UW-Madison Accelerator D2P Poised to Hatch First Few Companies

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

Discovery to Product, an experimental accelerator launched on University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus last year, is starting to churn out its first few companies, organizers say.

The program, dubbed D2P, is charged with shepherding promising ideas born on campus to the point of licensing the technology or forming a company that has a good shot at snagging investment money. D2P was started because UW-Madison consistently ranks among the top-spending schools for research, but administrators think it needs to hike up its number of annual licensing agreements (currently about 50) and spinout companies (around five). UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank has made tech transfer a cornerstone of her agenda.

D2P took about a year to get off the ground—the initiative was announced in November 2013; a director, John Biondi, was named in March 2014; and work began on the 15 chosen projects last fall.

“We still have a ways to go with some of these projects,” Biondi says. But a few are poised to shed their training wheels and launch their businesses. Meanwhile, D2P is getting ready to select its second group of participants, he adds.

Last week, eight of the teams presented their ideas to a room filled with investors, which generated some early but positive interest, Biondi says. “I think it was a successful event, and the projects presented well.”

One team has already created a contract services business, Advanced Image Quantification, and partnered with a pharmaceutical company that will use AIQ’s bone imaging technology to track how cancerous lesions respond to its experimental drugs, Biondi says.

Another D2P participant that will soon launch its business, Biondi says, is Spectrom, which Xconomy profiled in December. Spectrom developed an adapter to allow desktop 3D printers to print in full color, and it has already won several student business and innovation competitions.

Other D2P projects that could incorporate companies over the next few months include Reveal, which developed an egg-based protein derivative intended to supplant antibiotics in livestock feed, and Mobius, a mobile application that allows users to link multiple cell phone numbers to a single device.

Meanwhile, two of the teams are on track to license their technology. Only three of the 15 projects in D2P’s first class have called it quits or are likely to scrap commercialization plans, Biondi says. “We’re thrilled with that” statistic, he adds.

D2P launched with $3.2 million from UW-Madison and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, money that will fund the operation for three years, Biondi says. D2P has three full-time employees, two part-time mentors in residence, a handful of student interns, and a five-person advisory board, he says.

D2P awards milestone-based grants to program participants from its “Igniter” fund, which is backed by a $2.4 million state grant. The initiative seeks projects that have already proven the technology works, but need help getting to market. During the course of the program, D2P works with the teams to test their ideas with potential customers, make financial projections, and connect with experienced mentors, among other activities.

It looks like there will be enough money left over from Igniter’s initial pot to fund another six to eight teams, Biondi says. “We found that it takes a lot less money than the budgets” initially proposed by the 15 teams, he says. Still, D2P is also out raising funds to supplement the $2.4 million state grant.

The second round of projects is currently being chosen from about 35 proposals submitted this spring, and those teams will begin work with D2P in June, Biondi says.

The initiative still has a lot to prove, including showing that its program not only can produce spinouts and licensing deals, but also produce successful ones.

So far, though, Biondi is happy with the early progress D2P has made. It has shown the ability to aid a variety of projects, from life sciences to software, he says. And D2P “showed that we could bring a lean startup accelerator model inside the university” and, perhaps more importantly, make it fit with academic life.

“These commercial accelerators like Gener8tor, you kind of go off for several weeks and live and breathe that stuff 12 to 15 hours a day,” Biondi says. But students, professors, and researchers “can’t do that.”