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  5. Focus on new faculty: Daniel Ludois, applying research advances to shrink and improve power conversion devices

Focus on new faculty: Daniel Ludois, applying research advances to shrink and improve power conversion devices

Navigating between the startup world and the academic world can prove a challenge for just about any researcher. As a co-founder of the company C-Motive Technologies, Daniel Ludois pioneered a capacitive power coupler that has the potential to make electric motors smaller, more efficient and cheaper.

As Ludois and partners Justin Reed and Micah Erickson grew busier developing a C-Motive prototype over the past few years, Ludois was also completing his PhD in electrical engineering at UW-Madison and teaching a class in small wind-turbine design. C-Motive’s technology won the team  a combined $142,000 in prizes among the 2012 Gaylord Nelson Earth Day Conference, Burrill Business Plan Competition, Weinert Applied Venture Fund, and its second-place finish in the 2012 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest. 

As Ludois prepares to join the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering as an assistant professor in fall 2013, he’s looking forward to pursuing new angles of research that his work with C-Motive has opened up.

“Start-ups are all about minimum viable product,” Ludois says. “You work on something until it’s just good enough for someone to buy it, and then as a researcher you step away. Now that I have this wonderful new job, I can come here and start leapfrogging onward to the next big thing.”

A few next big things down the road, Ludois says, may well be a motor that is completely sustainable and recyclable. 

“I’m revisiting the electrostatic motor, but with modern techniques and material advances we have at our disposal today,” he says. “Using a multidisciplinary approach to bring a variety of techniques together, I think a motor with no copper, steel or rare-earth metals may be possible.”

Ludois sees immense and untapped potential in modern semiconductors and in new power-generation technologies such as wind and solar. “We can make a lot of things in the power world much smaller,” he says, but also points out that the world’s power infrastructure will need to evolve radically in order to make the best of new technologies.

Lately he’s been spending his time transitioning from his role at C-Motive’s research facilities on the southwest side of Madison to his new “home” in Engineering Hall.   In his new job on campus, his teaching duties will include ECE 411: Introduction to Electric Drive Systems.

Research is clearly his first love—“as corny as it might sound, writing a paper is enjoyable to me,” he says. Ludois is passionate when he details the differences between start-up work and the academic environment. He’s determined to learn from successful faculty entrepreneurs who’ve gone before him, and in so doing strengthen the connections between academia and the start-up community. 

“As a brand-new guy, I want to take in as much as I can from other faculty members’ vast amount of experience,” he says.

He’s had some hands-on experience with the links between academia and entrepreneurship: Ludois and his C-Motive partners worked with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation to have their work patented.

“Patents cost a lot of money, typically on the order of $30,000,” he says. “Three graduate students living in an apartment eating Ramen do not have $30,000 lying around.”  

WARF awarded Ludois the 2012 WARF Innovation Award for his patent filing, “Varying capacitance rotating electrical machine.” 

Ludois also has a reputation for finding more playful angles on his research in power electronics, primarily aimed at inspiring the next generation of engineers and scientists.  His projects helped him get school-age children and undergraduates interested in electrical engineering at events like the Engineering Expo.  While earning his MS and PhD at UW-Madison, his side projects included a remote control electric skateboard and an 8’ diameter giant speaker. These provided him with a release from his actual projects—including HVDC power-transmission technologies for offshore wind-farms, non-contact capacitive power transfer and compact solutions for rural electrification. 

Whether he’s researching new technologies, adapting to the business side of his work or finding ways to excite young engineers, Ludois thinks all of his efforts tie back to the Wisconsin Idea.

“It’s our duty to reach out and disseminate what we do to the world at large,” he says. “UW is a unique place, in that it is inherently set up to have an impact. So as a faculty member, I want to perpetuate that, and use it as well.”

Scott Gordon