FRI AM News: WisBusiness: the Podcast with Sisi Li, Women in Biohealth mentorship program; Unemployment up slightly, but near record lows

— This week’s episode of “WisBusiness: the Podcast” is with Sisi Li, administrator for BioForward Wisconsin’s Women in Biohealth mentorship program. 

The program was launched to forge connections between women in biotechnology and other STEM fields through mentorships. 

“We know that women make up nearly half of the workforce, but only 27 percent of them work in STEM fields,” she said. “As a result of that, women working in more male-dominated STEM professions like biohealth often are eager to connect and support each other.” 

While mentees get guidance from other women who are more established in the field, Li says mentors are able to give back to the community by sharing their knowledge. The program is structured as a three-month course with six one-on-one meetings between pairs of participants. 

“The mentors can help the mentees with short-term and long-term goals, the program itself provides an info session and talks relating to these topics,” she said. “We also provide support material throughout the whole process … we have check-ins and we also have a final celebration at the end.” 

The program’s first cohort ran from January to April this year with 22 participants. Along with a marketing committee within Women in Biohealth, Li said program advocates within biohealth companies in the state are helping to spread the word. 

“It’s a pretty short-term commitment, but you could gain a long-term professional connection or a friend out of it,” she said. 

Listen to the podcast here: 

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— Wisconsin’s unemployment rate rose slightly to 3 percent in July but remained near record lows, state officials said during a briefing. 

The state’s labor force participation rate dipped from 66.4 percent in June to 66.2 percent in July, according to the latest federal figures released by the state Department of Workforce Development. 

At the same time, the unemployment rate ticked up from 2.9 percent to 3 percent, remaining below the national rate of 3.5 percent. 

DWD Chief Economist Dennis Winters said the latest report “continues to show good job gains,” with six out of the seven months this year seeing higher employment figures. 

“The state has recovered over 98 percent of jobs lost during the COVID recession,” he said yesterday. “Now we’re at the highest level of jobs we’ve seen since March 2020 when COVID hit. So this is still about 58,000 jobs short of the pre-COVID peaks. So we’re coming back but we’re not all the way there yet.” 

Wisconsin added 10,000 private-sector jobs over the month, and Winters explained much of those gains were in leisure and hospitality and construction. Total construction jobs hit 132,900 in July, a new historical high for the state, he said. 

“Through much of the country, and certainly around parts of Wisconsin, housing is booming,” Winters said. “We’re not seeing a whole lot on the heavy construction … the gains are in residential construction, and that’s mostly on the multi-family side.” 

See more in the DWD release:

— A Madison-based health tech startup called Voximetry will be heading to Silicon Valley next month to meet with potential investors after winning this year’s Pressure Chamber pitch contest. 

“We’ll have an opportunity to pitch our company there, and if we’re lucky, we’ll find people who are interested in supporting us both in a current round we’re trying to close or in the next round,” CEO Sue Wallace said in an interview. “It’s more than a little bit like online dating … you just have to talk to a lot of people before you find the one or two that’s a good fit.” 

Voximetry on Tuesday was named the winner of Pressure Chamber, held by the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce as part of the Forward Festival event series in Madison. The chamber has planned the trip to San Francisco for the end of September, according to Wallace. 

The business aims to raise $2.5 million in seed funding, and Wallace said “quite a few people” are expressing interest. She hopes to close the round by Halloween. 

Voximetry was founded in 2016 by a group of scientists specializing in medical physics. Its software platform is used to personalize radiopharmaceutical therapies used in late stage cancers, primarily prostate cancer, Wallace explained. 

She said 50,000 men every year will go through the standard treatment process including surgery, chemotherapy and other measures but will “still not have beat this terrible disease.” At that point, radiopharmaceutical therapy is used. But Wallace described the current approach as “one size fits all,” with every patient getting the same dosing and therapy cycles. 

“They’re kind of overdosing or underdosing everybody,” she said. “We’ve built a software product called Torch [that] will analyze pre-therapy images in order to model each individual’s unique metabolism and drug interaction relative to the specific therapy they’re going to receive.” 

That information helps clinicians craft a personalized treatment plan, which has been shown to result in a 71 percent increase in tumor response and 16 months of improved survival, she said. 

“The patients and the clinicians really care about trying to personalize these treatments … it’s just emerging, so we’re trying to get it out there now in people’s hands, because we think it can really make a difference,” Wallace said. 

The company has spent $3.1 million to date on the platform, she noted. While the company has benefited from federal and state grant funding, Voximetry has just begun the process of seeking venture capital investment. After submitting for approval by the FDA, Wallace expects to get market clearance for commercial sales in the United States by the end of the year. 

“At this point, we really want to invest for commercial growth and we can’t do all of that with grant funding,” she said. 

— State health officials are sounding the alarm as the number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths soars in Wisconsin. 

According to a release from the Department of Health Services, the number of fentanyl overdose deaths in Wisconsin increased by 97 percent between 2019 and 2021. And synthetic opioids such as fentanyl were found in 91 percent of all opioid deaths in the state last year, as well as in 73 percent of all overdose deaths. 

DHS has issued a public health advisory warning state residents about the danger of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that’s up to 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. 

The advisory notes fentanyl can be found in other drugs as well, such as cocaine. Cocaine deaths in Wisconsin involving synthetic opioids increased from 182 in 2019 to 426 in 2021, and the agency says up to 40 percent of “counterfeit pills” contain a lethal amount of fentanyl. 

In a recent briefing, DHS Bureau of Community Health Promotion Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jasmine Zapata called this issue a public health crisis.

“Fentanyl is very hard to detect, so it can’t be smelled, tasted or even seen, and that makes it easy for it to be placed into other types of drugs without the user’s knowledge,” she said.  

Meanwhile, DHS Director of Opioid Initiatives Paul Krupski noted fentanyl test strips are legal in Wisconsin and are available for free through some pharmacies, syringe access providers and opioid treatment programs. 

Watch a video of the briefing: 

See the health advisory: 

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— Fetch Rewards has announced its app hit 5 million daily active users for the first time in July, after adding 1 million to that figure in the prior month alone. 

Overall, the Madison-based company’s shopper rewards app has over 17 million active users on the platform every month. According to a release, its average daily active user count peaked at 5.7 million on Aug. 6. 

“One thing that makes 5 million so exciting to us is that it’s about a third of our monthly active users,” CEO and founder Wes Schroll said in the release. “We’ve seen this ratio increase, and we’re now on a trend line towards social media apps, rather than utility savings apps. That’s exciting to us.” 

See a recent story on the company: 

See the release: 


# Big Ten lands $7 billion, NFL-style TV contracts

# With first portfolio solidified, TitletownTech raising second fund of $80 million

# Report: Wisconsin students of color less likely to take AP tests



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