By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – A day after NovoMoto won the 15th anniversary edition of the Governor’s Business Plan Contest, a friend offered an anecdote about why he thinks the Madison-based company will be successful.

During a recent trip to Zambia, he was shown a new refrigerator that had been donated by a Japanese company to a remote medical clinic. The refrigerator was warm inside yet was still being used to store vaccines, which were likely useless. He was told there was no electricity to power the refrigerator because there was no kerosene to fuel its generator.

That’s the kind of problem NovoMoto, founded by two UW-Madison doctoral students, hopes to solve through its pay-as-you-go approach to providing solar power to people, schools and communities in places such as sub-Saharan Africa.

NovoMoto has a social mission but it’s also a for-profit enterprise. Founded by Mehrdad Arjmand and Aaron Olson, it employs a “rent-to-own” model for people to power mobile phones, appliances and other devices at roughly half the cost, with much more reliability and with less unhealthy exposure to kerosene lamps and generators.

Fueled by Wisconsin investors and grants, NovoMoto has deployed about 100 solar grids in a highly populated but dramatically under-powered region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In winning the business plan contest at the annual Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, NovoMoto emerged from a pool of about 200 entries and competed against 11 other finalists. It was not the only “Diligent Dozen” company with a focus on solving problems, large or otherwise.

Here are some examples: AmebaGone develops natural alternatives to antibiotics, securing crop yields for potato and apple growers without chemicals and metals. DataChat builds chatbots that allow business users to extract insight from their data simply by talking with the chatbot. Pyran has developed a process to produce an environmentally friendly chemical to replace a legacy chemical in the manufacture of paints and plastics. AquaMetals has developed a new class of chemosensor films to continuously monitor the concentration of heavy metals in flowing water. Shockray Self-Defense has developed a non-lethal weapon that could mitigate use of excessive force by law-enforcement officers while keeping them – and citizens – safe. ReNeuroGen has developed a drug to mitigate the aftermath of a stroke and the brain damage that often comes with it. Replace-A-Lace is a nylon shoe strap that replaces standard shoelaces, which can frustrate elderly and disabled people.

All are Wisconsin innovations and many are linked to core industries – such power and controls, agriculture, plastics, water, health care and manufacturing – that are traditional economic staples. While there are more “gee-whiz” mobile apps and telecom devices being developed elsewhere, Wisconsin innovators often are making their mark by leveraging existing industries.

That observation was made more than once by investors who attended the two-day conference at Madison’s Union South. Wisconsin won’t become another Silicon Valley – nor should it aspire to do so. However, it is more likely to attract investors and customers by sticking to its core competencies and solving difficult problems.

It’s not just true of Wisconsin but of other Midwest states, especially in places such as Iowa, which has become a leader in precision farming, and manufacturing states such as Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

Brian Waller, Technology Association of Iowa

Brian Waller, head of the Technology Association of Iowa, told a room packed for the “Rustbelt Renaissance” discussion he has seen manufacturers in his home state digitizing their manufacturing floors, hiring more IT specialists and emphasizing cybersecurity.

For example, Well’s Blue Bunny Ice Cream of La Mars, Iowa, is an ice cream manufacturer that now prides itself on its technology.

“They see themselves as a technology company,” Waller said. “They’ve harnessed business decisions with real-life data and dashboards… What you’re seeing is manufacturers thinking differently, they’re hiring differently.”

In Wisconsin, the same trends are evident. Others at the conference said the arrival of Foxconn Technology Group in Racine County is expected to move manufacturing forward, create a tech-based supply chain and even spawn some new industry clusters.

Wisconsin and other Midwest states are attracting more attention from investors and major companies because innovation, talent and the cost of doing business compared to the East and West coasts have combined to create more value. Count pragmatic problem-solving as another Midwest virtue.

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