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How Collaborations Powered the Madison Region’s Pandemic Response

The COVID-19 pandemic encouraged new partnerships in the Madison Region.

By Brittany Anas on September 9, 2021

Back when COVID-19 began sweeping across the country, a team at the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison, along with partners, sprung to action to create a batch of face shields for University Hospital. Their open-source designs for personal protective equipment (PPE) can be made with common materials, and nearly 500 manufacturers put the first iteration of the Badger Shield design into production.

The Badger Shield was the first of many PPE solutions that are now used worldwide that were pioneered by Lennon Rodgers, who specializes in engineering design and directs the Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Lab, the engineering makerspace at UW-Madison. Along with several partners, the UW Makerspace team developed open-source designs for surgical shields, mask fitters and much more.

Through economic disruption caused by a global pandemic, the Madison Region’s economy was bowed but not broken. Nimble businesses and enterprises pivoted to develop new products and services and the Region’s ever-present spirit of collaboration created partnerships that tackled challenges head on.

Rodgers says a unique synergy exists between the top-notch university, health care industry, and the Region’s companies that have a national presence.

“It’s a very collaborative environment,” he says.

As proof, UW Makerspace collaborated with industry partners such as Midwest Prototyping, Delve and Placon to help alleviate a shortage of PPE for hospitals, nursing homes, schools and others.

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Working Together in the Fight

According to the Madison Region Economic Partnership, the Region’s life sciences sector numbers more than 330 establishments and employs more than 10,250 workers, many of whom were on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight.

As a stellar example, a partnership between Exact Sciences Laboratories, Promega and Epic Systems Corporation led to COVID-19 rapid testing, helping drastically cut down on the time it took to get test results to patients, care providers and state health officials. Staff and engineers at Exact Sciences retrained its equipment that looks for DNA associated with colorectal cancer to look for the coronavirus instead. Promega helped supply the reagents needed to run COVID-19 tests on these machines. Epic, the health information technology pioneer, pitched in with software capabilities needed to quickly transfer test results from the lab to state officials and health care providers.

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UW-Madison, ranked sixth among U.S. universities in research expenditures, put its research muscle into the COVID-19 response.

An international collaboration of virologists at UW and the vaccine companies FluGen and Bharat Biotech began development and testing of a unique vaccine called CoroFlu. And a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering used experimental and computational methods to understand how viruses spread.

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Pivoting Amid the Pandemic

A number of tech companies in the Region also pivoted to offer services and products to help keep people safe amid the pandemic.

Software developer Zendesk converted its offices to neighborhood coworking spaces and, in the meantime, adopted a digital-first model to support its globally distributed workforce.

“To us, it is paramount that we bring our culture of helpfulness and being champions of customer service into a remote workplace environment,” says Danielle Newton, director of workplace experience at Zendesk.

The Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Lab is a community of designers and builders within the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Housing millions of dollars worth of equipment, the lab includes a maker space for rapid prototyping, as well as the TEAM (Technical
Education and Manufacturing) Lab, a precision machining and fee-for-service jobshop.

The Kohler Innovation Visualization Studio offers virtual and augmented reality, 3D scanning and data visualization technology. The fabrication facilities combined are over 40,000 square feet and are overseen by nine professional full-time staff members and 60 student workers.

Placon, a leading designer and manufacturer of innovative and sustainable plastic packaging, worked with UW on a project to connect local health care workers with personal protective equipment (PPE). The company also donated $10,000 to the Dane County COVID- 19 Emergency and Recovery Fund.

Other companies in the Region that pivoted to fill needs during the pandemic include Midwest Prototyping, Delve and Teel Plastics.

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