The heart in the machine: Madison startups combine free enterprise and public service

As an astrobotanist, Richard Barker’s job is to research how plants grow in outer space. He spends his days at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working on NASA-funded research, which includes bioengineering plants and rocketing them to the International Space Station to monitor how they respond to space flight.

But as an entrepreneur, Barker’s job is to give high school and undergraduate students around the world a taste of how cool his day job is.

Barker is the founder of Collaborative Science Experiment, or CoSE, a startup that designs “easy-to-use” time-lapse photography equipment and classroom materials for experiments on plant growth. The products range from a 3D-printable machine that resembles a black rice cooker, to more sophisticated setups that let students tinker with microgravity.

The project is a for-profit company, but Barker said that making money is not his absolute bottom line. He wants to democratize botany and astronomy and help educators teach science literacy to kids. He wants his business to be accessible to all schools, even those that aren’t wealthy.

Barker is part of a growing trend of Madison-area entrepreneurs working at the intersection of technology, startups and philanthropy. The premise of the trend, often referred to as “social entrepreneurship,” or “impact entrepreneurship,” is to harness the hallmarks of 21st century startup culture — data-driven decision-making, an emphasis on leanness and flexibility, and resources like venture capital investment and accelerator programs — and use them to try to change the world for the better.


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