How Rock Mackie Improved Radiation Therapy And Grew Successful Companies

Jan 6, 2021

Rock Mackie is a medical physicist who invented a safer type of therapeutic radiation, called tomotherapy, that delivers less radiation with just as much effectiveness. It has saved many lives.  

During a 25-year tenure as a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, Mackie taught radiation physics and dosimetry, wrote 185 peer-reviewed publications, secured more than 50 patents and supervised 42 Ph.D. students. But he also successfully made the difficult transition from academia to business. 

Mackie has started six companies, including most recently Linectra, a Madison company he co-founded in 2019 that is developing a metal 3D printer for manufacturing uses. In all of his startup endeavors, he has mentored and nurtured other up-and-coming entrepreneurs. His most successful startup, TomoTherapy Inc., raised $185 million in a 2007 initial public offering and sold for $277 million to Accuray Inc. in 2011.

Mackie says he's never been driven by the desire to make money; he's always been part of a company for the sake of social good and to make enough money to materially give back to further the environment, humanity, art or science. The Isthmus Project, which he launched with UW Health in 2019, is designed to build a better ecosystem to help more would-be entrepreneurs do the same. The business and innovation accelerator helps physicians, nurses, staff and others who want to work with UW Health and University of Wisconsin medical innovators advance their ideas. 

Mackie's General Advice for Other Entrepreneurs:

  • Losing support from a large company (like your pet project being dropped or being fired) is great motivation for starting your own company.
  • Never take the first offer (cliche but true).
  • Always take more money than you think you will need because everything takes longer than you think.
  • Always hire people who are, or soon will be, better than you at the job you want them to do.
  • The best employees are those that have faced great adversity.
  • Don't ask customers what they want now; find those who know what they want in the future.
  • You must not lose money servicing your product.

Mackie's Advice for Academic Entrepreneurs and Universities:

  • Academic entrepreneurs usually should hire business people to help them start companies.
  • Incubation within a health care setting is extremely valuable.
  • Founders staying within the university need to be separated from most duties involving their product’s use within the university to avoid unacceptable conflict management.
  • Universities should declare themselves to be entrepreneurial and explicitly list economic development along with the missions of teaching and knowledge generation.
  • Deans, chairs and center directors should routinely report publicly on metrics of their startups (and they need to be told that more is better).