By Tom Still
MADISON – Just catching up on some recent topics…
- Following a Dec. 29 column on the pros and cons of toll roads, an attentive reader noted that tolls need not apply to all lanes on a stretch of freeway. In Colorado, for example, express lanes in parts of the Interstate Highway system help manage congestion and speed up travel for motorists. Drivers who choose to pay the toll can use express lanes in the Denver area that are otherwise reserved for buses and carpools.
Toll-optional express lanes might help pay for expansion of I-39 north from Illinois through Madison, I-94 north from Illinois to Milwaukee and other heavily used roads. Want to stick in the regular lanes and drive toll-free? No problem. It’s only the express lane that would come with a user fee. The Wisconsin Legislature’s debate over how to best pay for keeping up state highways will begin in earnest soon.
- A couple of recent columns described how two major Midwest cities, Detroit and Cincinnati, have established “funds of funds” with the help of major corporations – think along the lines of Ford and Proctor & Gamble – to invest in emerging companies through experienced venture capital firms.
The managing director of the Michigan-based Renaissance Venture Fund, which was established nine years ago, will speak on that fund’s experience at the March 27 Wisconsin Tech Summit. Chris Rizik of Renaissance also played an advisory role in setting up Cintrifuse in Cincinnati a few years later.
The Tech Summit, which is essentially a speed-dating event for major companies and emerging firms, is an ideal platform for the Milwaukee area’s “BigCos” to hear how making money and backing young firms can go hand-in-hand.
- In a Nov. 18 column, I described the experience of American Family Insurance since the launch of “AmFam Ventures” in 2013. One of the first corporate venture funds to be created within the U.S. insurance industry, AmFam Ventures launched in 2013 as a $50-million fund to invest in early stage companies and now has board authorization to grow to $250 million. It primarily invests in big data, insurance innovation and parts of the “Internet of Things,” such as connected homes and cars.
Now comes Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., a Milwaukee icon, with plans to establish a $50-million venture fund to invest in startups that create financial service technologies and other innovative products the company could offer its clients.
Investments for the new Northwestern Mutual Future Ventures Fund will range from $500,000 to $3 million and will focus on four main areas: consumers’ changing preferences, “reimagining” the client experience, the digital health revolution and transformational analytics and technologies.
- I wrote Nov. 22 about the efforts of community leaders in Vilas County to improve broadband coverage by bringing together the county’s major telecommunications provider, schools, businesses and state government. The elements of a staged plan to provide broadband to about 5,000 new Vilas County locations over four years is in the works.
The breakthrough is largely a result of the second Connect America Fund, which tasked the Federal Communications Commission to work directly with major providers who promised to deliver high-quality service in underserved – mostly rural – areas. Only California will receive more CAF2 dollars than Wisconsin.
Gov. Scott Walker has since proposed adding about $36 million to the state’s broadband efforts, in part to accelerate the CAF2 rollout. People can hear more about the Vilas County experience and Wisconsin’s prospects for better broadband coverage Jan. 24 at the Tech Council Innovation Network luncheon in Madison.
- A couple of 2016 columns discussed a rise in Wisconsin solar energy installations. The final numbers are in and they’re shining: Projects totaling 30 megawatts started construction during the year. Once completed, those solar projects will be capable of powering the equivalent of 5,000 homes. That’s nearly five times as much solar development as took place in 2015, according to a report issued by Renew Wisconsin.
- Most recently, I wrote about the Jan. 31 deadline to enter the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest. Want to learn more? Join me and veteran judge Jonathan Fritz for an informal information session 6 p.m. Jan. 25 at Madison’s Brocach Irish Pub.