By Tom Still

MADISON – If you “Google” the office addresses for Google, the world’s largest search engine, a listing for Madison, Wis., might soon pop up on your computer screen.

For the second time in a week, a major information technology company has planted a flag in Wisconsin, a state reputed for being a biotech preserve. It was formally announced April 23 that Microsoft had set up an advanced development lab in Madison. On Monday, word finally got out that Google has set up an engineering office, also in downtown Madison.

While neither announcement surprised some tech insiders, the back-to-back news nonetheless underscored Wisconsin’s impressive profile in computer sciences, electrical engineering and software development. While Wisconsin is a biotech state, it’s also an information technology state – and one sector increasingly complements the other.

Microsoft, the world’s largest computer software company, will open an advanced development lab in partnership with UW-Madison’s Department of Computer Sciences. It will support a number of graduate assistants and focus on database research.

Google has been quietly running a lab off Capitol Square since late 2007 to focus on hardware and software systems design. While there is no direct tie to UW-Madison, it will be led by a former professor who Google agreed to hire and keep in Madison.

It’s easy to read too much into the Google and the Microsoft announcements. There aren’t large numbers of employees on the ground – at least, not yet. In fact, homegrown tech companies such as Epic Systems (electronic health records) and CDW-Berbee (hardware and IT solutions) may forever dwarf them in their Wisconsin presence.  Cisco Systems, the Internet networking giant, was founded by a UW-Madison graduate and has long valued its ties to the state and the university. And going back in time, Cray Computers was famous long before Bill Gates became a household name.

But there are also good reasons to trumpet the arrival of Google and Microsoft, mainly because of the larger messages sent to the rest of the tech world.

-    The UW-Madison is a top research university, not just in the “life sciences” such as biotechnology, but in computer sciences and electrical engineering. Increasingly, biotech and IT have melded as researchers have come to rely upon quick analysis of massive amounts of data. The new Institutes for Discovery on the UW-Madison will consummate, in many ways, the marriage of the two.
-    Wisconsin has a deep information technology talent pool. That’s true not only in Madison, where thousands of IT workers have clustered, but in southeast Wisconsin, the Chippewa Valley and the Fox Valley. In the Milwaukee area, for example, innovation may come from specific collaborations between companies such as Rockwell Automation, GE Healthcare and Johnson Controls and academic institutions such as Milwaukee School of Engineering, Marquette University and UW-Milwaukee.
-    Wisconsin has the right combination of moderate business costs and quality of life. It’s possible and even preferable for today’s “virtually integrated company” to locate different aspects of its operations where they make the most sense. Squeezed by the high costs and occasional hassles of the Silicon Valley and greater Seattle, respectively, executives at Google and Microsoft might see Madison as a Silicon Oasis. In fact, Google’s announcement mentioned Madison’s “quality of life” and “commitment to education at all levels.”

Wisconsin has a deserved reputation for being a state where life sciences have flourished, while information technology has remained somewhat in the background. But now the secret is out: Wisconsin can do biotech and it can do computers, too.

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