Foxconn presentation

Foxconn, a Taiwanese company that started by making TV knobs more than 40 years ago, is now one of the largest companies in the world, with 14 divisions, 1.25 million employees and more than 75,000 U.S. patents, company representative Charlie Alvarez said Tuesday at the Wisconsin Biohealth Summit. The company is looking at medical partnerships in the Madison area.

Don’t expect a quick decision from Foxconn on the possibility of building a medical-related facility in Dane County, a Foxconn Medical Group representative said Tuesday.

And if the Taiwanese electronics giant does decide to open a medical factory in Wisconsin, the Madison area is not the only location under consideration, the representative said while in Madison for a biotech conference where he detailed the company’s medical research.

Charlie Alvarez, senior adviser to the president of Foxconn Medical Group, was noncommittal about prospects for the company to build a second location in the state, separate from the $10 billion flat-screen display factory it plans to construct in Mount Pleasant, in southeastern Wisconsin.

In an interview in Madison on Tuesday, Alvarez said no decisions will be made until all of the papers are signed on the main factory, which could encompass about 20 million square feet of space and could eventually employ up to 13,000 people.

“Right now, we’re waiting on the other facility to get up and going, and then we’ll get directives on the health care group,” Alvarez said. He said a decision is likely sometime in 2018.

In late July, the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP) distributed a proposal that said an unnamed company was looking for a 20-acre undeveloped site to build a 700,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that could employ as many as 650 people within five years. The tentative price tag for the project was $505 million.

While the proposal did not name the company, calling it “Project Varsity,” Madison Mayor Paul Soglin said MadREP had contacted him and encouraged him to suggest sites for a possible Foxconn project matching those figures. The mayor said he recommended the former Oscar Mayer headquarters, 910 Mayer Ave., as well as two other sites on opposite edges of the city.

Several suburban communities also submitted locations for consideration.

The proposal that was circulated said the company hoped to begin construction by January 2018. Alvarez said Tuesday that date is too optimistic.

Alvarez said he has made numerous trips to locations around the state over the past few months and has met with health care officials and businesses. Dane County is “one of the places that we’re looking at” for a possible facility, he said.

If a second site is built, “Madison and Milwaukee are probably the two biggest locations that we’re looking at now,” he said.

Alvarez said adding a medical-related unit in the state is not definite, but the company does plan to forge partnerships with organizations around Wisconsin, including the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center.

“Regardless of a facility, we are committed to partnering here and working in this marketplace,” he said.

‘Hospital of the future’

Alvarez was a keynote speaker at the Wisconsin Biohealth Summit, presented by BioForward, at the Overture Center. He said Foxconn is interested in many aspects of health care, including treatment and prevention of disease, as well as analyzing medical data.

Foxconn’s medical group is developing smart beds that eliminate airborne viruses around patients, robotic work stations for nurses and other “hospital of the future” products that could be tested in Madison, Alvarez said.

“We’re talking to and meeting with and trying to partner with hospital systems right now across the country, including here in Madison, in order to help pilot some of these products and get them into the U.S. market,” he said.

A key focus is cancer. Foxconn founder Terry Gou’s wife died from breast cancer, and his brother died from leukemia. Gou has contributed $1 billion for a cancer research and treatment complex at National Taiwan University.

Alvarez said the company is looking at partnering with UW Health’s Carbone Cancer Center to use Foxconn’s high-performance computing and 8K screen technology to better map radiation therapy, classify tumors and image cancer inside the body.

The high-resolution imaging “helps physicians remove tissue precisely, avoiding healthy tissue,” he said.

Dr. Howard Bailey, director of the Carbone Cancer Center, told the Wisconsin State Journal that the technologies “might be of value to our patients and cancer research.”

“Whether specific collaborations/agreements occur is unknown at this time, but we are optimistic that specific collaborations will occur that benefit cancer patients throughout the state,” Bailey said in an email.

Smart beds, touch-free

Foxconn has two investments in the U.S. so far, both in California: Sotera Wireless, which makes vital sign monitors, and Zap Surgical, which makes a proton therapy device for cancer treatment.

The company’s “smart ward” products for hospitals include secure instant messaging systems, sensors to track dementia patients and monitors that continuously track vital signs to quickly detect illness.

The robotic work stations let nurses access equipment by waving wands instead of touching handles, Alvarez said. The smart beds can eliminate viruses or bacteria in the air, reducing patients’ risk of hospital-acquired infections.

“The worst place you could be when you’re sick is in a hospital,” Alvarez said. “This helps with the patient safety side.”

Gou has allocated $500 million for free genetic testing of breast cancer and leukemia patients in Taiwan. Some cancers are more prevalent in the U.S. than in Asia, Alvarez said, so the company might want to study some cancers here.

“If genetic testing assists in identifying patient-specific mutations, then precision therapy is going to be used,” he said. “You can imagine the amount of data that Foxconn is going to be able to collect from these patients.”

Contact Judy Newman at jdnewman@madison.com with tips and story suggestions.

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Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.

David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.