan against it.

    “I lived in the living room and I rented out the bedroom so my mortgage was covered.”

    Every new venture begins with lots of R&D. She loves to research, Newenhouse said, so she’s always up on the newest sustainability ideas.

    That’s how she came to start Community Car.

    “It’s an hourly car rental company for members only,” Newenhouse said. Membership costs $35 per year, which gives members access to an online rental system.

    Typically, someone who normally rides the bus or uses a bike would rent a car to do a big grocery shopping trip. Empty nesters who might not want the hassle of car upkeep use Community Car when they need to drive.

    Now that she’s got transportation taken care of, Newenhouse has moved on to sustainable homes. She’s living in the prototype of one of her kit houses, and said she was toasty warm during last winter’s below zero days.

    Her company, NewenHouse, will offer super-insulated, sustainable kit home plans that call for the use of 18-inch-thick walls, heavy insulation and triple-pane windows. They are air-tight and use a heat recovery ventilation unit.

    With NewenHouse, she is combining the small-home movement, the green building movement and the sustainable lifestyle movement. Kits will be offered beginning January 2016. To tour the NewenHouse prototype in Viroqua, contact Newenhouse at 608-220-8029 for now, while the company’s website is still under construction.

    Once she launches NewenHouse, she will likely move on to the next big idea in sustainability, whatever that might be.

    “The ideas percolate through reading and learning from people. My dad always saw the future. He was telling us about CDs and DVDs 10 years before they came out.” 

    –Geri Parlin


    Joe Scanlin
    Data Detective

    Joe Scanlin has always looked for the next big thing.

    In high school, that was The Neighbor Kids, which he ran with his best friend, Matt McCoy.  They were building patios and retaining walls while their classmates were participating in show choir and band.

    But after high school, the friends went in different directions – McCoy to the University of Wisconsin to study film and marketing and Scanlin to UW-Whitewater to study Organizational Theory and receive further education in Data Science and Machine Learning. But along the way to his career, he took a break to join the U.S. Marines. Then he resumed his studies, eventually reconnecting with McCoy to form their company, Scanalytics Inc.

    What they do is monitor people’s foot traffic patterns and mine that data for intelligence about their actions and habits.

    Scanalytics offers a patented, sensor-based engagement platform built into conventional flooring that can track where a person’s feet go and how long they stay there. That information can then be used to trigger tailored actions. For example, standing in front of a television at a big box retailer for more than a minute could trigger the floor sensors to change the content on the TV to give you more information about the TV itself.

    “When I got out of the Marine Corps,” said Scanlin, “my idea was to create something to understand human behavior, similar to understanding how people surf the internet.”

    The answer came to him while he was on a shopping trip.

    “I wondered what kind of data I was giving up by my behavior, and I realized I was giving up a lot through my feet. So I ran home to rip open a video game that you control by dancing. I got quite a bit more utility out of it by ripping it apart and re-engineering it.”

    He figured retailers would pay to get that information. “That helped me reconnect with Matt because he understood the customer.”

    So they combined McCoy’s retail marketing experience with Scanlin’s idea, and Scanalytics Inc. was born in 2012. They now employ 16 people, and their technology is extending beyond retail.

    “It’s pretty exciting.  We have companies who are using these sensors to monitor people who are elderly, so you know if grandma falls.”

    Scanlin said he is doing exactly what he envisioned.

    “I wanted to work in technology and, ideally, create my own technology that would make a big impact. I just didn’t know it would grow so fast.” 

    –Geri Parlin


    Gretchen Gilbertson
    Design Disruptor

    The ability to take a company and grow it from a local business to an internationally-recognized luxury brand is no small feat. Gretchen Gilbertson, who co-founded Séura with her husband, Tim, has done just that. Séura sells visual home amenities for the design-savvy consumer, offering a unique way to incorporate home technology without making it the forefront of the design of the space. Their television line features sets masked within mirrors, waterproof TVs and, more recently, a weatherproof model able to withstand temperatures between -30 and -140 degrees Fahrenheit – ideally suited for outdoor entertaining spaces. For an example of their handiwork, take a look around Lambeau Field in their hometown of Green Bay, where 330 of their Storm line of televisions were introduced in 2013. Gilbertson’s background in product design may have helped her navigate the industry and form key connections, but it’s her consistent innovation, attention to detail and the care that goes into all of the company’s products that’s pushed Séura from an incredible idea to an established brand. 

