Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:33 pm
If there is a weak link of the major metro areas in the IQ Corridor biotech chain connecting Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis, some say it’s Milwaukee. However, a new project, the Wisconsin Institute for Biomedical and Health Technologies (WIBHT), may change that.
The new institute is a joint effort between the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Medical College of Wisconsin, GE Healthcare, Aurora Health Care and Kansas City-based Cerner Corp, a health care technology company.
Institute officials hope to attract other universities and corporations from southeastern Wisconsin to participate in the initiative.
The institute aims to create new innovations within the biomedical and health industries that will ultimately lead to new products being made in Wisconsin and new jobs for workers to make them.
The institute will be housed at the Cozzens and Cudahy Research Center on Milwaukee’s northwest side.
"As we look downstream, we want there to be developments to create new technology that will be commercialized," UWM chancellor Carlos Santiago said. "Spin-off companies can really support economic development.
"Milwaukee is still not strong enough for the Chicago technology and the developments from Madison. That’s the weak link now," Santiago said. "I think that within three years, we’ll see it start to develop real funded research niches, where UWM will become known for one thing it does very well. It will take on a life of its own. If we get and attract the right people, we can’t predict where it’s going to go."
Two projects that will fall under the umbrella of the institute when it is formally established in July are already running, and work has begun for additional projects.
UWM’s College of Nursing has been working with Aurora and Cerner Corp. for the past seven months on a project dedicated to health care informatics, the study of digitally storing medical records and patient information to make that information easily accessible for health care workers.
"We’re developing what I call intelligent decision-making systems for health care," said Sally Lundeen, dean of the UWM College of Nursing. "As health care and nursing becomes much more complex because of our clients and technology, we’re developing the first partnership in the country that I’m aware of between a major software company, a health care system and academia. We’re building an information system that brings information to nurses at the point of care and allows a nurse that is going to make complex decisions to have a knowledge base to make those decisions."
It typically takes 12 to 17 years to get research in the health care industry to be used by health care workers. Having the health care industry partnering in the informatics project should speed up the process, she said.
Norma Lang, former dean of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, has been brought to UWM to lead the informatics project. Lang has been named Aurora professor of health care quality and a distinguished professor in the UW system.
If the project is successful, Lang said it could greatly improve health care in southeastern Wisconsin.
"Nurses often determine the quality of care that’s going on," Lang said. "The whole care design has to go along with the patient, and that goes right along with the nurses."
The promise of improving patient outcomes motivated Aurora to become involved with the informatics project, according to Susan Ela, senior clinical vice president at the Milwaukee company.
"We believe that the new research work that will be made possible through the Wisconsin Institute for Biomedical and Health Technologies has the potential to change the way people are cared for," Ela said.
UWM’s College of Engineering and Applied Science will be working with GE Healthcare and the Medical College of Wisconsin on another project, which has yet to be determined.
"We’ve had about eight hours of meetings (at GE Healthcare) and here at UWM, and discussions of possible projects on the table," said Bill Gregory, dean of UWM’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. "The beauty is that between UWM and (the Medical College of Wisconsin), there are almost 60 faculty involved."
Gregory’s son, Christopher Gregory, is an associated researcher with the UWM College of Engineering and Applied Science, and is working with his father and several others from the engineering program on an electrical scanning project, which they hope will be a breakthrough in cancer screening tests.
Christopher Gregory said the electrical scanning program, which he calls electronic impedance tomography, reads electrical signals sent out by different types of tissues and is able to differentiate between, healthy tissue and suspected cancer.
The team is working to develop an electronic impedance tomography device that will be able to scan patients in tests that will be done alongside mammograms, Christopher Gregory said.
"We’re working on that test prototype of the scan device," he said. "My dad has been talking with Aurora in the last six weeks. We still need to go through the review process."
The institute was born from conversations between Santiago and Katherine Lyall, the former president of the University of Wisconsin System, when Santiago was making preparations to lead UWM.
"They hired me to build, implement and improve our research stature," Santiago said. "But I realized that is an expensive undertaking, and at the same time, there’s not a lot of free money floating around."
However, Santiago was able to secure $1 million in seed money and another $1 million in annual funding for a new strategic research program. To leverage the money for its best use, Santiago asked the deans of UWM’s colleges to form teams and submit their best projects.
WIBHT was one of the seven proposals created by the UWM community and also incorporates several of the other nominations. The other nominations include creating a center for neural plasticity, enhanced surface and nano studies, a center on biotechnology, and a center on age and community.
"The characteristics we were looking for were that it would involve multiple schools and outside partners in the private sector, and they should put resources into it as well," Santiago said. "Then we could use the $1 million in seed money to attract a team of researchers."
UWM and WIBHT are now looking for a leadership team.
"That’s where that $1 million comes in, to bring in that person and their team," he said.
Abbas Ourmazd, who was named UWM’s new vice chancellor for research and dean of its graduate school, will play a significant role in finding and attracting the right person to lead WIBHT.
Ourmazd will start with UWM on July 1. He is the chairman of Frankfurt, Germany-based Lesswire AG, a high-tech company founded in 1999 that holds 10 patents and has published more than 130 papers in journals. Ourmazd also has served as chief executive officer of Frankfurt-based Communicant Semiconductor Technologies AG and has overseen several laboratories.
"He has a lot of connections to help us attract a top-notch researcher," Santiago said. "He’s got all the research credentials, and he knows the business world."
Because WIBHT’s mission is to create partnerships between academia and private enterprise, it plays upon the strengths of each, Lundeen said.
"What academia is really excellent at doing is creating new knowledge and synthesizing existing knowledge," Lundeen said. "What Cerner is excellent at is computerizing this knowledge, and what Aurora is stellar at doing is implementing the latest knowledge at the bedside, creating a culture where nurses can test what has been found in academia and coded in industry."
Ultimately, the goals of the institute are the transfer of intellectual property from universities and the institute, where they will be developed, to private business, where they could result in new products and ultimately, new jobs and manufacturing in southeastern Wisconsin.
"The student is your intellectual transfer," Gregory said.
T. Michael Bolger, president of the Medical College of Wisconsin, said the institute will give the universities in southeastern Wisconsin a chance to collaborate, which in turn will help spur innovation.
"Our institutions should be working together in both research and educational programs because we complement each other so well," he said. "Through collaboration, we can build something in Milwaukee that is far greater than the sum of its parts."
May 27, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI