Reflecting the Wisconsin Idea: Entrepreneur translates research into real-world health solutions

David Beebe’s quest is innovation, both in the laboratory and the marketplace.

“It’s so easy in academia to be fascinated by the science, but if you’re solving a problem that doesn’t actually help anyone, it is much less likely to have an impact on human health,” says Beebe, a UW–Madison professor of biomedical engineering.

Photo: David Beebe

David Beebe, an electrical engineer turned cancer researcher, says the ultimate goal is finding solutions that improve human health. Beebe brings solutions to market through startup biotechnology companies. Photo: Courtesy of David Beebe

For Beebe — an electrical-engineer-turned-cancer-researcher — the ultimate goal is finding solutions that improve human health.

Beebe brings solutions to market through startup biotechnology companies. “The more I learn about commercialization, I realize solving a problem is what it’s all about,” says Beebe.

As a kid fixing farm equipment at his father’s farm equipment dealership in West Salem, Wisconsin, Beebe learned problem-solving skills at an early age. He earned bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from UW–Madison. His Ph.D. research focused on microelectricmechanical systems (MEMS), the forerunner to microfluidics, he says.

Tiny self-contained laboratories that easily can fit in the palm of a researcher’s hand, microfluidic systems enable scientists to study the behavior of fluids on the microscale. At a few millionths of a meter, that’s smaller than a single grain of sugar. In his research, Beebe uses microfluidics to understand cell behavior and biology, in particular for cancer diagnosis and treatment.

At the beginning of his graduate program in 1989, the first papers in microfluidics were just being published. However, Beebe already had ideas how to apply MEMS technology to biology. In 1994, he wrote his first proposal in microfluidics as an assistant professor at Louisiana Tech University. He began his first startup company in 1996 to increase pregnancy rates for in-vitro fertilization in livestock. At the time, he was an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and the company, Vitae, was the first to use microfluidic devices for culturing and evaluating embryos.

On a daily basis, we are forced to validate the technologies we’re working on. Through our collaborative environment, we can quickly ask if our work is going to change a medical treatment. If it’s not going to benefit someone, we don’t waste our time on it.

— David Beebe

After receiving funding in 1998 for Vitae from a small business innovation research proposal, Beebe saw the startup as an opportunity to use something he was interested in to learn more about starting a company. Grants supported Vitae for 10 years. In the interim, he also returned to Wisconsin and took a faculty position in the UW–Madison Department of Biomedical Engineering. “I did everything in the first company, and it was a great learning adventure,” he says. “But I also discovered that what I really enjoy is going back to the lab and starting the next company and innovating the next new thing.”

So in 2005, after his fifth year teaching at UW–Madison, Beebe did just that and emerged with two ideas for two new companies. The timing was right: Anthony Escarcega, then a UW–Madison MBA student with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in biomedical engineering, approached Beebe looking for an idea for the UW–Madison G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition. Escarcega chose Beebe’s patented drug delivery patch, which is rooted in 10 years of research, and together the two founded the biotechnology company, Ratio. Ratio produces a disposable, adhesive drug delivery pump that patients stick to their skin for up to 24 hours. The patch painlessly injects drugs— potential applications include both vaccines and therapeutics — with an array of micro needles.

With then-biomedical engineering graduate student John Puccinelli, Escarcega won first place and $10,000 in the Burrill competition. The pair later received $100,000 from the UW–Madison School of Business Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship. In 2009, FluGen, a company based on research by UW–Madison veterinary medicine Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka, which is developing vaccines to fight flu and other infectious diseases, obtained exclusive rights to Ratio’s device for influenza.

Today the Ratio team also includes vice president Ben Moga, who was a biomedical engineering graduate student who worked in Beebe’s lab. In 2010, Moga and Beebe successfully secured a second round of equity financing from regional angel investors and networks, which, Beebe says, is a good sign in today’s economy.

“The fact that we’re able to raise money right now is a great indicator that investors see Ratio’s technology as solving an unmet need,” he says.

Beebe’s third company, Salus Discovery, had a fast take off after merging with Madison-based Bellbrook Labs just 18 months after Beebe founded it in 2005. Bellbrook Labs, which Beebe now advises and holds equity in, produces a product line called iuvo. This line contains two products that involve cell-based assays for drug screening and research derived from Beebe’s technology.

In 2009, Beebe completed a five-year “retraining” program after receiving a grant from the National Institutes of Health to return to school and study cancer biology. Beebe says this additional training has enabled his group, the Microtechnology Medicine and Biology Lab, to have the biology and clinical exposure necessary to identify promising technologies more quickly.

Another factor that makes Beebe’s lab so successful is its location. While previously housed in the UW–Madison Engineering Centers Building, Beebe says he and his team might spend three months working on a technology before they realized it wouldn’t work in a medical environment. Now, located in the Wisconsin Institute of Medical Research building adjacent to UW Hospital, Beebe says the opportunities to interact with physicians and clinicians are endless.

“On a daily basis, we are forced to validate the technologies we’re working on,” he says. “Through our collaborative environment, we can quickly ask if our work is going to change a medical treatment. If it’s not going to benefit someone, we don’t waste our time on it.”

Perhaps Beebe’s greatest advantage as an entrepreneur at UW–Madison is the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the UW–Madison patenting and licensing arm.

“I’ve been at other universities, and it’s an order of magnitude of difference in the ease at which a faculty member can patent something here. It’s very unique to have the resources and financial means to support entrepreneurship like WARF can,” he says.

The motivation for helping people through his startup companies comes from age and experience, Beebe says. “As I get older, many of my friends have cancer now,” he says. “I had a successful early academic career and published lots of papers in high-profile journals, but in the second half of my career I’d at least like to have a better chance of really making a difference.”

To achieve that goal, Beebe says it’s necessary that he as the scientist take his technology beyond academia and into commercialization. “For me personally, it’s not good enough to publish a paper — because that doesn’t mean I’ve helped anyone yet,” he says. “It’s very rare that a company will read it and want to commercialize it; therefore, I believe that if something has a chance to help someone, I need to push my invention out there and take the initial steps toward commercialization.”

Written by Andrea Parins