For alum, innovation is a full-time hobby

Posted on 27. Aug, 2012 by in Academic Departments, Alumni, Annual Report, Biomedical Engineering, Economic Impact, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Features, Healthcare and Medicine, Issues, People, Research

Dennis Bahr

Electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering alumnus Dennis Bahr

Although he grew up on a dairy farm in a tiny, central-Wisconsin community—rather than a small coal-mining town in West Virginia—Dennis Bahr sees elements of his childhood in the movie October Sky, a film based on the true story of Homer Hickam, a coal-miner’s son who ultimately became a NASA engineer.

Hickam’s passion was rocketry; Bahr focused heavily on electronics and medicine. While Hickam’s coal-miner father opposed his dream, Bahr’s dairy-farmer father encouraged Bahr and his brother to leave the farm. “We never even joined Future Farmers of America in school,” says Bahr. “We took math, physics, everything else that we could, and I think it came from Dad.”

In school, both Hickam and Bahr reached for the proverbial stars, thanks to the encouragement of a female science teacher. “Her attitude was, ‘You’ve got to live up to your potential,’” says Bahr.
Today a biomedical innovator and an entrepreneur who has founded or co-founded several companies, Bahr certainly has lots of potential. Ideas for new products or improvements on existing products constantly are swirling through his head, and when he speaks, it’s with the wisdom and foresight of a widely read, highly educated, savvy guy who can identify “the next big thing” almost before there’s a need for that thing.

After earning bachelor’s (‘68) and master’s (‘72) degrees from UW-Madison in electrical and computer engineering—and securing his status as an ABD (all but dissertation) in the same field—Bahr took a job as an engineer at Nicolet Instrumentation (now Thermo Fisher Scientific) in Madison.

There, supervisor and now longtime friend Alan Kahn once called Bahr the worst employee he ever had—but not because Bahr performed subpar work. “I was always off onto something new instead of doing what the company wanted me to do,” laughs Bahr. “I’d always come up with new ideas and want to work on them. I finally realized that’s me. I can’t do an 8 to 5 job. That would drive me crazy.”

So Bahr left Nicolet to do the work he still considers a hobby: Quite simply, he invents stuff.

Among his inventions are pulse oximeters, advanced blood-pressure monitors, vital signs monitors, an intracranial pressure monitor, and a generator for cardiac ablation. He holds 13 patents, wrote a book chapter, and has published in a wide variety of scientific journals. He has tested products on himself in his laboratory and on patients in operating rooms. “We’d always target the market—not go out and invent something and say, ‘Now what do I do with it?’” he says.

For the past several years, he has collaborated with Biomedical Engineering Professor Emeritus John Webster and colleagues in the University of California, San Francisco, Women’s Health Clinical Research Center on a National Institutes of Health-funded project to develop a device that accurately measures hot flashes in women.

And in the process of researching and refining the device, Bahr earned his PhD in biomedical engineering from UW-Madison in 2012—a full 40 years after he earned his master’s degree.

Worn on the sternum, the ingenious hot flash monitor capitalizes on hydrogel technology to adhere to a woman’s skin without trapping sweat beneath it. Within a three-day period—which provides doctors enough data to identify and regulate treatments—the device can identify 90 percent of a woman’s hot flashes.

Bahr also wrote the algorithms and software that help doctors make sense of data from the hot flash monitors. Now, Middleton, Wisconsin-based Simplex Scientific will make and sell them, and
Bahr has moved on to the next big thing.

This time, it’s nuclear engineering, and Bahr is working with several longtime collaborators to perfect a new inexpensive “desktop” deuteron accelerator, a device that has applications in national security and in making radioisotopes used worldwide in tens of millions of diagnostic medical procedures annually. “I’ve thought about this, and I’ve always wanted to build something like this,” says Bahr. “I read in Scientific American or somewhere about the molybdenum shortage and realized we could build an accelerator that could do things that nobody else could.”

For now, Bahr and collaborators Richard Schmidt and John Peterson are self-funding their project, and as with his prior inventions, he’s following his recipe for success. “One, you have to have an idea that’s really needed out there. Second, you have to build a good team,” he says. “Thirdly, attack the possible ‘show-stoppers’ first and make sure they can be resolved.”

Then there’s that one critical ingredient—the seasoning with which Bahr spices each of his endeavors—wrapped up in a piece of sage advice: “When you get a job initially out of school, don’t do it for the money. Do it for the fun—for something you’re really interested in,” he says. “That’s one thing I’ve learned about life. Life is not money. Life is fun.”

And Bahr is not about to retire from fun.

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