Isthmus Project has accepted two startups, eyeing others

The Isthmus Project, a new business accelerator program at UW Health, has already accepted two startups and is considering several more.

That’s according to Thomas ‘Rock’ Mackie, chief innovation officer at UW Health and director of the program, which was announced in early February. He spoke yesterday at a Madison luncheon held by the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Healthcare Business Forum.

As head of the new initiative, he says he’s still in the process of making industry connections and developing working relationships with other groups on campus.

“It’s sort of like building an airplane while we’re flying it,” Mackie said.

Of the two approved startups, Mackie says one would make a good not-for-profit or university center, while the other would be better suited as a for-profit endeavor. The former is called ProMaps, and the latter is called PACT, or Program for Advanced Cell Therapy.

PACT is headed by Dr. Jacques Galipeau, an assistant dean of medicine at UW-Madison who is pioneering a method of protecting patients with compromised immune systems.

Mackie says this work represents a huge opportunity to capitalize on a “very rare, very personalized” set of drug treatments.

As Mackie explains, patients who receive bone marrow or other transplants are forced to undergo immune suppression, leaving them exposed to “all kinds of bacterial and viral assaults.” A common virus that would mean a sore throat and some bed rest for the average person could kill a transplant patient or destroy their new organ.

To help patients like these, Galipau looks for any close relatives who are already immune to the virus in question. By drawing some blood, isolating cells that confer immunity, and injecting them into the transplant patient at a certain ratio, he can eliminate the infection in 80 percent of cases.

This method of treatment is highly focused, Mackie said. By picking up individual “immune competencies” one at a time, patients keep the risk of transplant rejection low.

“There’s a lot of different types of infections … and by the way, this whole work can be applied to cancer as well,” Mackie said.

Galipeau’s lab at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health already has more than enough participants, giving him a head start over potential competitors in the market.

Mackie says there are three phases of clinical trials needed before Galipeau’s method can be approved by the FDA, meaning others face a significant barrier to entry.

Once Galipeau gets that approval, he can use his treatment method on any patient in the country.

In its early stages of growth, Mackie envisions PACT starting at the UW Health laboratory before expanding as a private entity with its own additional lab space.

The other startup accepted by the Isthmus Project is called ProMaps, and is aimed at solving the mounting problem of physician burnout caused by hard-to-read electronic medical record systems.

Mackie says this idea has been incubated at UW Health for some time by Dr. Joel Buchanan, an internal medicine specialist. He describes Buchanan as a “super-interested guy … hyper-enthusiastic.”

“If Joel were to win the lottery, he’d throw it all into ProMaps,” he said.  

Physician burnout has received renewed focus with the advent of electronic medical records, which Mackie says are actually harder to navigate for doctors than their old paper documents. That’s because they’re not organized around diseases.

“Everything in medicine is organized by diseases,” Mackie said. That includes everything from classes in college to grant categories for the National Institutes of Health, so he questions why EMR systems aren’t organized in the same way.

Buchanan wants to map up to 300 diseases along with any associated drugs, procedures, tests and imaging, with “all of the notes organized with respect to a disease-specific approach.”

“The EMR companies seem like they’re willing to fund it, including our own giant, Epic,” Mackie said. “I think this is a great project.”

Although the Isthmus Project has only accepted these two startups so far, Mackie said he’s looking into a number of other ideas.

Those include: a new treatment for late-stage cancers such as prostate cancer; assessments for birth marks that can sometimes give rise to cancer; new scanning techniques for sports-related traumatic brain injury; transitional care for people leaving hospitals or going into nursing homes; and surgical coaching.

Mackie argues continuing medical education — which all physicians must do — should include some form of physical engagement for surgeons in particular. He says forcing surgeons to learn through lectures “doesn’t make sense.” Just like an artist, craftsman or construction worker, “they need to work with their hands.”

He says UW Health has “one of the world’s best surgical coaching resources” on campus, providing the framework for a potential not-for-profit company.

Mackie is a professor emeritus at UW-Madison, and was previously involved in several successful startups including Geometrics and TomoTherapy. In his new role, he says he wants to leverage innovations being made within UW-Madison to improve patient care and support economic development in the state.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying we want to do it because of Wisconsin economic development,” he said. “We should not be afraid of saying we want to improve the economy of the state.”


–By Alex Moe