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Computer wonks are not the only ones who can come up with good ideas for new technology and companies.

So can doctors, nurses and medical school students.

That’s the idea behind a new accelerator on the UW-Madison campus that is designed to move inventions specifically from UW Health or the UW School of Medicine and Public Health to the market.

The Isthmus Project — named through a vote by UW Health and School of Medicine employees and students — will be like other business accelerators where entrepreneurs get specialized assistance in learning how to develop and market their products. What will make it different is the focus on improving patients’ health on a broad scale or on solving problems facing UW Health patients and personnel, organizers say.

Thomas “Rock” Mackie, who has been named to lead the accelerator, said the Isthmus Project will be a “one-stop shop hub for medical technology.”

“We are looking at innovations that we’ve produced and commercializing them in some way,” either as a for-profit company or a nonprofit organization, with the help of an advisory committee of community experts, Mackie said.

“It’s meant to be a front door for innovators to come with ideas at whatever stage, so that we could provide some feedback,” said Kelly Wilson, senior vice president and chief legal officer at UW Health, who is among those leading the Isthmus Project.

Physician-focused tech

Several ideas already in the program are aimed at helping doctors do their jobs more easily and efficiently.

dr. joel buchanan

UW Health Dr. Joel Buchanan

One of them, initiated by Dr. Joel Buchanan, would organize information around specific medical conditions, averting the need for physicians to wade through mountains of patient data that may not be relevant.

The goal is to reduce physician burnout, Wilson said.

“One of the repeated frustrations of providers is the usability of the electronic medical record,” she said. “We went from an era of having not enough information to having too much information that isn’t well organized to meet their needs.”

Buchanan’s software selects all of the data relating to a particular disease or condition, such as epilepsy, and shows it on a single concept map, Wilson said. That may include medication, lab images, hospital visits and physician notes.

“I can click on a button and all of a sudden, this map will come up,” she said.

Wilson said 11 conditions have been mapped out so far; the goal is to develop similar groupings for 400 medical conditions in the next several years and make them available to the major electronic health records providers, including Epic Systems Corp. in Verona.

kelly wilson

Kelly Wilson, senior vice president and chief legal officer, UW Health

“Joel’s ultimate vision is to make this available for free,” Wilson said.

She said a potential investor is considering funding the program, but if that doesn’t come through, mentors with the Isthmus Project are helping to evaluate alternatives.

A separate project being developed involves videotaping surgical procedures for use as a coaching tool for surgeons, possibly even in countries where medical personnel are scarce.

“What we’re hoping is ... This would be a wonderful thing if we could raise the quality of surgeons throughout the world,” Wilson said.

Getting expert advice

The Isthmus Project began in mid-January and is expected to be in full swing by late June. An office has been established at UW Hospital, where it meets up with the Medical School.

Mackie said he plans to hire several people with experience in medical startups.

There could be six to 12 projects involved in the accelerator for periods of a year or two, he said.

Mackie is a serial entrepreneur who has co-founded companies that include TomoTherapy (now part of Accuray), with radiation cancer treatment machines; HealthMyne, with tumor imaging technology; Asto CT, developing machines that scan horses for injuries; and Linectra, with 3-D printing of metal industrial components.

He also is a UW-Madison professor emeritus of medical physics and engineering physics and director emeritus of medical engineering at the Morgridge Institute for Research.

Mackie said he expects to work with several other startup incubator programs associated with UW-Madison, such as D2P (Discovery to Product), the School of Business’ Morgridge Entrepreneurial Bootcamp and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation’s Accelerator Program.

The Isthmus Project will be able to help startups from those programs with networking, but it will not be involved in developing drugs or medical devices, UW Health’s Wilson said.

“We would want to connect innovators to that right resource,” she said.

The Isthmus Project is expected to cost $350,000 to $500,000 a year to start, funded by UW Health, the UW School of Medicine and a grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., with outside investments for the incubated companies, Wilson said.

She said the program’s goal is to be self-sustaining within five years — either through returns from the startups or through cost savings that the ideas provide for the health system.

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