By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – The pandemic has shifted to a new phase; a divisive presidential election has put an entire nation on edge; and many businesses are struggling to hang on while waiting to see what shoe drops next.

One choice is to count the days until 2020 comes to a merciful end. Another is to take stock of trends shaping our economic future.

That forward-looking approach is imbedded in the upcoming Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, which will explore some of the technologies, markets and investment strategies poised to influence the still-elusive recovery.

Set for Nov. 9-11 on a virtual platform, the conference will contain some familiar elements, such as presentations by emerging companies to investors from Wisconsin and well beyond. Those same investors will meet with selected companies in a flurry of brief virtual meetings.

Organized around the theme of “Crossing the Coronavirus Chasm,” the event will also feature speakers and panelists of national reputation – many with Wisconsin ties. They will discuss topics such as healthcare innovation, advanced manufacturing, corporate and regional investing, entrepreneurism in computer science and bio-industrial innovation.

  • A team from Verona-based Epic Systems will describe the Epic Health Research Network, which is helping physicians and researchers better diagnose and treat diseases and conditions by tapping into zettabytes of medical data. Charting public health trends has long been the Holy Grail of digital health records, and Epic is devoting more than 100 experts to its pursuit.
  • The intersection of artificial intelligence and health will be discussed by Kristi Ebong, senior vice president of corporate strategy for Boston-based Orbita, which powers chatbots, voice-bots, bedside assistants and monitoring tools. She’s a UW-Madison graduate who earned some of her digital health spurs at Epic and later while directing emerging technology for Cedars-Sinai.
  • National trends that could build on Wisconsin’s tradition of manufacturing, agricultural and nature resource excellence will be outlined during a session that describes the promise of bio-industry and bio-energy. The Midwest is a center of such activity, both public and private. Within the last week, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded a $87-milion grant to a coalition that is centered at the University of Minnesota. Wisconsin’s infrastructure includes the Wisconsin Energy Institute and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.
  • An industry-backed partnership that will lift startup companies tied to two highly ranked UW-Madison disciplines will be described under the seemingly ominous tag of the “Creative Destruction Lab.” With support from American Family Insurance, the UW-Madison School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences and the School of Business are launching a risk management “stream” in the lab’s international science and tech portfolio. Panelists are Tom Erickson, a software executive who has returned to Wisconsin to lead the new data sciences school; software entrepreneur Jignesh Patel; and Kristjan Sigurdson of the Toronto-based Creative Destruction Lab.
  • The conference will be a homecoming of sorts for Michael Molnar, a Wisconsin-bred engineer who is founding director of the Advanced Manufacturing Program Office within the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Molnar will talk about trends in manufacturing, no small matter in a state that perennially ranks among the top three in per capita manufacturing employment. Molnar’s office helps to coordinate federal manufacturing initiatives and works with entities such as Manufacturing USA and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
  • Investing trends won’t be left out, either. Jason Franklin of the Wisconn Valley Venture Fund and Craig Schedler of Northwestern Mutual Future Ventures will talk about the rising wave of corporate venture capital. Three Midwest-focused investors – Jonathan Ellis of Sandalphon Capital in Chicago, Candice Matthews Brackeen of Lighthouse Capital in Cincinnati and Ron Watson of Dundee Venture Capital in St. Louis – will assess how Wisconsin stacks up when it comes to emerging companies.

It may not seem like it as uncertainty continues to swirl about us, but the foundation for economic recovery in being laid in these and many other ways. Looking ahead is better than burying our heads in sand.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at