The $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act President Biden signed into law in August authorizes $10 billion of federal funding over five years for 20 innovation hubs across the U.S. The trick for many regions will be how to focus their grant applications.

Autonomous controls, biomanufacturing, fusion energy, sustainability, water — there are dozens of big-think ideas with many different interpretations. But an obvious choice for the Great Lakes region is hiding in plain sight in Wisconsin: Medical imaging and related therapies.

Medical imaging isn’t a broad concept like the others, where it’s necessary to pull in tangential and disparate companies or build research efforts from the ground up to make them work. And focusing on it would be a big step toward building more critical mass in medical physics.

The Great Lakes region is already a center of excellence in imaging, radiation therapy, and electrophysiology, with globally competitive research, strong educational programs that train top people in the field, large anchor businesses and startups working on disruptive new technologies.

Imagine how more focus and funding would help us mine the many white-space opportunities in medical physics that will fascinate and beguile researchers and hopefully lead to scientific breakthroughs and innovative companies that transform and extend human life.

At the heart of Great Lakes medical physics research is the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Medical Physics. It was the first such department in the country and is the largest in terms of faculty members and graduate students, said Brian Pogue, department chair and a professor in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.

“We have close to 100 grad students working on medical imaging technologies,” Pogue said. “We have an army.”

Medical Physics’ faculty are among the university’s top royalty recipients and have developed world class technologies like the tomotherapy radiation technique, the ubiquitous pinnacle radiation treatment planning software, and lunar bone mineral densitometry to detect osteoporosis.

The department is also among the university’s most entrepreneurial, with about one-third of the faculty (a healthy 32 primary and 35 affiliated) involved in a startup and around 25 startups total, Pogue said.

There will likely be more. Pogue recently launched an entrepreneurial fellowship program that will recruit and fund senior Ph.D. students interested in pursuing an entrepreneurial path.

Across the region, the University of Chicago and University of Minnesota also have Ph.D. programs in medical physics that produce some research, although both are considerably smaller than Wisconsin’s.

Mayo Clinic, Northwestern University, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, and University of Minnesota also have strong medical physics research.

Add in the necessary anchor companies with which our region is flush. The majority of big, world-leading medical device makers — the likes of 3M, Abbott, Baxter, Medtronic, Medline and Stryker — are in the area of the Great Lakes region bounded by Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

There’s also GE HealthCare, which will become a Chicago-based, standalone company when it spins out of General Electric in early January. It’s the second largest diagnostic imaging device maker in the world, according to Hospital Management. Peter Arduini, its CEO, lives in the Milwaukee area and it has about 6,500 employees and about 1,000 suppliers in the state, according to the Wisconsin BioHealth report released in October by BioForward, the trade organization for the state’s bioscience industry.

Accuray, the California-based radiation oncology company that acquired TomoTherapy in 2011, has more than 200 employees in Madison. And Shine, with about has 400 employees in Janesville and Madison, has a fusion technology that is used for industrial imagingmedical diagnostic imaging, and cancer therapies.

To give a sense of this industry’s impact, Wisconsin alone has an extremely high location quotient — a way of measuring industry concentration — of 13.87 in irradiation apparatus manufacturing, according to the BioForward report. A location quotient of 1.0 would mean the area has the same concentration of that type of business as the nation.

The question is how to put this all together, take it to the next level and achieve a global center of excellence for our region in medical physics.

The person who’s been leading the heavy lifting in Wisconsin is Rock Mackie, a medical physicist and former UW-Madison professor.

A veteran entrepreneur, Mackie has worked with imaging startups around the world. He co-founded Geometrics Corp., which was acquired by Philips Medical Systems and still has its R&D facility in Madison, and TomoTherapy Inc., which was based on the tomotherapy radiation technique he developed in the early 1990s. Mackie currently has two startups: Asto CT, a Middleton company that makes a standup CT scanner for horses; and Leo Cancer Care, which is co-headquartered in Middleton and the United Kingdom and leading advancements in upright positioning and proton radiation therapy.

Mackie also founded the Isthmus Project, UW Health’s program to incubate and provide seed investments for faculty entrepreneurs, doctors, nurses and researchers who want to start companies.

All of these elements are not only the foundation for an imaging and radiation research cluster but a gateway to more advanced manufacturing in Wisconsin and the region. With a regional center of manufacturing excellence, Wisconsin would be in a position to build on its high rank for manufacturing employment and increase its middling manufacturing payroll average.

In a perfect world, UW-Madison would declare itself an entrepreneurial university and pivot the Wisconsin Idea concept beyond its historical roots in farming toward technology-rich businesses. Changes would include: Teaching entrepreneurship in all colleges/schools; requiring deans/department chairs to report on entrepreneurial activity; counting entrepreneurial activity in tenure decisions; and having the Chancellor require UW Foundation launch a startup fund. 

And there’s got to be someone who wants to take a page from the early days of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network and get some social networks going (perhaps virtual to include Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis) so industry participants can see who’s out there in the space. That’s the first step toward branding the technology cluster, forging global connections, delivering market understanding. You get the picture.

Sadly, many would-be technology clusters in the Great Lakes region have been snuffed out before they ever achieved their potential, victims of local politics and small-minded bickering that prevented lasting action.

Rock Mackie has laid the groundwork for the medical physics cluster to have a better shot. Who’s going to jump in and help?

Kathleen Gallagher was a business reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Milwaukee Sentinel for 23 years. She was one of two reporters on the team that won a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for the One in a Billion series. Gallagher is now executive director of 5 Lakes Institute, a nonprofit working to grow the Great Lakes region’s high technology entrepreneurial economy and culture. She can be reached at [email protected].