The Scientist

Cary Forest

Google “fusion energy” and you’ll find it referred to as a “holy grail” more than once. That’s a lofty claim — but it’s not unfounded. Fusion energy is created by thermonuclear reactions. It occurs in the sun and in stars, and for decades scientists have been trying to harness it because, unlike fossil fuels, it’s carbon-free. And unlike other, greener energy sources like wind and solar, it could operate 24/7. On top of that, in principle, it would be safer than nuclear power, with a less radioactive waste stream. If fusion energy was fully realized, it could be a revolution in long-term, abundant, sustainable energy.

Cary Forest, a 1986 graduate of L&S and a current professor in the Department of Physics, is helping to bring about that revolution in energy with his company, Realta Fusion. He started his research career 30 years ago interested in fusion, but the time horizon for a meaningful breakthrough seemed so far off that he didn’t think his work would have much impact.

So, he put fusion on the backburner and shifted his primary focus to plasma astrophysics. Even though he left Wisconsin to get his Ph.D. at Princeton, he returned to the University in 1997 to teach and conduct research. And about seven years ago, a series of fusion breakthroughs across the globe piqued his interest.

“We started thinking that we could use a simpler fusion concept, take advantage of [new technologies] and make a neutron source that was much more powerful than anything that’s out there,” Forest says. “There’s a commercial appetite for fusion now. Investors are interested in fusion for power.”

There’s no grander challenge for humanity than harnessing fusion. We’ve been to the moon; we’ve figured out quantum mechanics … this is the final frontier.

Cary Forest

Forest drafted a proposal to the Department of Energy to get funding for the idea. The DOE provided approximately $10 million to build the Wisconsin HTS Axisymmetric Mirror (WHAM) to get the research started. With the money secured, Forest and the University enlisted the help of Kieran Furlong, a venture capitalist who brought business acumen to match Forest’s scientific skill. Together, the two men founded Realta Fusion.

While WHAM is now being built, the next milestone is to construct a larger, high-powered device called a Break Even Axisymmetric Mirror, which will operate at the temperature and densities of the core of the sun to produce fusion energy. Forest anticipates starting operation on the device in about five years.

“The next step is demonstrating fusion power production at scale,” he says. “We’re hoping to field a first-of-its-kind reactor.”

That reactor would be used in an industrial setting — powering the creation of something such as plastics or cement to demonstrate fusion’s potential. If that’s successful, the next step could be generating larger-scale power.

“There’s no grander challenge for humanity than harnessing fusion,” Forest says. “We’ve been to the moon; we’ve figured out quantum mechanics … this is the final frontier.”

The Musician

Nicole Vaughn

One morning in 2019, Nicole Vaughn (’20) woke in excruciating pain. A shoulder injury she’d had since high school hurt worse than ever. She had limited neck and shoulder motion, and her ribs had shifted until they were pinching nerves. The injury would be rough for anyone to deal with, but for Vaughn it was particularly frustrating. She’s a flutist — to even get her instrument to her lips was agonizing. “I couldn’t play my flute for longer than maybe eight to 10 seconds,” Vaughn says.

The exacerbated injury was a result of relentless practicing. She had been preparing for an audition, practicing her instrument eight hours a day and ignoring the worsening pain until it became too much to handle.

“I was sitting with my husband one night and I was really frustrated,” says Vaughn, who graduated from L&S with a master’s degree in music and flute performance. “I said, ‘If I could just have someone hold my arm the entire time, I would be just fine.’ And then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, what if I actually did?’”

I know there are a lot of people who are suffering the way I am, who want to do something they love but can’t because they’re limited by motion and pain. My goal is really to help whoever I can.

Nicole Vaughn

Vaughn started sketching an idea that night — a device that could keep her arm steady and allow her to play without pain. She talked to Tim Hagen, a former flute professor at the University, about her idea. He saw its potential for musicians with disabilities and encouraged her to try making the device.

“Without my professor’s encouragement and his help, I wouldn’t have had access to a lot of resources that helped me get this started,” Vaughn says.

A musician is not necessarily an engineer, so Vaughn turned to fellow Wisconsin Marching Band alum Jonah Mudge (’21), who works as a biomedical engineer.

Mudge and Vaughn drafted plans for a 3D-printed arm support, working through prototypes as they tweaked Vaughn’s original design to become more compact and comfortable. By 2022, they had a working device and Vaughn had it patented. The arm support made its debut at the 2022 National Flute Association Convention, where flutists from around the world saw it in use.

“We’re continuing to alter and make adjustments,” Vaughn says. “My hope is to have it mass-produced in the future. I know there are a lot of people who are suffering the way I am, who want to do something they love but can’t because they’re limited by motion and pain. My goal is really to help whoever I can.”

The Techie

Nidhi Aggarwal

After she graduated from L&S with a Ph.D. in computer sciences, Nidhi Aggarwal took a job at McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm. She was advising major companies across the country on data strategy, and she noticed a recurring problem. Clients were using physical data centers that were used to train their developers and partners. When they weren’t used for training, the physical centers were largely unused.

“This was the early days of the cloud, and my partners and I realized we could use the cloud to do the same thing much more cheaply and effectively,” Aggarwal says. At the same time, she went on maternity leave after the birth of her first daughter. “That’s when the idea started coalescing,” she says. Aggarwal left her job at McKinsey and dove full-time into the new venture, dubbing the company Qwiklabs.

“We had identified a problem that resonated with customers. It wasn’t like we created a product and then we were trying to find a buyer for it,” she says.

Don’t be afraid to take risks in those early years, and if you’re starting a company, have an obsessive customer focus. … And I can’t tell you how many failures you’ll encounter. Success is iterative. Be in it for the long haul.

