Erwin W. Mueller Professor and Bascom Materials Science and Engineering Professor of Surface Science Max Lagally serves as a bridgebetween the UW-Madison laboratories where cutting-edge technologies are developed and the companies taking those devices to market.
“When I was in graduate school during the Sputnik era, the motivation in academia was to create more academics,” he says. “That’s changed tremendously in the last 25 years, when we realized there could be economic benefits to the state and nation by taking some of these technologies and turning them into reality.”
Lagally’s first experience with a spin-off company came in the mid-1990s, when a graduate student walked into Lagally’s office looking for a job. The student eventually wrote controls software for scanned-probe microscopes under Lagally’s direction, who co-founded nPoint Inc. to market the software. The company has evolved to produce motion and nanopositioning devices and now is established as one of the most reliable producers of these technologies in the world.
“I wanted to see if I could do something that people would pay money for,” says Lagally. Once he realized he could, he determined something else: He prefers research to business. “What is exciting to me are new ideas, developments and technologies—creating stuff,” he says.
However, Lagally remains committed to technology transfer, and in 2004 he and a group of colleagues patented a microfluidic deposition system capable of depositing drops, lines and even towers of various materials in minute quantities. Some of those colleagues, including Lagally and the student involved in the project, Brad Larson, licensed the technology from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and co-founded SonoPlot to take the technology to market.
Both nPoint and SonoPlot have a global network of sales and distributors, with base operations still in the Madison area. Lagally serves as a consultant at both, but his influence on entrepreneurs is far from limited to these two companies. His experience and extensive business connections make him a mentor sought by many students planning to start their own companies. “Max provided encouragement early on,” says Larson, who is now SonoPlot’s chief technology officer. “He was different from other professors who focused on basic science and said commercialization could come later. Max always pushed us to look at what the end uses of the technology were and how it would actually make an impact on people’s lives as a product.”