Bright Ideas at Quantum Devices
By Judy Newman, The Wisconsin State Journal
Oct. 29, BARNEVELD, WI — In this small burg, about 30 miles west of Madison, lies a slice of Silicon Valley.
It takes the form of a company whose products have helped grow roses on the space shuttle, hold wiring steady on Army tanks being used in Iraq, measure your pulse and blood oxygen, control movement in industrial machines and treat ailments from carpal tunnel syndrome to cancer.
The company is Quantum Devices, and most of its products are based on red lights. Not the kind in stop lights — which, by the way, you won’t find in this Iowa County community of 1,184 — but tiny red pinpoints of light that make up light-emitting diode, or LED, arrays, similar to the type found in an alarm clock, but much more high-powered and intense.
Chief Executive Ron Ignatius is a native of Wheeling, Ill., who moved his wife and three sons to Wisconsin in the late 1970s because they enjoyed camping in the Dodgeville area. After a while, Ignatius grew disenchanted with the Dodgeville Semiconductor Company he worked for and started his own business, using $32,000 of his retirement fund.
That was 30 years ago. Since then, Quantum has snared contracts with NASA and with companies as large as Bayer Corp., the pharmaceutical and diagnostic-instrument company. Quantum has spawned one subsidiary and is about to establish another, one which will likely offer shares to the public (but not on Wall Street) for the first time.
Most recently, Quantum received $400,000 from NASA to conduct clinical trials at the Medical College of Wisconsin and at the University of Alabama-Birmingham using its latest device. Ignatius says the WARP 75 — it stands for Warfighter Accelerated Recovery by Photobiomodulation (using specific wavelengths of light to increase energy in cells) — will combat mucositis, which is swelling, irritation or open sores that can develop anywhere from the mouth to the digestive tract as a result of chemotherapy.
A family-owned business that blends cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned principles, Quantum Devices must be doing something right. It provides jobs for 60 to 70 people and pulls in nearly $5 million a year in revenue — 10 times the annual budget for the village of Barneveld.
In one building, at 112 Orbison St., silicon wafers are etched and wired into computer chips and circuit boards. In a nearby building, at 105 Jones St., plastic is molded into casing that houses Quantum’s products.
QUESTION: You have a lot of sophisticated equipment here. How did you decide to locate your business in Barneveld?
ANSWER: I got to my 50th birthday and realized the man I’d been working for wasn’t going to keep his promises. I came across (then-village president) Mary Ann Myers, and she was looking to bring industry here (to rebuild the economy after the 1984 tornado destroyed most of the village.)
Barneveld’s a neat little place to grow. There’s a tremendous resource of good people. A lot of farm moms have to go to work now; they need health-care coverage, and we provide it.
Q: How did you begin working with LED lights?
A: Bayer Corp., in Mishawka, Ind., had the need for specific (light) wavelength devices that were not available. They were for glucometers, used by diabetics to test their insulin levels. For our first eight years, we were the sole source (of those devices) to Bayer.
Q: Quantum Devices has received about $3 million in federal Small Business Innovation Research grants, many of them through NASA. How did that relationship come about?
A: We joined a UW- Madison consortium, the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics. NASA wanted to commercialize space technology and was looking for a way for astronauts to make some of their own food. I suggested we could grow plants under LEDs — it took about an hour and a half for the laughter to die down.
A: The light, at that wavelength, puts out 10 times more red light than the sun does, yet it is cool to the touch. We flew seven missions on the space shuttles and three on the space station. The last mission was growing roses on Columbia; they were going to be turned into perfume. When Columbia crashed, we lost our experiments, but it wasn’t anywhere near the (human loss).
Q: How did you move from growing plants to treating illnesses?
A: The astronauts complained about getting injured in space. They were small injuries. But they didn’t start to heal until they got down here (to Earth). Quantum developed the WARP 10. (Smaller than the WARP 75, it is a handheld device with a circle of red LED lights, 10 centimeters in diameter.) It has Food and Drug Administration approval for temporary relief of muscle and joint pain, and we sell it over the Internet for home use. We’ve had tremendous results with people saying their pain has disappeared. It shuts down the inflammatory response.
We’re also finishing phase- two trials for the Air Force for treating laser burns to the eye on the battlefield with the WARP 10. It’s not so much the burn that’ll blind you than the inflammatory response. You want to shut that down quickly.
The WARP 75 (still in development) covers more area (75 centimeters of LED lights). It’s being tested for mucositis treatment.
Q: You’ve also used LED products to treat brain cancer?
A: And skin cancer. The wavelength of the light is critical — that’s how it turns things on. Both sunlight and LED light activate photosynthesis in plants and hemoglobin production in humans. Dr. Harry T. Whelan at Medical College of Wisconsin injected light-sensitive drugs into the tumors. The LED lights activated the drugs to destroy the cancer cells, without damaging nearby tissues.
It’s called photodynamic therapy. Dr. Whelan and his researchers are looking at lung cancer; they’re looking at all the cancers that they can get light through now.
Q: People are going to see this and say, “‘Come on, this cannot work.’”
A: I know, I know. I didn’t believe it (at first); I had the most difficult time convincing me. But if you get enough feedback from people . . .
Q: Your company is into all sorts of things, in addition to LED products, with the subsidiary, Quantum Polymers.
A: We’re vertically integrated. Quantum Polymers makes molded plastic parts for customers and for Quantum Devices. (That includes plastic casing for some of the wiring in the engines of U.S. tanks in Iraq.) When you live out here in the boonies, you have to have control over the processes. When we started 16 years ago, they didn’t have overnight delivery. So we do as much as we can here. It cuts down on response time.
(If) you want to be able to survive in today’s world, you have to reinvent yourself constantly. You have to be creative.
Q: So now you’re starting another subsidiary?
A: Quantum Biomedical. We’re pushing the technology to the biomedical area. You know what a clinical trial costs? We can’t finance that here.
Q: And you’re a college dropout, right?
A: I’ve actually had a fixation with light for most of my life. The big joke was to find me a different flashlight for Christmas or my birthday. I’m one of these guys who doesn’t like to be told he can’t do something.
Education is not the final answer. It’s the desire to do what education prepares you to do.
Who: Ron Ignatius, chief executive officer of Quantum Devices
Company established: October 1989
Ownership: Family and a couple of key employees. (Ignatius’ whole family is active in the business.)
Employees: 60 to 70
Revenue: Nearly $5 million a year
Patents: Nine, plus three or four applied for
Products: 50 to 70 being made for government, industrial or consumer use.