Innovations start up at Waisman

What do Night Owl Support Systems, the Trace Center, the Center for Healthy Minds, and Stratatech all have in common?

The Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Over the years, the Waisman Center has catalyzed the inception or growth of many unique programs. Several of these have developed into independent centers or companies with far-reaching impacts throughout Wisconsin and beyond.

Supporting Independence

Night Owl Support Systems (NOSS) combines remote monitoring/sensing systems with professional direct-care staff to help individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities live their lives more independently.

“Our mission is to deliver quality in-home support with the use of technology while becoming a valuable and meaningful part of people’s lives,” says Christopher Patterson, one of the founders of NOSS.

NOSS is based on a Waisman Center initiative called Sound Response, which was started in July 2002 by the Community Outreach Wisconsin (COW) program at Waisman. Sound Response was initially a pilot program to determine whether remote sensing technology could be used to monitor individuals throughout the night to ensure their safety but also remove the need for on-site overnight support staff.

In September 2007, Patterson and his colleagues Duane Tempel and Dani Chilson established NOSS as an independent company.

“By starting our own business, we gained a great deal of flexibility and an ability to expand,” says Tempel.

For instance, the Sound Response program was initially funded by Dane County Human Services, which limited its reach beyond the county. Since its inception as an independent company, NOSS has expanded across the country and now also serves the elderly and individuals with neurodegenerative diseases.

Keeping technology accessible

The Trace Center is another example of a program connected to the Waisman Center that has had widespread impact. It was founded in 1971 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Engineering and moved to the Waisman Center in 1977 with a mission ‘to apply engineering, computer science, disability studies, public policy, and information science to prevent the barriers to, and capitalize on the opportunities presented by, current and emerging information and telecommunication technologies.’

“The Waisman Center has often served as a springboard for ideas and organizations that develop their own identities and go on to have a profound impact on not only people in Wisconsin but across the country,” says Marsha Mailick, vice chancellor for research and graduate education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Waisman Center researcher. “In this way, the center really personifies the essence of the Wisconsin Idea and the mission of the university.”

The Trace Center moved from the Waisman Center in 1998, but it has left behind a profound legacy: the Waisman Center Communications Aids and Systems Clinic (CASC), led by clinic director Julie Gamradt.

“We exist as a clinic today because of the Trace Center and the efforts of its founder, Gregg Vanderheiden,” says Gamradt.

Members of the CASC team partner with families to provide highly specialized, cutting-edge augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) for children and adults experiencing significant communication challenges.

One reason for the Trace Center’s departure, to the University of Maryland, is a change in its focus from working directly with individual patients to becoming more involved in shaping policy that ensures individuals with disabilities continue to have access to technological innovations and the opportunities that brings.

Healthy Minds

A shift in goals or a rapid expansion is often behind entities moving on from the Waisman Center. “These are forks in the road and sometimes growth can be difficult to accommodate and centers/companies are often served better by becoming an ‘alum’ of the Waisman Center,” says Mailick.

The Center for Healthy Minds (CHM) is an example of rapid growth leading to expansion beyond the Waisman Center. Founded in 2008 by Richard Davidson, professor of psychology at UW-Madison, CHM seeks to “cultivate well-being and relieve suffering through a scientific understanding of the mind.”

CHM is growing quickly with the addition of new interdisciplinary faculty members and staff, and was established as a center in its own right earlier this year as part of the UW-Madison College of Letters and Science.

Staying strong

“Growth doesn’t always initiate a process of leaving but I think it is vital to maintain the research and clinical diversity of the Waisman Center,” says Albee Messing, Waisman Center director.

In fact, several research and training centers remain an integral part of the Waisman Center. For example, Waisman Biomanufacturing delivers efficient translation of scientific discoveries for early stage clinical trials and has manufactured over 320 clinical grade products since the opening of its cGMP facility in 2001.

Waisman Biomanufacturing was an early collaborator of a Madison-based biotech company called Stratatech, established by UW-Madison professor Lynn Allen-Hoffman. Stratatech focuses on therapeutic skin substitutes to treat severe burns, non-healing ulcers, and other complex skin defects. The company has had several successful clinical trials and was recently acquired by Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, a company based in the United Kingdom.

Messing is proud of the diversity of research at the Waisman Center and considers that a key strength. “The Waisman Center is an interdisciplinary environment that fosters creative, innovative approaches and we attract faculty who are interested in this kind research in a collaborative, collegial environment,” he says.

Beyond research, the Waisman Center also houses an inclusive preschool – the Waisman Early Childhood Program – 12 specialty clinics, and is a designated University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD).

“The Waisman Center is a unique place,” says Mailick. “It’s not only a lab building, it’s not only a clinical building, it’s not only an educational building; it’s all of the above!”