Flu Research, Propeller, & Stem Cells: This Week’s WI Watchlist

Catch up on some of the latest happenings in Wisconsin’s innovation community with these recent headlines:

—Writing in the journal Nature Microbiology, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka and colleagues describe what they believe to be a better way of predicting the evolution of seasonal influenza strains, the university said. Their approach reportedly involves imitating naturally occurring mutations that strains undergo, and accelerating these changes in hemagglutinin, a protein that exposes cells to infection. “This is the first demonstration that one can accurately anticipate in the lab future seasonal influenza strains,” Kawaoka said in a prepared statement.

—Madison-based Propeller Health said it’s partnered with the U.K.-based Vectura Group to develop a connected dry powder inhaler for patients with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The two groups will initially work to develop an add-on sensor for one of the inhalers that Vectura currently sells.

The announcement comes on the heels of partnerships Propeller has forged or expanded with Boehringer Ingelheim (Germany), Aptar Pharma (Crystal Lake, IL), and GlaxoSmithKline (U.K.) during the past six months. GSK’s Ellipta inhaler is also of the dry powder variety, as opposed to other types like soft mist and metered-dose.

—Madison-based Cellular Dynamics International announced a partnership with The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research aimed at developing new therapies for treating the disease. According to a press release, researchers at Indiana University will derive lines of induced pluripotent stem cells, which can be differentiated into any type of cell found in the human body, from 85 individuals in the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative, which is sponsored by the foundation. “This collaboration builds on the contributions of PPMI volunteers and the technical expertise of CDI to generate valuable research tools,” Mark Frasier, a senior vice president at the foundation, said in a prepared statement.

—Josh Medow, a neurosurgeon and critical care specialist at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, met with officials at the Food and Drug Administration last week to discuss the regulatory approval process for software that his company, Madison-based Integrated Vital Medical Dynamics, is developing. The startup’s flagship product, called Digital Intern, is designed to improve outcomes and lower costs in hospitals’ intensive care units. Digital Intern is currently used in UW Health’s Neurocritical ICU, but Medow said FDA clearance might be required in order for the software to be implemented at other sites.

—Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI) said it will provide $500,000 to fund two research projects at the UW-Madison. Jacob Dubie and Kevin Frankforter, both graduate students at the university, will lead the two projects. Their objective is to improve the fuel efficiency of “start-stop” and battery-electric vehicles. Stop-start technology involves automatically powering down a car’s engines while it idles and restarting it when the foot comes off the brake pedal. The technology can increase fuel efficiency by as much as 5 percent, according to a press release.

Fetch Rewards struck a seven-year partnership with Kraft Heinz (NASDAQ: KHC). The Chicago-based food producer made an investment in Fetch—whose mobile app can save shoppers money on groceries and help stores and food manufacturers build customer loyalty—but founder and CEO Wes Schroll said “there is no equity or debt component” to the deal. The agreement came together after an employee at Oscar Mayer—which operates a plant in Madison, where Fetch is based—saw his wife using the app and contacted the startup.

—A team of 15 UW-Madison business and engineering students is developing a wind turbine that’s aimed at powering cellular phone towers in India, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Scott Williams, who works at the Wisconsin Energy Institute—located on the university’s campus—told the newspaper that the electrical grid can be spotty in parts of India, where power outages are more common than in other countries. The student presented the concept and a model they built at a competition hosted by the American Wind Energy Association in New Orleans that concluded on Thursday.

—Milwaukee-based Okanjo, whose software can help news outlets display online advertisements that relate to the content of articles, is expanding its partnership with Lee Enterprises (NYSE: LEE). Lee is a media conglomerate based in Davenport, IA, whose holdings include the Wisconsin State Journal and several other Badger State publications. Bethany Grabher, Okanjo’s vice president of marketing and business development, declined to reveal the size of Lee’s investment or the ownership stake in Okanjo that Lee received.

—Middleton-based Standard Imaging, whose products include tools for measuring and calibrating radiation when treating cancer patients, was among the winners of Governor’s New Product Awards, according to an e-mail from Lauren Foley, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. Standard Imaging won first place in the category for companies with 51 to 200 employees for its Exradin A26 Ion Chamber, which is used in dosimetry. The awards recognize the efforts of engineers in developing new products, Foley said.

—Northwestern Mutual, the life insurance and financial services giant based in Milwaukee, launched a revamped online portal for its 4.3 million clients that incorporates technology developed by LearnVest, a New York-based company the insurer acquired a year ago. LearnVest founder and CEO Alexa von Tobel is now Northwestern Mutual’s vice president of client experience, the insurer said. LearnVest operates as an independent subsidiary of the insurer, with von Tobel and most of her employees continuing to work from the company’s New York offices.

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