Innovation to Market, Madison-Style
One of the newer additions to Madison's commercial building stock provides the example and the inspiration, but two area companies were at it long before the doors opened at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. The Institutes, where collaboration and public-private partnerships hold the promise of driving UW-Madison to new research heights, have nothing on Isomark and Yahara Bay Distillers, two distinctly different enterprises that offer examples of how to stimulate the innovative process. In this look at innovation to market, IB talks with the chief executives of both enterprises, one that is developing a promising medical device and another that has a completely different medicinal purpose.
Hitting the Mark
The story of Isomark, a Madison start-up company spun out of UW-Madison research, is one of collaboration. Isomark is focused on the development of a portable medical device to identify the onset of life-threatening, hospital-related infections such as sepsis, many of which take hold following surgery and other procedures.
The company was developed through what it acknowledges is an "unexpected confluence of ideas," and the confluence of UW-Madison scientists like Warren Porter, Isabel Treichel, and Mark Cook. The technology can be traced to a professor of anthropology who wanted to use carbon isotopes to analyze ancient bones. He was hoping to learn when people first grew corn in the United States.
One thing led to another, and a collaborative process involving the aforementioned scientific minds led to the discovery of how to detect infections using the C02 in one's breath. The collaborators did not intend to launch a company, but they could not sit idly by and let the technology, the equivalent of an early warning system, collect dust on a shelf. So they ponied up some cash.
The Isomark technology, a biomarker patented through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, addresses an unmet need. Each year, about 1.7 million U.S.
hospital patients contract infections. More than 750,000 of those infections lead to sepsis, resulting in 200,000 patient deaths. With diagnosis based on measuring and analyzing isotopic biomarkers through exhaled CO2 samples, the innovation is powerful enough to detect the onset of an infection within two hours, which significantly increases survival rates.
And the innovation continues, this time with the help of clinical and other partners, according to Isomark CEO Neil Holland. The company, now in a clinical evaluation and data collection phase, is testing its technology at UW Hospital and Meriter Children's Hospital. Since innovation is part validation and part feedback, the technology is being well served by its trial run in local clinical settings.
In addition to gathering data about effectiveness and workflow, the evaluation process has yielded information about potential applications. Company officials originally thought its most important use would be within intensive care units because ICUs serve the most vulnerable patients.
Yet clinicians have identified critical need in the context of bone marrow transplants and other cancer conditions in which the immune system is suppressed. In those cases, it is difficult to detect the presence of infections because one indicator used is a change in a patient's white blood cell count.
"If you have a very highly depressed white cell count, like in bone marrow transplantation where chemotherapy is used to kill your white cells, then you can't usually detect infection," Holland said. "So a biomarker like our technology now has a new clinical use, and that innovation has come about from that direct involvement with the clinicians. It's been a cyclical feedback and iterative process that basically drives technology forward."
To build its feedback loop, Isomark has added colleagues from Princeton University and the United Kingdom to its team of thought leaders. "The innovative process is iterative, it involves feedback, and to me it has always involved getting input from wide and diverse sources," Holland said. "Innovation often is not based on inspiration as much as it is on the collection and the filtering of information from different sources. That allows you to seek out and satisfy unmet needs."
Within the next year, Isomark expects to file for market clearance through the 510(k) notification process, and since approval usually takes six months, the medical device could hit the market in 18 months.
With government payers like Medicare moving to payments based on quality outcomes rather than volume of services, Isomark's technology can gain a market advantage if the company truly offers earlier detection of potentially deadly infections.
Distilling it down
Innovation is not just for the scientific community. Lest you think that creating fine rum, vodka, gin, and brandy is the sole province of liquor industry poo-bahs, a modestly sized distillery business in Madison is proving otherwise.
Nick Quint, president of Yahara Bay Distillers, and Jill Skowronski, vice president of sales and marketing, said every employee is involved with product development, from conception to release. When you have five employees and rely on a small batch distillery process, it's not an unwieldy process. Quint said that outside of running the distillery, every employee probably knows every aspect of the business, and that's why it's important that everybody is involved in product development.
"We're open to ideas, so people suggest ideas or create things on their own," Quint said. "As a group, we do research that starts with tasting. We will make sample batches and let the public taste them. We keep everybody involved all the way through.
"I don't make a decision on anything unless everybody is involved in that decision and has had their chance for input."
Since taste testing at liquor stores is limited to beer and wine, Yahara Bay invites the public to come in for tours and what amounts to informal focus groups. Just bring your sense of taste and a willingness to offer frank advice on the various samples.
"We also design signature cocktails with our products because we are not able to do that in liquor stores," Skowronski noted.
Other times, Yahara Bay brings the product to the focus group. Last year, the company took part in a March of Dimes fundraiser, and one of its contributions was an experimental Chai Tea Vodka, which became a huge hit, so much so the company decided to seek federal approval. Now that approval is secured, another product of Yahara Bay's innovative process is set for launch this fall.
The company is restricted by law in how it distributes products, but it can be creative with labeling. Labeling, in fact, is the major form of promotion with such products. In the case of the new Chai Tea Vodka, Yahara Bay has enlisted the talents of Brazilian artist Jonatas Chimen to create the label. A brief biography of Chimen, who is attending UW-Madison, is printed on the back of the label, and the involvement of an artist is symbolic of how the company approaches presentation.
Employees might be encouraged to experiment, but there are occasional failures that offend the taste buds, including one that had the basic scent and flavor of mud. There were others that aged well, like the pear brandy that was left in a whiskey barrel and forgotten, only to tempt the taste buds when it was rediscovered a couple of years later.
When the company tried to replicate that success, it brought in 600 pounds of pears but learned the hard way that pears have about a 48-hour ripeness window. Their timing was off, the pears were not ripe enough to get the best result, and they basically wasted 600 pounds of fruit.
One gets the impression that Yahara Bay takes an embracing Silicon Valley approach to failure, which can lead to success later on.
"Trial and error," Skowronski remarked.
"There are a number of those," Quint admitted. "We don't make them all public. We just love them ourselves."
No matter, because the innovation churn continues. At the moment, Yahara Bay also is planning to launch a 3- to 4-year-old bourbon, and is working on several liqueurs.
Quint thinks if the business is allowed to grow too large in terms of product volume, some of its innovative touch will be lost. He brings in additional employees for holiday production, but the small batch (90 gallons) process is here to stay because it enables the company to better control quality.
While a lot of experiments, even the tastier ones, never make it to market, Yahara Bay would rather produce a few quality products than many mediocrities, and it will never attempt to duplicate a competitor's product.
"I would never allow us to get so large that innovation suffers," Quint stated. "I think that is a vital part of this business. When we innovate, our new products are unique products. Sometimes, there is even a little bit of an educational process."
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