Nidhi Aggarwal

Aggarwal and her partners started building Qwiklabs configuration management platform. Companies that were developing training could use the platform to easily create hands-on, cloud-based learning environments, on which IT professionals, developers and more could train.

But at the time, the Qwiklabs team remained remarkably small. “We were scrappy,” Aggarwal says. “We started by finding the minimal viable product to solve the customer’s problem. … Then [when we had that], we added other layers, concentric circles on concentric circles. That’s how, with such a small team, we built a product that scaled worldwide.” The results were impressive to say the least.

Amazon Web Services, the largest cloud provider in the world, signed on to be Qwiklabs’ first customer, granting them the worldwide exclusive license for their customer and partner training. Qwiklabs grew from there, with more than half a million users.

In 2016, Aggarwal and her team sold the company to Google. In the years since, Aggarwal has become an influential investor in tech, with board positions in AI and quantum computing companies.

“One lesson I learned early on is to prioritize learning over titles and even pay,” Aggarwal says. “Don’t be afraid to take risks in those early years, and if you’re starting a company, have an obsessive customer focus. … And I can’t tell you how many failures you’ll encounter. Success is iterative. Be in it for the long haul.”

The Restaurateur

Henry Aschauer

Henry Aschauer left Madison in 2010 after graduating from L&S with an economics degree. Two years later, he returned with a plan. At 24 years old, he and fellow UW grad Doug Hamaker started Roast Public House — a brick-lined, sit-down restaurant serving big burgers and craft beer on the campus end of State Street. “I grew up in a household that appreciated good home cooking,” Aschauer says. He brought that spirit to the restaurant, which quickly became a hit. But he soon found his focus shifting to a very different type of food business.

He envisioned a health-centric restaurant, one serving salads and grain bowls using organic produce, as opposed to the meat-and-hops offerings at Roast. In 2015, he and Hamaker launched Forage Kitchen just a block down State Street from his first restaurant.

I grew up in a household that appreciated good home cooking.

Henry Aschauer

Forage took off, with pickup and delivery options of healthy, tasty salads and bowls proving surprisingly popular on a street not exactly known for its health-consciousness. Over four years, Aschauer felt that Forage had established a popular working model that could be replicated, and, in 2019, he opened a second location in Hilldale. It only grew from there, with locations opening in Middleton, Monona, Whitefish Bay and even as far south as Champaign, Illinois.

Each move Aschauer made in the restaurant business was carefully planned, but his next business “just kind of came up along the way, honestly,” he says. Forage Kombucha started simply because Aschauer liked the healthy drink and thought it might be worth serving at Forage. He began small, having just enough kombucha made to stock Forage locations. “After just a few months having it in Forage, it was selling really well, and other bars and restaurants were requesting to buy cases,” he says.

Aschauer started selling Forage Kombucha in grocery stores, and it only kept growing. Now you can find cans on shelves across dozens of states, from California to Maine. This year, he’s already planning a new Forage location in Sun Prairie, and he’s got some new projects in store for his burgeoning beverage line, too. “Keep an eye out for new Forage brand beverages hitting grocery shelves this year,” he says.

The Coach

Molly Dewey

There’s a video on Molly Dewey’s phone, recorded in 2020. In it, the 27-year-old is standing in her bathroom mirror. She stares astounded into the camera, searching for the right words. She just learned that Dell Technologies was going to hire her company, Mettacool, to coach 90 women across the globe. It was by far the biggest contract Dewey had earned, a sum in six figures, and she was recording the video journal to mark the moment.

“I was just blown away,” she says, reflecting on the moment three years later. “Like, how did this happen?”

The Dell contract sparked a cascade of successes for Mettacool, but Dewey’s journey began in 2015, when she graduated from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She moved to New York City, where she worked long hours, hustling as an editor for AOL. The competitive lifestyle proved overwhelming and unpleasant after about a year, and she quit to search for a new start.

She enrolled in a health coaching program at Duke University, where she met Natalie Eicher. The two quickly hit it off. After completing the program, Dewey started to envision a wellness coaching business for women in the workplace. She reached back out to Eicher with the idea, and in 2018 the two founded Mettacool with roughly $30,000 in savings between them.

I started reaching out to companies to see if we could provide health coaching for their women employees. What I heard was, ‘That’s a noble cause. Great mission. Awesome. But that’s not really what we want.’

Molly Dewey

“I started reaching out to companies to see if we could provide health coaching for their women employees,” Dewey says. “What I heard was, ‘That’s a noble cause. Great mission. Awesome. But that’s not really what we want.’”

She found that companies were looking for coaching that could help women grow their careers and develop professional skills. So, Dewey and Eicher began to develop programs to do just that, creating everything from one-day workshops to yearlong programs.

After two years of relatively little business, Dewey remembers the pandemic as the moment things changed. Suddenly, companies were facing major challenges — working from home, employees quitting, women feeling increasingly undervalued. At a fast clip, many of those companies were turning to Dewey, who had been laying the sales groundwork for years, to meet those needs.

Dell was the first domino to fall, but many more followed. Dewey and Eicher built a team of coaches around the globe to meet the growing demand for their programs. Over the next three years, they grew Mettacool into a talent development company taking in nearly $2 million in revenue and coaching women in more than 40 countries.

And to cap off three years of dramatic growth, at the end of 2023, Dewey was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 List.

“It’s surreal,” she says. “When we started, I didn’t have a [learning and development] background. But the journalism school gave me a really strong sense of confidence that I could make it work. … I had presented in front of huge groups; I could write really well; I could talk like you wouldn’t believe. So, I thought, ‘Why not me?’”

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