Morgridge Institute for Research

Three Morgridge-affiliated inventors are state business plan finalists

The Morgridge Institute for Research will be well represented in this year’s statewide Governor’s Business Plan Contest, with three of the 13 finalists having direct ties to the Morgridge Medical Engineering research group.

The competition, which takes place Tuesday and Wednesday this week during the Wisconsin Entrepreneur’s Conference, began with 206 statewide applicants and whittled down through three rounds of judging to the “Diligent Dozen.” A tie brought the total number of finalists to 13.

Ideas sparked at the Morgridge Institute, now highlighted in the competition, include a CT imaging device for horse veterinarians, a novel mixer geometry for two-part adhesives, and a high-resolution 3D metal printer.

Kevin Eliceiri, investigator and FabLab director in Morgridge Medical Engineering, says the group encourages its researchers to have intellectual freedom and to collaborate on each other’s projects.

“We bring in smart, creative people, give them tough problems, good resources, and see what they can do,” Eliceiri says. “This lack of a silo approach, I think, directly contributes to technical innovation and leads to the business plan success.”

Linectra, a 3D metal printer developed by Brandon Walker, is just one example of this technical innovation. Walker, a graduate researcher in the Morgridge Medical Engineering group, developed the high-resolution, high-power technology with Rock Mackie, the retired director of Morgridge Medical Engineering. The advent of the technology was helped along by a 2015 WARF Accelerator grant.

“We’re going to be one of the first U.S.-based companies to focus on 3D metal printing, right here in the Manufacturing Belt,” Walker says. “There’s recently been a 3D printing hype, and it’s all been in plastic. We have a game changer here with high-power metal printing. ”

3D metal printing has broad applications ranging from automotive and aerospace manufacturing to even biomedical uses.

For example, it’s common in hip replacements to use metal parts, including a bowl-shaped piece called a hip cup that fits into a person’s joint. Traditionally hip cups are manufactured in two steps: the creation of the smooth bowl shape, and then the addition of a corrugated surface at the top to increase compatibility where the metal meets body tissue.

“Right now it’s a two-step process that’s fairly complicated and expensive,” Walker says. “Using 3D metal printing, a more biocompatible hip cup could be produced in a single step. The ultimate idea would be to produce something both biocompatible and customized to a patient.”

Customization is less necessary for hip cups, but think of a person with a skull injury who needs a custom head plate. Or a breast cancer patient who needs part of their sternum replaced. The 3D metal printer could even create a lightweight infrastructure, mimicking human bones, to better attach prosthetic limbs. The necessary metal products could be designed for specific patients and printed on demand.

“With Linectra, I see a very exciting opportunity in metal part fabrication with lots of potential for biomedical devices and prototyping,” Eliceiri says. “Linectra can address real gaps in cost, speed and resolutions.”

Linectra stands out from other 3D metal printers because its system is scalable. It’s designed to work with both small and large print volumes, and allows for printing objects of different sizes from lug nuts to kneecaps to car frames.

“Taking something small and making it really big is not the most trivial task,” Walker says. “That’s one of the most innovative things about this metal printer.”

Linectra also offers a faster, higher-power technology compared to what’s available in the current market.

In 3D metal printing, metal powder is sintered or melted in a specific design, layer by layer, to produce a final product. The majority of current technologies melt the metal with laser-based systems, which are low powered and slow.

Linectra uses an electron beam-based system with multiple beams. Electron beams are faster than laser, and the amount of power you can put in “is a factor of ten higher without even trying too hard,“ Walker says.

Walker says initial experiments with the printer will use steel, an ideal metal for prototyping scenarios, before moving into work with titanium. The printing is done in a high vacuum environment to enhance quality and prevent gas and impurities in the final piece.

Walker says the Linectra team is still growing, but currently includes Rock Mackie, Linectra co-inventor and chief strategy officer; Tye Gribb, chief technology officer, with a background in metallurgy and electron beam technologies; and Nate Schumacher, chief operating officer, with experience in 3D printing startups and control hardware. Linectra also has a technical advising committee, of which Eliceiri is a member.

The other two Morgridge-affiliated finalists in the Governor’s Business Plan Contest are Asto CT and the Remex Static Mixer.