As the integrated health system of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW Health serves more than 600,000 patients each year. But with the launch of the Isthmus Project, a new business and innovation incubator launched earlier this year, UW Health may soon be impacting the health of patients far beyond the Upper Midwest.

Like other accelerators, the Isthmus Project will provide entrepreneurs with assistance developing and marketing their products, but as a project of UW Health, it has a more specific goal of solving problems facing the health system’s patients and providers.

“UW Health has a strong desire to seize upon the enormous innovation potential within its own walls, which can be scaled up and shared to improve the health of our patients, the state and beyond,” said Isthmus Project Director Thomas “Rock” Mackie.

Mackie is UW Health’s first chief innovation officer and a former UW-Madison faculty member. He’s well known in Madison’s biotechnology sector as a researcher, entrepreneur and investor, having co-founded TomoTherapy, HealthMyne, Asto CT and Linectra.

Self-sustaining innovation

The goal is for the Isthmus Project to be self-sustaining within five years, either through returns from the startups or through cost savings to the health system from implementing the ideas that emerge.

For now, the project’s expected costs of $350,000 to $500,000 a year will be covered by UW Health and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. In July, the project was also awarded a $75,000 Entrepreneurship Support Program grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp (WEDC) to fund legal and business market analysis for project startups from UW-Madison’s Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic and WiSolve.

“The Isthmus Project offers a much-needed roadmap and critical support structure for moving the innovations created by the world-class talent at UW Health to market,” said Aaron Hagar, vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation for WEDC.

Bridging gaps

The Isthmus Project hopes to include six to 12 ventures at any one time, with each of them spending one to two years incubating in the space.

Its current lineup includes an effort to provide videos of surgical procedures for medical personnel in remote areas to use as a coaching tool, a potential new cell therapy to protect patients with weakened immune systems, and software that makes it easier for physicians to find relevant information in a patient’s electronic health record.

This last project was initiated by Dr. Joel Buchanan, UW Health’s medical director of IT strategic projects. The program sifts through the large amount of data contained in an electronic medical record to create a visual map of information relevant to a patient’s specific disease or condition. Eleven conditions have been mapped so far, and the goal is to map 400 more before offering it as a tool to electronic health records providers like Epic Systems in Verona.

Although the Isthmus Project won’t be involved in developing drugs or medical devices, it plans to assist participants in other UW-Madison startup incubators—Discovery to Product, Morgridge Entrepreneurial Bootcamp and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation’s Accelerator Program—with networking and support.

These and many other incubator and accelerator programs across the state are just one reason why Wisconsin is among the top states for 10-year businesses survivorship. Initiatives like the Isthmus Project help to ensure a continued track record of entrepreneurial success in Wisconsin.