By Tom Still
MADISON — If Wisconsin continues to build on its technology strengths, will its economic weaknesses eventually take care of themselves?
Wisconsin’s assets in the 21st century “knowledge economy” are impressive when compared with other states of its size. But its weaknesses are intimidating, especially when it comes to training and retaining a skilled workforce. Unless addressed now, regional shortages of skilled workers – from construction trades to laboratory technicians – could prevent Wisconsin from breaking out of a very competitive pack.
By many measures, Wisconsin is a state that has it all when it comes to building a tech economy.
§ It boasts a world-class research university in the UW-Madison, another top 100 research university in the Medical College of Wisconsin, and a handful of other institutions that also contribute heavily to our $1 billion academic R&D base. That’s an industry within itself.
§ It has a “technology transfer” system, led by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and its subsidiaries, which allows the best discoveries to be patented and put on the road to commercialization.
§ Most recently, this combination of R&D prowess and tech transfer know-how helped to attract a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory worth $125 million to the UW-Madison and its partners. The lab will focus on removing bottlenecks in the production of ethanol from biomass and other “cellulosic” materials, such as wood and paper waste. If that work is successful, Wisconsin will stand in the crossroads of the biofuels revolution.
§ Wisconsin remains a world leader in human embryonic stem-cell research, although other states and nations are throwing money at the science in hopes of capturing market share.
§ The state also has a strong biotechnology base outside stem-cell research, as demonstrated in June when NimbleGen was acquired by pharmaceutical giant Roche for $272.5 million. There are more than 100 biotechs of all sizes in the Madison area alone (Promega is a leader with about 750 employees) and about 60 elsewhere in Wisconsin, mostly in the Milwaukee area.
§ Wisconsin’s medical devices industry has long been anchored by GE Healthcare in the Milwaukee and Madison area, and enhanced by up-and-coming companies such as TomoTherapy. When TomoTherapy was listed on the NASDAQ in the spring, about $229 million worth of stock was snapped up like hotcakes.
§ Information technology is a huge part of the tech landscape, as well. Berbee Information Systems of Fitchburg was purchased by CDW for $175 million in September 2006, a move that put CDW into the IT services for the first time. Epic Systems Corp. in Verona started with two people in 1979 and has grown to about 2,500 today, thanks to its electronic medical records systems. Firserv Inc. and Metavante Corp. have made Milwaukee a global center of technology-based financial services. Through many mid-sized and smaller companies, Wisconsin continues to emerge as a hub for software development, media and design, and even gaming.
§ Finding capital for start-ups remains a challenge, but angel capital investing is booming and some venture capitalists are producing homegrown winners. Baird Venture Capital in Milwaukee and Venture Investors in Madison have profited from big “exits” of late, and Venture Investors has announced a new $115 million investment fund. That appears to be the largest, Midwest-focused early-stage fund on record.
Whether it is nanotechnology, advanced manufacturing, bio-products or robotics, Wisconsin has the research base, the companies, or both. So, why isn’t Wisconsin leading the nation in producing new jobs? What’s missing – aside from lower taxes, a perennial peeve? The answer may be surprising: People.
Recent U.S. Census figures showed Milwaukee is still losing population, even if the region is up slightly since 2000. Many rural counties, especially in northeast and southwest Wisconsin, continue to lose people, too, although the biofuels boom may help reverse that in time. Sooner than later, companies in parts of Wisconsin will worry about finding enough well-educated workers to fill the jobs.
The drop-out rates in Milwaukee’s K-12 schools remain high, many rural school districts are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and too few kids are learning sufficient science, technology, engineering and math. Wisconsin cannot rely on pockets of tech prosperity alone. Manufacturing, agriculture and the service sector also need innovative, well-trained workers; producing and retaining 21st century workers is a priority for everyone.
There can be no “knowledge economy” in Wisconsin without more knowledgeable, innovative workers and managers. That begins in the schools, among our policymakers – and at home, with parents who must understand that tomorrow’s opportunities belong to those with the skills to pursue them.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.