By Tom Still

called the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, but the state’s oldest venture
conference – launched in Madison 30 years ago – has taken on a decidedly Upper
Midwest look.

a business world that doesn’t care if Wausau trumps Stevens Point or if
Appleton one-ups Green Bay, last week’s Early Stage Symposium was a reminder
that Wisconsin is part of a larger region that must compete with other parts of
the country as well as around the world.

entrepreneurs, speakers and other visitors from beyond Wisconsin’s borders were
among the 560 people who attended the two-day conference, which is primarily a
pitch event for emerging companies. Still largely a Wisconsin show, the event’s
appeal to people from other states spreads the word that the Badger state economy
boasts more than beer, brats and bovines.

Read this commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here

bytes, biotech and bandwidth of tech-based ideas and talent are pretty
impressive, too.

those visitors who liked what she saw was Paula Sorrell, vice president of the
Michigan Economic Development Corp., the economic development corollary to the
Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. Sorrell spoke to an investors’ breakout
about Michigan’s venture capital program, which has invested more than $215
million in two fund-of-funds in 10 years and another $100-million plus in
related programs.

told about 70 investors that Michigan hasn’t been shy about borrowing ideas
from other states – notably, Ohio – and has stayed the course of investing in
its tech-based economy through Republican and Democratic administrations.

universities already do collaborative research work, and I think there’s a
potential to expand that,” Sorrell said of Michigan’s ties to Wisconsin.
“There’s also a need to better connect our investors, as well. In fact, I flew
(to Madison) with some of our (Michigan) investors who were checking out
Wisconsin opportunities, which is terrific. We can learn from each other –
things that work, things we can improve and things that can expand on a
regional level.”

from Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Texas and Illinois were among those kicking
tires in Madison, in part because they know Wisconsin has depth in a mix of
sectors – such as biotechnology, energy, water, advanced manufacturing, medical
devices and medical imaging – as well as strong academic research base to

was evident when the leaders of three R&D institutions – the UW-Madison,
the UW-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee-based BloodCenter of Wisconsin – talked
about their research collaborations.

are only going to move forward if we can work together. And we are already
collaborating on a number of fronts,” UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank told
a conference crowd. “If you are going to have a state and a region filled with
entrepreneurs and innovators, you have to have a university close by.
Universities are also idea factories.”

2010 and 2012, Blank said, the UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison partnered in a grant
program that funded more than 30 different joint projects, with each
institution contributing $1 million. Another partnership – run out of the
Wisconsin Energy Institute – is a three-way collaboration involving scientists
from UW-Milwaukee, Johnson Controls and UW-Madison. They are exploring ways to
get the excess energy stored in electric vehicle batteries into the power grid
overnight and then back into cars and trucks the next day.

Mone, UW-Milwaukee’s interim chancellor, said the Milwaukee-based Mid-West Energy Research
Consortium is a collaboration between researchers at his campus, UW-Madison,
Marquette University, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and eight energy
companies. He said M-WERC’s goal is to make the consortium a national
recognized center of expertise on energy, power and control technology.

Mone also cited the UW-Milwaukee’s School of
Freshwater Sciences and its 80-acre Innovation Campus as magnets for outside
dollars and expertise.

Fredrick, president of the nationally known BloodCenter of Wisconsin, said her
institution has worked with UW-Madison researchers on a project to use radio
frequency identification technologies for automatic identification, tracking
and status-monitoring of blood and blood products across the entire transfusion
medicine supply chain.

a result of the RFID project, she said, Madison and Milwaukee researchers are
finding other ways to collaborate.

Upper Midwest has some of the nation’s leading research universities – in fact,
12 of the top 50 in R&D dollar value, according to the National Science
Foundation. Increasingly, in states such as Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio, it
also has investors who ferret out the best ideas. What’s needed now is a more
deliberate approach to harness the power of those ideas through a “Big
Ten-Plus” network of investors and funds to compete with the coasts.

policymakers in Wisconsin and beyond, finding ways to collaborate across
borders should take precedence over costly efforts to poach jobs. Growing the
pie is usually more productive than slicing it into smaller pieces.