By Tom Still

FITCHBURG, Wis. – Based on what the average citizen might read or hear, many people may expect the Wisconsin Legislature’s return to work in the Capitol to be dominated by partisan wrangling – whether such friction is necessary or not.

While plenty of issues can sharply divide Democrats and Republicans, there are just as many – if not more – to bring lawmakers together. The continued health of the Wisconsin economy is one of them.

That often-overlooked reality was on display Feb. 1 just south of Madison at the Promega Corp.’s Kornberg Building, a research center that defines some of the work taking place at one of Wisconsin’s oldest and most prominent biotechnology companies.

About three-dozen Senate and Assembly members and many key aides came to Promega, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as members of an informal “Tech Caucus” encouraged by the Wisconsin Technology Council to learn more about what makes such a company successful.

They emerged a few hours later with impressions of an organization based on research and technology, but dependent on manufacturing, skilled workers and routes of supply and sales that include Wisconsin, the nation and the world.

When asked by one lawmaker what single message he and his colleagues could take back to the Capitol, Promega founder and chief executive officer Bill Linton gave what amounted to a one-sentence answer: Support for education, which is ultimately support for a well-trained workforce.

With about 2,000 workers, about 60% of whom live and work in Wisconsin, it’s easy to understand why Linton stressed education as he did. Only 200 or so of those 2,000 are engaged on the research side of the company. The rest drive other parts of Promega, from the manufacture of its 4,000 products to finding supplies to make them to shipping those products to 100 nations.

There are many white laboratory coats to be found at Promega, but plenty of blue-, white- and no-collar jobs, as well, with workers whose educational backgrounds extend from high school to technical college to a post-graduate degree.

Important for many legislators who listened to presentations and toured Kornberg was knowing the company’s economic reach extends far beyond the Madison area. Much of the company’s supply chain is based in Wisconsin, including items that go into manufacturing products such as enzymes, reagents and instruments used in research. Among the users of Promega products are pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, diagnostic labs, testing labs for food, water and plants, government research labs and forensic labs such as the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratories.

Promega has 50 distributors, 16 branches and four manufacturing sites, which speaks to the fact that a homegrown Wisconsin firm (it was founded in 1978) can often best help the Wisconsin economy by growing well beyond its borders. Money earned around the world supports training and community projects close to home, not to mention a predominantly local workforce with a low turnover rate. There hasn’t been a Promega layoff in 45 years.

Lawmakers also heard about a non-profit company related to Promega, The Usona Institute, which is moving through a series of clinical studies tied to psilocybin.

Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced by more than 200 species of fungi, or “magic mushrooms.” The refined medicine holds potential for treating depression and other related conditions – so much so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted “breakthrough therapy” status. That doesn’t mean any testing corners can be cut, but it reinforces that federal reviewers are increasingly aware of its therapeutic prospects.

The Usona Institute is partnering with researchers and clinicians around the world, from Johns Hopkins to UW-Madison to Sweden’s Karolinska Institute. It is building a facility in Promega’s Fitchburg campus. In some states, lawmakers have faced challenges tied to decriminalizing psilocybin sources while allowing medicinal tests to proceed.

Most Wisconsin lawmakers have a healthy, bipartisan curiosity about what makes the economy tick and how to help. The more they learn, the more common ground they might share.

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