By Tom Still


MADISON – Economists are hanging black crepe on the New Year’s baby even before the tyke pushes the old guy out the door. And no wonder: From the financial industry to real estate to auto manufacturing, there’s plenty of grim news seeping into almost every sector.


Technology-based businesses are not immune, but some emerging national and global trends suggest most of Wisconsin’s tech-driven companies and clusters can survive 2009 and even prosper in 2010 and beyond. Here are some trends to watch:


Big Pharma’s troubles play into biotech’s strengths: Financial woes inside major pharmaceutical companies will be managed, in part, through mergers and acquisitions, but building a more cost-effective research and development pipeline is vital for the industry. The traditional in-house R&D approach will increasingly give way to reliance on the innovation of smaller biotech companies. Wisconsin’s biotech industry is a natural source of ideas.


Health care reform will demand better technology: While the new Obama administration and Congress have it within their power to mess it up, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be a push to improve health-care delivery and efficiency. Technology is a big part of the answer – and Wisconsin can provide ready examples of what works. Consider electronic medical records: Epic Systems in Verona serves some of the world’s largest hospitals and clinics, and the Marshfield Clinic’s electronic medical information system is drawing national attention as well. It shouldn’t be necessary for Washington to reinvent this particular wheel.


Stem-cell research is entering a new phase: Research breakthroughs in Wisconsin and elsewhere have made it possible to send adult human cells back to their embryonic origins. Much work remains, but the prospect for clinical tests using this new pathway are drawing closer – and Wisconsin has the R&D team to be a leader. Stem cell research in Wisconsin has been privately financed, for the most part, but President-elect Obama may make it easier to obtain federal research dollars. Finally, the economic slowdown has enhanced Wisconsin’s position in an unexpected way. The California stem cell initiative, which is largely publicly financed, has hit on hard times. Wisconsin’s more cautious approach seems all the wiser now.


Personalized medicine offers a new frontier:  Individualized or “personalized” medicine is an outgrowth of the mapping of the human genome. It refers to the emerging ability to tailor treatments to individual patients, a trend that would revolutionize the practice of medicine and drug development. The Wisconsin Genomics Initiative, launched in October, is a unique statewide collaborative to speed discovery. It combines the efforts of the state’s four largest academic research institutions: the Marshfield Clinic’s DNA database, the Medical College of Wisconsin’s genetic research expertise, the supercomputer capability of the UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health and urban health care research at UW-Milwaukee. As former National Institutes of Health director Elias Zerhouni noted of the Genomics Initiative, “this is one of the very best proposals in the world.”

The need for alternative energy and conservation won’t go away: Sure, gasoline prices are hovering around $1.70 per gallon, but it won’t stay that way forever. Wisconsin is now home to a federal research center, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, which is focused on “next generation” biofuels. Companies such as Madison-based Virent Energy Systems, which is making gasoline from plant sugars, and Orion Energy Systems, which produces high-efficiency lighting, are among examples of Wisconsin expertise in an emerging industry.

Wisconsin can help win the water wars: Shortages of clean water, around the world and close to home, will intensify in coming decades. Wisconsin not only has access to clean water in its lakes, rivers and groundwater, but it’s home to corporate and research leaders who are developing new technologies. The elements are there to make Wisconsin, especially the Milwaukee region, a water technology hub.

Manufacturing and agriculture are retooling: Wisconsin’s two biggest sectors, manufacturing and farming, are using technology to build new processes and systems. The state’s exports continue to grow faster than the U.S. average for a reason: Most companies are doing what it takes to become globally competitive, and that includes leveraging technology.

Hang in there, Baby ’09. Your arrival will be gloomy, but the crepe will be brushed aside in time.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.