By Tom Still
MADISON – Political finger-pointing has been renewed in the debate over “who lost Oscar Mayer,” with legislative Democrats and Mayor Paul Soglin faulting the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and legislative Republicans asking why local officials weren’t in the loop.
In truth, there was very little anyone in state or local government could have done once 3G Capital – the Brazilian private equity group often aligned with billionaire Warren Buffet – sealed the deal to merge Heinz and Kraft, which owns Oscar Mayer Foods and its Madison plant.
There’s nothing in 3G’s playbook to suggest it is anything other than ruthlessly efficient when it acquires companies, especially those with century-old meat-packing plants. Just ask people familiar with consolidations within Kraft-Heinz, Burger King and Anheuser-Busch InBev, all part of 3G’s food and beverage empire.
Rather than continue to lament the impending closing of Madison’s Oscar Mayer plant, public officials should roll out the red carpet for major companies that invest in Wisconsin. The acquisition of NeuWave Medical by Ethicon, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, is a case in point.
In the same week when the debate over Madison’s Oscar Mayer plant flared anew, Cincinnati-based Ethicon announced it would add NeuWave Medical to its multi-billion-dollar family. NeuWave makes probes that attack soft tissue lesions, including cancerous tumors, destroying them with microwave energy.
NeuWave’s Certus 140 ablation system is already used by physicians in more than half of the nation’s top cancer centers, primarily to destroy lesions in the lung, liver and kidneys.
That well-vetted technology made NeuWave Medical a logical fit for Ethicon’s health care portfolio, which includes tools, tests and devices to support surgical procedures. Ethicon was created in 1953 as a part of Johnson & Johnson, which reported $250 billion in sales in 2015.
NeuWave is a prime example of a homegrown company that has done what some economic development fishing expeditions fail to do: Reel in a big fish from a bigger pond.
Developed with technology from two UW-Madison professors and licensed through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, NeuWave Medical has grown to about 110 employees, with about half in Madison, an office in Minneapolis and a national sales force. It has raised about $50 million from investors over time, with Madison-based Venture Investors leading the first round of financing and helping to persuade other investors to take part in follow-on rounds.
Like most venture capital firms that invest in young companies, Venture Investors didn’t just throw money into NeuWave Medical and hope for the best. It helped to recruit the company’s first chief executive officer, GE Healthcare veteran Laura King; provided guidance through the company’s board of directors; and generally opened doors to strategic partners.
That approach is what grows startups into emerging stars that can attract Fortune 500 companies, most of which wouldn’t otherwise be familiar with Wisconsin’s science and technology assets.
“Trying to entice major companies to move to Wisconsin can be an expensive, zero-sum game,” said John Neis, executive managing director of Venture Investors. “A more effective way to get big companies to put down roots here is to create young companies that can be acquired and elevated to the next growth stage by that acquisition.”
While corporate acquisitions of young homegrown companies don’t always result in those firms staying in Wisconsin, many flourish in native soil. The acquisitions of EraGen by Luminex, Epicentre by Illumina, TomoTherapy by Accuray and Cellular Dynamics International by FuijFilm have been success stories so far. Even acquisitions that fail to create a permanent presence result in infusions of capital and talent that help launch other new companies.
Companies from outside Wisconsin that buy firms already here should be given every chance to become repeat customers. State and local officials can work together to roll out a “welcome mat” that tells company decision-makers who live far beyond Wisconsin’s borders why they should build upon their investments in the Badger state.
That kind of high-level follow up hasn’t always happened in the past, but Ethicon’s acquisition of NeuWave Medical offers a prime chance to get it right.