If there’s a flaw in Wisconsin’s cultural DNA that should be targeted for knock-out genetic treatments in one of our leading laboratories, it would be our reluctance to occasionally learn from others.
Our inbred insularity may stem from the fact we’re off the nation’s beaten paths on the East and West coasts, or that so many of us come from northern European “don’t-ask-for-help” stock, or that a populist political tradition means people react poorly to things like public officials taking legitimate trips outside the state – events invariably described in news accounts as “junkets.”
Whatever the reasons, the same parochialism that makes most of us loyal Packers and Badgers fans sometimes closes our eyes to the possibility that people living elsewhere can also be smart, productive and inventive. We can love it here and still admit we don’t know everything.
Read this column in the Wisconsin State Journal here.
An example of looking beyond Wisconsin for best practices took place Aug. 27 when the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce organized a leadership bus trip to Chicago – a metropolis that influences the Wisconsin economy in major ways – to tour the “1871” digital co-working space. Opened less than two years ago in the Merchandise Mart with support from a major private donor and state government, it’s a place for designers, coders and entrepreneurs to build companies.
There are similar, albeit much smaller, spaces and accelerators in Wisconsin, so the purpose of the trip wasn’t to expose participants to something entirely new. Rather, it was aimed at learning how others have approached an issue – company formation and entrepreneurship – that is top of mind in most states and cities.
What are other states and metros worth watching? Many people know about the Silicon Valley, Boston I-28 Corridor and Austin, Texas, as well as major states such as California, Pennsylvania and New York. However, it may also be instructive for Wisconsin to track best practices in states of similar size. Here are a few examples from our experience at the Wisconsin Technology Council and related national groups.
Colorado is a hotbed of activity for reasons that range from its enduring frontier mentality, its pro-growth political culture (the governor is an entrepreneur) and its approach to young businesses. In the latest report by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation on high-tech starts, five Colorado cities made the list of the nation’s top 25 startup hubs. Not only was metro Denver on the list, but Boulder, Fort Collins-Loveland, Colorado Springs and Grand Junction.
Other Rocky Mountain or western states with similar activity include Utah (Salt Lake City and Provo-Orem), Idaho (Boise City-Nampa), Montana (Missoula), Oregon (Portland-Beaverton and Corvallis) and even Wyoming (Cheyenne). The reasons can’t all be explained by ski slopes and mountains.
Minnesota has long been a leader in medical device companies and remains so, but recent political changes there have some businesses rethinking the state’s allure. The Research Triangle of North Carolina remains a historic example of what can happen when public and private interests intersect, although that state has also taken some curious steps backwards of late.
Maryland is home to a number of technology and life sciences companies, with proximity to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University being major drivers. Among other less-known places that show up in many rankings are Huntsville, Ala., Trenton, N.J., Columbus, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Mich., Wilmington, Del., and Des Moines, Iowa.
What do they have in common? Many are homes to major research universities or federal laboratories, which spin out ideas. Others are health-care hubs. Almost all have strong information technology infrastructures, including broadband but also high-speed networks.
They’re also places where public and private differences are overcome, entrepreneurs are encouraged and common regional interests are stressed, whether within a metro area or across state lines. Yes, tax structures and incentives help, but those often work hand-in-hand with other non-government factors.
Wisconsin has much of what it takes to compete, but it won’t necessarily find all of the answers within its borders. Sometimes, it pays to learn from others.