    –Bridgette McCormick


    John Toussaint
    Health Care Hero

    Deliver better care at a lower cost. If Toyota can do it with cars, why can’t the health care companies of America do the same for their patients?

    That’s what propelled John Toussaint, CEO of ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value, to start this nonprofit that helps management teams in the health care industry become more efficient.

    Think of your doctor as a cog in the health care machine; the better that machine functions, the less it will cost and the better care you will receive.

    That’s the reason behind Toussaint’s center. If process improvement could help Toyota create a cheaper, better-built car, he reasoned, then it could also help health CEOs create a more cost-effective and efficient delivery system for health care. Toussaint’s goal is to fine-tune the machinery of these systems so they operate better.

    “We’re an education institute for health systems and doctor groups around the world that leads them to operational excellence,” he said.

    “We’ve been applying the Toyota production system principles for many years (at ThedaCare).”

    That company is an integrated delivery system that runs hospitals, clinics and the gamut of health care, so Toussaint already knew it would work when he stepped down as CEO of that northeast Wisconsin company to create the center.

    “We’re a mission-based organization, a not-for-profit. Our interest is in changing healthcare delivery across the world. We are seeing some really good results.”

    The center works with CEOs and senior executives; those teams then take what they’ve learned back to their facilities. They also learn from each other, Toussaint said. Once his team passes along the tools, the CEOs themselves are in charge of using them to change the culture where they work.

    “We’re trying to create a culture of continuous improvement, a framework that we have used over the years to get people started,” Toussaint said. With those building blocks, he added, they can continue to build improvements into their work culture.  

    –Geri Parlin


    Matthew Gonnering
    Eudaimonia Advocate

    Change is natural, and necessary for survival. Matthew Gonnering embraced this as the CEO of Widen Enterprises when he navigated the company through the transition from its former pre-media domain to a thriving marketing technology company. The transition “required shifts in the entire structure – things as trivial as the location of the Christmas party to how we were internally storing our information,” admitted Gonnering. But it was successful: Widen Enterprises is now an established leader in Digital Asset Management, and works with more than 400 globally recognized brands. The changes included redefining the company’s culture to include eudaimonia. “It’s an ethical framework for our company. If the overall wellness of a person is improved and satisfaction is achieved across their life, we’ll reap the rewards of that across many dimensions of the organization,” Gonnering said. It’s working. “Culturally, we shifted and saw significant moves in our satisfaction within our company,” says Gonnering. They’ve been surveying their employees since 2010, when 48 percent of employees reported being satisfied with their employment. In 2014, 98 percent reported
    being satisfied.

    –Bridgette McCormick


    Patrick Arendt
    Dehydration Domo

    In the middle of Wisconsin, Patrick Arendt and his business partner have created a technology with global ramifications. Their low-temperature drying method refines the separation and stabilization of waste products, allowing the dehydration of cells without rupturing. This could dramatically change the way blood is stored and preserved. The process also works for food, including cranberries. Waste products on cranberry lines include skin, seeds and fiber. “This technology can stabilize it into a powder, resulting in a wonderful preservative and food additive,” explained Arendt. Arendt’s pet project is farming white-tailed deer, who eat the dried cranberry product. “When used in a feed formula, the most impactful parasites are reduced without killing the gut flora in the animal, allowing existing genes to flourish.” This breakthrough technology has generated a lot of interest, mostly internationally. Arendt would like to see it developed locally. “There’s a substantial amount of intellectual capital in the community that can be captured and commercialized.”  

    –Bridgette McCormick


    Paul Mattek
    Brilliant Builder

    If you’re looking for a guy in a suit, sitting in an office, doing things by the book, you’re probably not looking for Paul Mattek of Design Fugitives in Milwaukee. Mattek was never that guy.

    In order to become the unorthodox entrepreneur he is today, “I had to reconnect with my childhood.”

    That childhood included the barn on his grandpa’s farm on Highway 43 near Manitowoc. In there, Mattek was allowed to tinker, build and dream.

    “I was this high-energy kid who couldn’t sit still, but I could do this for hours.”

    He tucked that restless energy away to get through school, he said, disciplining himself to sit still and focus on his education.

    It wasn’t until he hit grad school that he tapped back  into his own natural resources and started focusing on how best to use his talents. Along with six other architecture school buddies, he started Design Fugitives. But in “the messy-but-upward progression” that has defined the company’s history, four of those original partners departed for other work, leaving Mattek with Justin White and Tuan Tran. “I have the two best partners I could imagine.”

