Fred Lee, The UW Radiologist With Startup Vision
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Van der Weide identified himself as a UW-Madison professor of electrical engineering with an interest in sensing and communications, and told Lee that microwaves might simply be the best design for that particular application.
Lee was intrigued, though not yet persuaded. He retrieved a particular-sized spinal needle, at van der Weide’s request, and then the engineer got to work. That same day, van der Weide used the needle, a coaxial cable, and a power supply from his lab to build an ablation device that was superior to the one Lee and Haemmerich had constructed and licensed to Valleylab, Lee says.
“I’m like, ‘Holy cow, that is unbelievable. We really have something here,’” Lee says.
From there, van der Weide brought his concept into Lee’s research lab, and they recruited two graduate students—Chris Brace and Paul Laeseke—to develop it further. The four of them later founded NeuWave Medical (initially known as Micrablate); they completed the required paperwork on a dining room table at Lee’s home. Brace, who has since become an associate professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at UW-Madison, now runs what had been Lee’s lab, under the name BraceGroup. Laeseke went on to Stanford University to train as a resident physician in radiology. Both men continue to be involved with NeuWave.
(Quick aside: Cellectar Biosciences—which Lee co-founded in 2002, along with UW-Madison radiology professor Jamey Weichert—was also incorporated in Lee’s dining room. He recruited Weichert to the UW from the University of Michigan in 1998, and the two collaborated on research prior to Cellectar’s launch. After helping Weichert raise an initial funding round from angel investors, Lee says he has not been closely involved with the company.)
A few years after its founding, NeuWave itself needed to raise money to help it commercialize a device that could help doctors perform microwave ablation procedures. Madison-based Venture Investors was evaluating the startup, Lee says, and brought in Laura King to help with the due diligence the fund performs on prospects. King had a couple decades of experience in the medical devices industry at GE Healthcare.
“After she met us a couple times, [van der Weide] and I said, ‘That woman is smart—I wonder what she’s doing the next couple years?’” Lee says. “You could see that her mind was turning, like, ‘How can I make this into a new product?’”
King got that opportunity, joining NeuWave as president and CEO in 2007. She put together a team of engineers, including Rick Schefelker, another veteran of GE Healthcare, Lee says. All of the members of that early engineering team remain with NeuWave today, he says. Another key contributor was Lisa Sampson, who helped with user interface design and now works in the lab Brace runs.
“[King] gets a huge amount of credit for building that machine,” Lee says, describing the Certus 140 Microwave Ablation System, NeuWave’s flagship product. “There were no major missteps along the way. We were very, very fortunate.”
The Certus 140 includes probes whose tips deliver energy to soft-tissue lesions, as well as a wheeled workstation with a touch-screen monitor.
Lee says NeuWave “was funded around 2008,” built a machine and got FDA approval for it, then began selling it by 2011. It was an “incredibly fast” timeline relative to some of the company’s larger competitors, he says.
King left NeuWave in 2013, according to her LinkedIn profile, and the company later named Dan Sullivan its president and CEO.