Best of Madison Business 2012: Poised to Break Through
Technology and the biosciences have been pillars of the Madison region’s economic development strategy for more than a decade now. We’ve invested heavily in these sectors, and the never-ending conundrum of a shortage of venture capital suggests untold, unlimited potential.
There have been some successes–some spectacular successes. But not enough to sustain momentum as other regions in the country nip at our heels or leave us behind. Still, we have many assets and solid advantages over other places in terms of resources, and as a result we have companies both new and established that are poised to break through. These are companies on the verge of doing big business in the global marketplace, and–as a result–keeping Madison on the world map of new economy regions of excellence.
These companies, and their discoveries, will change the ways we live. And we’ve selected four of them as Best of Madison Business winners for 2012.
When he left Madison-born-and-bred Third Wave Technologies in 2008, Kevin Conroy said he wanted to run another company and he wanted to stay in Madison. That company is Exact Sciences, which specializes in molecular diagnostics for colorectal cancer, and Conroy was named president and CEO in 2009. We all know that colon cancer is most treatable when detected early. The American Cancer Society recommends that all Americans start getting tested for the disease at age fifty. Not enough people get the test, though, and as a result, sixty percent of patients today are diagnosed with the disease in its late stages.
Exact Science’s screening test Cologuard is designed to detect the cancer early. Cologuard found eighty-five percent of colon cancers and sixty-four percent of early pre-cancers in last year’s validation study. The company’s DNA test, now in development, is a potential additional tool for cancer screening and early detection. The current Phase III study of Cologuard will be concluded later in 2012 and could involve as many as 10,000 patients. The size of the study is so audacious it has won the respect and support of some of the most demanding researchers in the country, including the Mayo Clinic.
“We decided to do it the right way,” says Conroy, “so everybody wants to be a part of it.”
Exact Sciences’ stock has more than doubled in the last year, a clear indicator of the promise of getting on top of the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.
Scientists and inventors have been chasing this idea throughout history: making something out of nothing, or if not nothing at least something most of us don’t want or need. Virent‘s breakthrough BioForming technology transforms soluble plant sugars from corn stover and pine tree materials into hydrocarbon molecules similar to those produced at a petroleum refinery. Grass to gasoline, or something like that. The renewable hydrocarbons can be blended seamlessly to make gasoline, jet fuel and diesel.
Last year Virent successfully produced “biogasoline” from crops that are not part of the nation’s food supply. The rest of the world is paying attention to the breakthrough technology of president and CEO Lee Edwards’ team. The World Economic Forum recognized Virent as a Technology Pioneer, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency handed the company a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award. Investors include Cargill, Shell and Honda, and the big news this year was a completed study that showed cars running on biogas had the same engine wear as those on regular gas–and they may pollute less.
The firm is currently working on plans to open a commercial-scale biorefinery to produce biofuels with completion slated for 2014 and operations starting in 2015. The company’s key strategic collaborators include Royal Dutch Shell, which is pushing the pedal on the technology’s time to market as well as greatly broadening avenues for commercial penetration.
Each year Madison Magazine gives special recognition to one Best of Madison Business winner. Virent is the 2012 recipient of the Brian Howell Award for Excellence in Innovation, named after late editor Brian Howell, a champion of the tremendous possibilities that science and technology hold for human and environmental health, as well as economic growth in Dane County and Wisconsin.
“What we have is a technology that allows us to take a protein found in the human body, made in our pancreas–with the only known utility being the digestion of food–(and) take that protein, modify it slightly, and turn it into something that is toxic to cancer cells.”
That’s Quintessence Biosciences chairman and CEO Ralph Kauten’s description of the unique therapeutics the company is developing as anti-cancer agents. Founded eight years ago, the company is based on technologies discovered by UW-Madison scientists Laura Kiessling and Ronald Raines. The technologies are licensed through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and covered by patents acquired by the company through an exclusive license with the University of Wisconsin. A Phase I human clinical trial is underway at the UW Carbone Cancer Center. Second-generation products are under development and pre-clinical work is ongoing.
Quintessence is but the latest of Kauten’s contributions to the hometown biosciences field. He helped lead Promega’s growth in its early days, helped found PanVera and continues to serve as board chair of Mirus, which he also co-founded.
Quintessence has as much promise as any of those.
“Our goal,” says Kauten, “is to replace all the harsh chemotherapies with something that is broadly effective but very well tolerated by the human body.”
Currently, Quintessence has exclusive rights to five patented technologies that will serve as the path to future discoveries.
What, exactly, is Alice? Well, let’s ask Alice. From “her” website, of course.
“Let’s face it; you can probably think of a thousand things you’d rather do than drive to the store again and again for toilet paper, toothpaste, trash bags and the dozens of other home essentials that keep your home running. We can too. That’s why we started Alice. The Internet has changed the way we shop for things like books, clothing, shoes and electronics. We buy online for the convenience and the power we have to get product reviews, choose brands, see price comparisons, and make better choices. But when it comes to home essentials, we still trudge off to the store, load up the cart, and haul a trunk-load of stuff out to the parking lot. Why? Because no one has come up with an efficient, cost-effective way to buy these goods online. Until now.”
Alice, or at least co-founders Mark McGuire and Brian Wiegand, are currently powering storefronts for some of the biggest consumer packaged goods companies in the world, from Kellogg’s to Ecover. It’s a comfortable niche for McGuire and Wiegand, who have carved out careers building customer-focused companies. The two UW grads also founded Jellyfish.com, which they ran for less than two years before Microsoft decided it simply had to have the company. Alice.com recently announced a merger with Spanish company Koto.com, introducing its e-commerce model to European shoppers. Oh, it’s got a free iPhone app, too. Of course.
Read about past Best of Madison Business winners !
Neil Heinen is editorial director at Madison Magazine.