    The three of them learn what they need to accomplish a project, Mattek said, often doing the design and the fabrication on site. But he had some advantages going in, having worked construction for many years.

    “I learned that architects don’t get to make stuff that much. The reality is there’s a lot of nitty gritty and project management.”

    Instead, Design Fugitives gives the partners a chance to design and build things that are a bit out of the ordinary – such as a light project for Johnson Controls, Inc. that measured 40- by 40- by 15-feet with more than 2,000 pieces. They also design things as small as coasters, as for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    The partners bring different skills to the company. Mattek has the construction background, Tran is interested in computers and technology and White has a background in sculpture and graphic design. “And he’s been working on cars since he was crawling.”

    The first few years were lean, Mattek said.

    “We knew it was going to be messy. I had no visions of instant success.” But he also knew this was worth the risk.

    “It’s love of discovery. We really look for those problems where an ordinary option can’t be available.  We want to inspire people to connect to something deeper, to pause a little bit and reflect on what they’re seeing. It’s our most scarce resource these days.” 

    –Geri Parlin


    Jeff Dalsin
    Discount Diagnostician

    You can’t argue with the numbers.

    “There are 18 million sprain and strain injuries every year, and that’s a $92 billion load on the health care system,” said Jeff Dalsin.

    What those numbers mean to Dalsin, CEO of Echometrix, is a big market for his company’s diagnostic equipment for musculoskeletal conditions, or MSK.

    “We know the market is very large and there are a great deal of inefficiencies.”

    You may have suffered through some of those inefficiencies if you’ve ever seen a doctor for tennis elbow. After that initial visit, Dalsin said, the doctor may recommend therapy. But without having seen what’s really going on inside, that’s an educated guess.

    The diagnostic equipment from Echometrix cuts down on the guesswork and allows doctors to get an accurate diagnosis using ultrasound, which is cheaper than an MRI.

    “It’s primarily diagnostic, but we believe we can also use it to judge the efficacy of treatments,” said Dalsin.

    Echometrix, located in Fitchburg, grew out of research on MSK being done at UW-Madison. The company was founded in 2009, with Dalsin joining in 2013. Before that, he co-invented a surgical glue that cuts down on the use of staples and stitches.

    Dalsin originally intended to attend medical school, but discovered research along the way. He earned a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering and life sciences, then a master’s and PhD in biomedical engineering.

    What he’s doing now is just what the cumbersome health care system needs – finding a way to improve patient care at a lower cost.

    MSK diagnostics will do that, he said. “It’s quicker and cheaper, with fewer touches.”

    But it’s a long road from the drawing board to the doctor’s office, so while he and his partners await FDA approval, they are launching similar diagnostic software for veterinarians.

    “It’s a good way to generate revenue while we wait.”

    –Geri Parlin


    Norrie Daroga
    Avatar Inventor

    Daily interaction with artificial intelligence may seem like science fiction, but to Norrie Daroga, CEO of Geppetto Avatars, it is the answer to scaling current health care practices from one patient conversation to tens of thousands. “That you can talk to a machine and it can understand you was a pretty fanciful idea, but it’s time for it to come,” said Daroga. Regular monitoring of patients with chronic illnesses – like asthma or diabetes, for example – can result in earlier treatment and fewer hospitalizations. Currently, a daily checkup isn’t typically feasible. Daroga’s team is creating a personable, knowledgeable health care avatar for patients to check in with instead. “Fundamentally, what we’re building is the ability for people to converse with machines. We’re letting you talk to something that actually understands you.” Daroga clarifies, “We’re not going to replace what the brain does, but we can help highly skilled individuals by taking the administrative burden off and doing assessments, reading reports, sending communications.” 

    –Bridgette McCormick


    Greg Wright
    Arts Ally

    It’s too seldom that art and business successfully intersect, but Greg Wright, executive director of Arts Alliance, is getting it right with CREATE Portage County. “Businesses foster and support a community, and the arts make it a better place to live,” he explained. “We realized the business community benefits from increased access to intellectual capital and creative professionals, and that artists benefit from the opportunity to develop their business acumen,” said Wright. The heart of the project is the Center for Entrepreneurship and Creativity, a business incubator that is soon to be located in a recently-restored vaudeville theater in downtown Stevens Point. Wright hopes to expand the space to include communal workspace, a business resource center, a makerspace and a product lab. “You don’t see this kind of work happening in rural areas,” said Wright. “We are hoping to create a model replicable for smaller communities everywhere.” 

    –Bridgette McCormick

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