UW–Madison Graduate Alumni Making An Impact
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Addressing critical problems in healthcare, energy, manufacturing, and national security
April 22, 2015 | by Leslie Jernegan
Exceptional UW-Madison alumni are bringing significant growth, and with this, significant opportunities to the Madison area.
After earning his Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from UW-Madison in 2005, Dr. Gregory Piefer wasn’t looking for a “normal job.” Rather, he had a dream – a fusion dream – and to pursue it he started creating fusion technology in a rented-out garage.
Unsure of where such endeavors would lead, Piefer was in the makings of constructing a small start-up research-and-development company, Phoenix Nuclear Labs, which took off within a few years when the U.S. Department of Energy awarded it $25,000,000 to realize a solution for national shortages of a medical isotope.
Successful, Piefer created a spin-off company, SHINE Medical Technologies, which is now looking to soon satisfy at least half of the U.S. demands for the medical isotope by sourcing 25,000 daily medical procedures.
Turning his focus to SHINE, Piefer asked a grad school peer, Dr. Ross Radel, to run Phoenix. The company has since experienced rapid growth with its nuclear fusion technology, which can be used to solve problems in medicine, defense, and energy by creating revolutionary neutron generator technology that alters matter at the nuclear level.
With Phoenix’s contracts with groups such as the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Air Force, outside companies are taking notice.
“We’re moving towards a commercial product that’s actually sellable to a customer,” Dr. Evan Sengbusch, Vice President of Business Development of Phoenix with a Ph.D. and MBA from UW-Madison, says. “It was really, ‘where is this technology applicable?’ that drove us to this market. One of the beauties of the Phoenix technology is that you can take everything on the front end – power supply, ion source and accelerator – and you can put different things on the back end for different applications.”
Phoenix fulfilled its first commercial sale of a thermal neutron generation system for a multi-billion-dollar British energy, defense and aerospace company, Ultra Electronics. The shipment left in early April for the UK.
Phoenix is also looking to tackle the aerospace sector to help companies test aircraft components.
“People spend tons of money testing these components before they go out the door because the cost of the company in failure is enormous,” Sengbusch says.
Using aircraft turbine blades as an example, Sengbusch explains manufacturers’ need to send their blades to be imaged by nuclear reactors before being put into the planes’ engines. The problem, he says, is that only one reactor remains in the U.S., causing manufacturers, including those sourcing the U.S. military, to look abroad.
“One of the longer-term visions of Phoenix is to replace the whole ‘ship our blades across the country to get images,’ to say, ‘you can have a system in your factory,” Sengbusch says. “We’ve had a lot of phone calls from these folks in advance, and they’re super excited.”
Expanding, Phoenix plans to boost its 30-40 employees to over 100 people.
“It’s a big deal for us,” Sengbusch says. “It’s potentially a growing business in Madison that could add significantly to the local workforce.”
With about 75% of its employees being from Madison, and while consistently holding interns from UW-Madison, Sengbusch says Phoenix is fortunate to have two world-renowned university departments, UW-Madison’s Nuclear Engineering and Medical Physics departments, in town.
“It’s a remarkable group of individuals to accomplish a goal that we’re trying for,” he says. “We’ve been lucky to get the talent we have, and we’ve been lucky that’s it has been existing in Madison.”