Fred Lee, The UW Radiologist With Startup Vision

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories on physicians at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics who have become full- or part-time entrepreneurs.]

Fred Lee is not afraid to put himself out there.

Lee is a radiologist at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, where his primary area of interest is the ablation, or elimination, of cancerous tumors. He says that around the year 2000, he decided that the radio frequency ablation devices he and his colleagues were using “were just not good enough.” But since Lee’s background wasn’t in engineering, he had to reach out for help.

“I knew exactly what I wanted to do to improve the devices, but I wasn’t equipped to make my ideas a reality,” Lee says. “So I walked over to the [UW-Madison] engineering school and I started knocking on doors.”

After a few unsuccessful pitches to researchers, Lee got a bite from John Webster, a professor emeritus of biomedical engineering at the school. Webster found a graduate student named Dieter Haemmerich who was willing to assist Lee, and together the two built the device Lee envisioned. They later licensed the technology to Valleylab, now a brand of Medtronic (NYSE: MDT), the Ireland-based medtech giant whose products include radio frequency ablation systems.

That example highlights Lee’s talent for spotting knowledge gaps (even his own) and finding the person or persons that can fill them. In addition to his clinical practice, research, and teaching duties at the university, he is the co-founder of three Madison-based companies—Cellectar Biosciences (NASDAQ: CLRB), NeuWave Medical, and Elucent Medical—and says he still works closely with the latter two. All three businesses involve technologies aimed at improving cancer treatments, but the similarities pretty much end there. The fact that Lee helped get such a diverse set of companies off the ground speaks to his ability to identify specific pain points experienced by clinicians, then assemble teams to engineer and commercialize technologies that address these problems.

Looking back on the fate of the radio frequency ablation technology he helped develop, Lee says that “Valleylab did an incredible job of bringing it to market.” But at the same time, he says that he and Haemmerich believed Valleylab could have done more to advance and promote the technology.

“We felt like we lost a lot of control over it,” Lee says. “I always said, ‘If I’m involved with any other inventions, we’re going to probably just do it ourselves.’”

Haemmerich went on to earn his PhD from UW-Madison in 2002, and is now part of the faculty at the Medical University of South Carolina. At his thesis defense, which Lee attended, another chance encounter with an engineering professor, Daniel van der Weide, planted the seed that would grow into NeuWave.

“A guy shows up to this grad thesis on a Harley and pulls his helmet off,” Lee recalls. “He’s got hair going all over the place and this big, bushy beard—he looks like the Wild Man of Borneo. He strides in with his leathers on, and I’m thinking, ‘What the heck is this?’”

According to Lee, Haemmerich was repeatedly interrupted during his presentation by van der Weide, who said the ablation device Haemmerich was describing would work better if it used microwaves instead of radio waves.

“This guy is being pretty rude to the grad student, and I’m sitting in the back getting kind of ticked off,” Lee says. “At the end of the thesis, I came up to him and I’m like, ‘What are you all about?’” … Next Page »

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