By Tom Still

ASHLAND – Determining how technology can help drive a community’s economic future often begins with an honest assessment of what doesn’t make sense.

Unless a community or region has a major medical research institution in its backyard, it simply won’t become the nation’s next biotechnology “hot spot,” even if free land and tax incentives are thrown on the table. With 40-plus states, including Wisconsin, scrambling to find the right niche within the growing medical biotech market, new players must proceed with caution.

But many communities have other foundations upon which to build a tech-based economy. That exercise is under way in Ashland, where the first Lake Superior Region Technology Conference will be held Aug. 10 at the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College campus.

Ashland sits at the foot of Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay, a picturesque area within easy reach of Superior-Duluth, Minn., Bayfield, Hayward and Hurley-Ironwood, Mich. A somewhat longer drive connects the region to the Twin Cities, Eau Claire-Chippewa, Marshfield and Wausau. While predominantly rural in character, Ashland isn’t isolated. Its economy has been historically based on logging and paper products, but it’s also home to call centers, health care institutions, tourism, a private college and light manufacturing.

Like any community in rural Wisconsin, Ashland wonders what will happen next to its economy. It has some attractive assets – a well-educated workforce, strong high-speed telecommunications capacity, and a quality life style – but it must leverage those assets in ways that will create more high-paying jobs.

Two years ago, leaders in the Chequamegon Bay chapter of the UW Alumni Association invited the Wisconsin Technology Council to hold its board of directors meeting in Ashland. That led to the creation of a chapter of the Wisconsin Innovation Network, the Tech Council’s membership subsidiary, and the beginnings of a networking and fact-finding process.

The latest step is the Lake Superior Region Technology Conference, where participants won’t hear discussions about bringing the medical biotech economy to the North Woods – but they will be able to attend workshops designed to build on existing economic sectors.

With crude oil prices hovering at $75 per barrel, bio-energy has moved off the back burner to the forefront of corporate planning and policy discussions. In some parts of the country, corn-based ethanol and bio-diesel are emerging industries; in the North Woods, might wood byproducts and switchgrass production lead to the state’s first cellulose ethanol plant? That’s one of the goals of a recent statewide report on bio-energy and bio-products, and it will likely be discussed in Ashland.
Panels on Forest Products will feature the director of the UW-Green Bay Paper Technology Center and a representative of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison. Discussions on Bio-Energy will include experts who have worked on alternative energy systems and the Governor’s Consortium on Bio-Based Industry. The panels on Organic Farming and Aquaculture will include entrepreneurs, academics and the president of a leading market-based conservation group. Workshops on light manufacturing will include private company executives and the director of the Northwest Wisconsin Manufacturing Outreach Center.

A closing panel will feature the UW System’s expert of federal funding, the director of the Wisconsin Angel Network, the general manager of WiSys Technology Foundation, the director of the Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation and an expert on intellectual property law. They’ll talk about possible next steps for the region.

Tech-based economies aren’t just for big cities. With the right mix of resources, both natural and man-made, smaller communities can find their place in the market. In northwest Wisconsin, the process of determining “what’s next?” is under way.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. To learn more about the Aug. 10 Lake Superior Region Technology Council, go to