Meet UWM entrepreneurs: 2020 MERC features two UWM startups named “20 WI startups to watch in 2020”

Two Wisconsin startups poised to grab headlines in 2020—SafeLi and Vasognosis—were rooted in collaborative work with UWM’s College of Engineering & Applied Science.

Researchers and entrepreneurs involved in launching both companies will present at this year’s Milwaukee Engineering Research Conference (MERC), Feb. 27-28, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. MERC will be co-hosted by UWM’s College of Engineering & Applied Science and the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center and will spotlight the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at the college and the university.

The two Wisconsin startups—SafeLi and VasoGnosis—made the list of “20 Wisconsin Startups to Watch in 2020,” published in early January by Wisconsin Inno.

SafeLi: Multidisciplinary collaboration at UWM was key to success

Founded in 2016 in Shorewood, SafeLi is developing patented material to improve the performance of lithium-ion, or li-ion, batteries. In October 2019, the company received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to commercialize the material, grow the company’s staff and support fundraising.

SafeLi was developed at UWM by Marija Gajdardziska-Josifovska, professor of physics and dean of UWM’s Graduate School, and Carol Hirschmugl, professor of physics and adjunct professor in the College of Engineering & Applied Science.

Input from UWM’s engineering professors was critical to the company’s success in its initial phases, says Gajdardziska-Josifovska, noting that SafeLi was developed and improved with guidance from renewable energy expert Deyang Qu, Johnson Controls Endowed Professor in Energy Storage Research, and Junhong Chen, then distinguished professor of mechanical engineering and materials science.

Cross-disciplinary collaboration can lead to new strategies to address old problems, according to Hirschugl. “The boundaries and intersections between disciplinary studies provide rich opportunities for significant advances in science,” she says.

VasoGnosis: Mentorship from UWM supported student’s entrepreneurial dream

Ali Bakhshinejad (‘18 PhD Mechanical Engineering) is president and CEO of the cloud-based software company VasoGnosis, Inc., which could improve a clinician’s understanding of an individual’s neurovascular disease. The software uses existing data to provide advanced visualization and analysis of an individual’s specific vascular anatomy in the affected region.

Bakhshinejad says the mentorship he received during his doctoral studies at UWM—from professors, staff and the College of Engineering & Applied Science’s industry partners—supported his entrepreneurial dream, which found roots in his dissertation. Three people at UWM, he says, guided him to a successful company launch: his advisor Roshan D’Souza, associate professor, mechanical engineering; Ilya Avdeev, associate professor, mechanical engineering and director of innovation at the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center; and Brian Thompson, director, Lubar Entrepreneurship Center, and president, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Research Foundation.

The college’s Student Research Poster Competition forced him to hone his communication skills. “At the competition, I had a limited time to pitch my idea to industry judges and convince them that my research was important and that we were solving a real problem,” Bakhshinejad says. “It proved to be one of the most important events during my doctoral studies.”